Sunday, October 7, 2018

Goo Who: VENOM

Venom is enjoyably bad, a formulaic blockbuster superhero widget that's at least of a different flavor than we've gotten lately. Unlike the interlocking fizz of the mainline Marvel Cinematic Universe and the dark bloat DC Universe, this villain-centric Spider-man offshoot is small and constrained in the ways we took as normal ten or fifteen years ago. Only implicitly, and aspirationally, connected to the larger Spider-verse, this movie about alien goo coming to earth and attaching itself to down-on-his-luck muckraking journalist Eddie Brock has small stakes, a generic bad guy, sludgy CGI, no worldbuilding to speak of, and a catchy Eminem theme song. If it had been made exactly like this sometime between Ben Affleck's Daredevil and Nicolas Cage's Ghost Rider, no one would have batted an eye. The plot is generic early-2000's origin story, with Brock (Tom Hardy) a put-upon guy who loses his job for asking tough questions of a local science tycoon (Riz Ahmed). Of course, the very same shady experiments that he's trying to uncover are related to the goo, and the chain of events set off by his reporting ends up infecting him with the substance. The aggressive alien glop calls itself Venom, and -- wouldn't you know it? -- can encase its human host in a rubbery CG mud suit, toothy and slobbering, that makes them basically invincible. It comes in handy when dodging bullets and climbing buildings. Unfortunately, when not suited up, it also makes Brock look crazy, with a growling alien voice in his head (also Hardy, sounding like he's halfway to a Triumph the Insult Comic Dog impression) yelling at him to "feed," calling him a coward (in filthier colloquialism), and compelling him to take wild risks when fleeing the paramilitary forces of the aforementioned tycoon who is seeking to get the goo back to his lab. Is this a metaphor for mental illness? Groundwork for a larger interconnected franchise cliffhanger? Nah, it's just effects doodling on an eccentric performance in a cliche plot. 

The movie proceeds exactly as you'd expect, with Brock and Venom learning to use their powers before being inevitably drawn into a climactic confrontation with the bad guys that swirls with explosive computerized combat. (Then there's a tease for a sequel to leave fans chattering on their way out the door.) Hardy gives it his all, a rubbery schizophrenic performance that's as goofy as it is tormented, like a lite version of what Logan Marshall-Green did in the far superior Upgrade earlier this year. The filmmaking by Rueben Fleischer (Zombieland) is competent -- you can't mess up a car chase up and down San Francisco hills too badly, after all -- and workmanlike. The screenplay is full of would-be quips and faux-edgy humor of a type that wouldn't be out of place in the toxic nerdy machismo of 90's comics. The violence is loud, but visualized mostly off-screen, and muddied by the gloopy effects when shown. The cast is filled with stock types and thin caricatures inhabited by over-qualified actors -- from antihero and villain to a love interest (Michelle Williams), a whistleblower (Jenny Slate), a doctor (Reid Scott) -- and there's hardly any cleverness or surprise to be found. And yet it's not a bad time at the movies. At least it's a pleasant throwback to a time when this is all a superhero could be -- a recognizable comics creation thrown on screen with a reasonably goofy/serious performance, a functional thin thriller plot, a half-successful visual idea, basically competent hectic motion passing for action at regular intervals. It's a movie made because Sony had the rights and could convince a star to do it, so why not? Do they hope it spawns sequels? Sure. Do they hope, fingers crossed, that Kevin Feige will invite their Venom into the MCU? Sure. Do they hope they made a good movie? Well, they hope you see it. Isn't that enough? It's predictable and hokey and small and undercooked, but it's not the worst superhero movie you'll see. Last time a studio tried to do a supervillains-only outing we got the nearly unwatchable Suicide Squad. It's all down to what you compare.

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