Unpacking ‘Venom’, the Slimiest, Self-Parodying, Superhero Rom-Com of the Year

Venom is one hell of a fascinating, cultural enigma— in all the ways it wasn’t planning to be. From the opening shot of space to the Eminem-blasting credits sequence, the symbiote solo film is in a constant state of identity crisis. It is a clunky, tonal disaster with a script that seemed to have been written by an algorithm that churns out comic book origin screenplays by the hour. Tied together by the meme-able marketing,  outdated aesthetics, and poor critical receptionVenom was set up and sure to be a flop. Or so I thought, as the film just made 80 million dollars at the box office this weekend.

As someone who just stepped out of my 11:00 AM IMAX 3D time machine to the early 2000s, I am, of course, dumbfounded by these box office numbers. My shock leads me to log onto Twitter for an investigation of what the overall response of Venom‘s audience was, only to see the DCEU fandom have co-opted the financial success of Venom into their anti-MCU campaigns against film criticism. This surprised me even more – is this latest piece of Sony Pictures schlock what they really want to defend from the evil, nasty film critics? Even past this vocal minority of the Twittersphere, what did 80 million dollars worth of people see in “eyes, lungs, pancreas” that made them leave with satisfaction? As Laurie Metcalf famously once said, “Let’s just sit with what we’ve heard.”

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Venom is as sloppy as studio films can get. The editing and writing create an awkwardly paced opening 30 minutes of exposition with no payoff, the second act is almost non-existent, and the final act’s conflict appears out of thin air. The dialogue is a mixture of cliches and Deadpool-influenced quips that fall short of any real charm. By the time the symbiote calls its host a “pussy” and molds itself into a DeviantArt-esque feminine body to lure him back, it becomes dauntingly clear that maybe Venom isn’t quite the character to make an origin movie out of, independent from his relationship to Spider-man. And it suspiciously seems that the people making the movie knew that during the production as well.

I am talking about Tom Hardy of course, who gives one of his wackiest, campy performances to date. Do I mean that in a bad way? Not really— because it is the most entertaining aspect of Venom. Hardy captures the neuroticism and zaniness of being under control by the symbiote with his Eddie Brock in the most strange, entertaining fashion. He does a slapstick scream and falls into his bathtub as Venom speaks to him in a too-wacky-to-be-scary-deep voice. He twists his body and performs wacky movements as he causes a ruckus in public places and humiliates his ex-girlfriend (Michelle Williams). It is both bizarrely unique and grotesquely hard to look away from the screen as Hardy dips himself into a lobster tank.

Is he taking this seriously? Is he just purposely sabotaging this film and hamming his performance up so that he can have the most fun possible while being involved in this franchise startup project? Or is he sincerely bringing what he thinks fans want to the screen? No one can really know for sure, but it’s just one of the prime examples of Venom’s strange appeal. It’s both the so-bad-its-good hilarity and the genuine awe of how weirdly this amalgamation of comic book cliches and ingredients have mutated into this 2 hour and 20 minutes of a middle ground between sincerity and self-parody. It’s absolutely everything you’d expect a Sony Pictures Venom film would be delivered with, an uncomfortable, perhaps even cynical sensation of awareness.

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Throughout its runtime, Venom is establishing itself as a lot of different types of movies. There are nods to Alien and its brand of out-of-this-world horror, there’s the drama of middle-age failure in Brock, and there’s a psychological/psychosexual horror comedy(?) within Brock and Venom bonding together. The question is, what does this film become when the last act of the film comes around? The answer is that it becomes a romantic comedy between Venom and Brock.

Digging deeper into the skeletal structure of the film, one can find that all the beats of a romcom are within Venom. Venom and Brock have a compatible relationship, as one completes the other. Brock needs Venom to help take down the LIFE corporation, but he also needs Venom to help him gain the strength and confidence to get his life together. Venom truthfully admits that they are a “loser” on their home planet and that Brock is the first person they bonded with that they feel truly compatible with. They meet, become companions through their initial conflicts, their relationship is set up.

The midpoint of the film has them working with one another to achieve their goal (a way back home for Venom, for Brock the takedown of LIFE) and implications are made of how they will live after the goal is achieved. Then a swerve happens, as Brock and Venom break up, literally. Brock is on his own path but Venom bonds with Brock’s Ex to make their way back to him with a kiss (which Williams’s character makes clear, was Venom’s idea). After this, Venom decides to stay on Earth, as they have found a new purpose in life being bonded with Brock. They continue to stay bonded even after the takedown of LIFE and a shoehorned opposing symbiote. Sexual and romantic implications (which have always existed in Venom stories) aside, the structure of a Rom-Com is all here.

Which begs my initial question. Who was Venom for? How did it make 80 million dollars in the box office if the film is so outdated by our new motifs of what makes comic book films quality? Well, it’s still unclear. Perhaps most audiences just love Venom enough as a character that they will give a version of them a chance past their introduction in Spider-Man 3.  Maybe Sony did know who to brand it to – an audience of edgy teenagers who the script seemed almost crafted by. Through intention or the lack thereof, the final product is morbidly fascinating to examine from a cultural perspective. And it eventually DID find an audience within the monster-loving community, who almost just got the slimy Rom-Com of their dreams. A sequel seems inevitable, so maybe next time, the studio heads can find this niche and keep it moving with Flash Thompson. Godspeed, Sony Pictures.

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