Do you have lingering questions about Sony’s first foray into the Spider-Man-But-Without-Spider-Man-In-It Cinematic Universe? Lord, I hope so, because it’s time for another Retro FAQ, this time tackling the dumb, superhero-adjacent, surprise hit of 2018: Venom.
Let’s start with the biggie. Why did Sony, which owns the cinematic rights to Spider-Man, make a movie about a Spider-Man villain where Spider-Man never once shows up?
Actually, let’s not start there? Maybe ask me at the end?
Wait, what? This is a FAQ. You’re supposed to answer my questions.
And I will! I just…want to answer this one later. Is that OK? Can you do me a solid?
I think after 10 years of doing movie FAQs you’re losing your mind, but OK, whatever. Who is Venom, and why did people watch a movie about him?
Venom is two entities, an alien symbiote and a dude. In the comics, the alien hooked up (literally) with Spider-Man during Secret Wars in the ‘80s, giving the web-slinger his iconic, all-black costume. Unfortunately, Venom started making Spidey more aggressive and violent, and the hero had to remove what had essentially become a parasite.
Who’s the other entity?
That’s Eddie Brock, a former reporter who was disgraced and blamed Spider-Man for it (a long and not particularly interesting story). After separating from Spidey, Venom found Brock and the two bonded, literally and figuratively, over their hatred of the hero and his true identity, Peter Parker, which is why Venom looks like a jacked, gooey Spider-Man, complete with a white spider-logo on his chest. The combined character was so popular he evolved into an extremely violence-prone anti-hero in the ‘90s. Of all the characters that have tried (and occasionally still try) to murder Spider-Man, Venom’s the most popular, at least to comics fans.
But this is the comics version, right? What’s his deal in the movie?
Well, Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) is a good guy with a solid relationship and is a popular investigative journalist fighting the good fight in San Francisco. Then he manages to completely fuck his life up in a 24-hour span while investigating mega-CEO Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed). Eddie steals a file from his lawyer fiancée Anne Weying (Michelle Williams) which indicates Drake has been conducting illegal, usually fatal tests on humans. Drake is pissed and gets Eddie fired from his job and blacklisted, while Anne gets fired for the documents leaking and breaks up with Eddie.
Sounds like Eddie is a bit of a douchebag.
That’s a true and fair assessment.
What’s up with the symbiote?
At the very beginning of the film, Drake has some astronauts who discovered a comet covered in symbiotic aliens. They took four, but one got loose and ended up wrecking the ship and escaping. Six months after Eddie’s fuck-up, he’s secretly invited into the lab by a doctor (played by a wasted Jenny Slate) who’s suddenly had a crisis of conscience about Drake’s experiments. Not many of those bonded with the alien can survive, but Eddie is one of the select few who can, as we discover after Venom escapes and joins with the human.
I’m not going to ask why, but what do Eddie and Venom bond over if Spider-Man isn’t there to be hated?
Well, I meant physically, but emotionally they bond over…well, being losers. (Also, movie Venom has no spider-logo on his chest for obvious reasons.)
I get why Eddie’s a loser, but you’re telling me there are aliens from other planets—er, comets—who consider themselves losers?
Actually, Venom is telling you. He says to Eddie, verbatim, “On my planet, I am kind of a loser, like you.” While he initially starts out trying to carry out the symbiote leader’s nefarious invasion to relocate millions of the gooey aliens to Earth, it’s their joint status as losers that eventually makes Venom enamored enough with the planet that he decides to protect it instead.
Who’s this alien leader?
It’s the symbiote that escaped in the shuttle crash in Malaysia, who makes his way to San Francisco to bond with Drake so he can use the CEO’s private space program to bring the other symbiotes a ride to Earth. It’s worth noting it takes “Riot” the entirety of the six-month time-jump to get from Malaysia to San Francisco, where Drake is located, the vast majority of which he’s hanging out in an older Malaysian woman’s body doing absolutely nothing. (In full disclosure, director Ruben Fleischer admits this is a plothole.)
Wait a second. Are “Venom” and “Riot” the actual names of these aliens? Like, that’s what they were calling each other on their home comet?
Yup. But the weird thing is how un-alien the symbiotes are, especially Venom. Sure, Venom likes biting people’s heads off to sate his hunger, but he’s also very boring.
What do you mean?
I mean Venom never does anything truly evil. Sure, he hijacks Eddie’s body a lot, but he does it to protect Eddie from an army of Drake’s goons and to stop Drake/Riot’s symbiote invasion. Yes, he eats those three people’s heads, but they’re all pointedly bad guys. And when Venom is separated from Eddie after an MRI mishap and the aforementioned goons, the symbiote goes out of his way to rescue Eddie from being executed (by possessing Eddie’s ex-fiancée Anne, thus adding a brief She-Venom cameo to the film).
Plus, practically every “scary” thing about Venom is delivered like he’s a 13-year-old boy trying to sound tough and cool: Venom talks about how he wants to make a pile of bodies and a separate pile of heads out of dead Drake goons; he calls pancreases snacks; he calls Eddie a pussy for not wanting to jump out of a high-rise window.
This sounds more pathetic than adorable.
Yeah, but Eddie is never really horrified he’s been infected by an alien parasite that’s slowly digesting his organs. He’s nonplussed at first, but they turn into a buddy-cop dynamic very quickly—first at odds, but by the end, they’re best bros and Venom’s two biggest goals seem to be getting Eddie back together with Anne and eating tater tots and chocolate.
Hmm. Should I ask what She-Venom’s deal is?
I’m pretty sure the name “She-Venom” covers most of it.
Honestly, this movie doesn’t sound great, but it also doesn’t sound completely terrible.
It isn’t completely terrible. Like Venom, the movie is sort of pathetic, but in an adorable sort of way. It feels and looks exactly a superhero film that could have come out in 1998; it’s simple, it’s standalone, it pays just enough lip service to nerds to prove someone working on the film had read some comics. The action scenes aren’t original or exciting, the visual design of everything in the film is uninspired, and the character development is basically non-existent. Also, the plot is extremely basic when it’s not being hilariously dumb.
Well, again, what the hell does Riot do for the six months before he hops a plane to San Francisco? Why does Drake become so into the idea of bringing a bunch of aliens who kill like 90% of their hosts to Earth? Why, when Drake’s only goal is to bring in the Venom-infested Eddie, do Drake’s goons attempt to murder Eddie by sending armed drones after him, firing approximately two million bullets, and even firing missiles for a 10-minute motorcycle chase? How are there absolutely no repercussions for the most public, most obvious, and longest attempted murder in a superhero film, especially given that dozens of people must have been injured or killed as collateral damage? And, my favorite: why, after trying to kill Eddie in front of hundreds of witnesses, and then after Eddie gets captured, does Drake decide his best course of action is to have his men take Eddie deep into the woods, at night, to hide the execution?
That is all pretty dumb.
The worst part is, Venom doesn’t show up properly until minute 59 of this 112-minute film. And yet, people loved it! Venom was a big, big hit in America and internationally, making a solid profit even after the vast majority of critics savaged it.
Can you explain why Venom was so popular?
Well, partially because some people were excited to see the start of a new Spider-Man cinematic universe, even though they knew Spider-Man wasn’t going to be in it (or assumed he was, but still had a good enough time his absence didn’t matter). I’m sure some people were likely just happy to check out any superhero flick nowadays, thanks to Marvel’s movie output elevating the entire genre. But I also believe that others, exhausted by watching the entirety of Marvel’s interlocked Cinematic Universe, were excited to watch a superhero flick that stood completely alone and didn’t require watching 20-plus movies to fully understand it.
I can see that.
Despite all its many shortcomings—maybe even because of them—the movie is kinda fun. It’s so out of its league compared to other, modern superhero movies, but that also makes it refreshing. And again, it’s charmingly pathetic—you want to give it a participation trophy because even though it only made it to eighth place in the race, you knew it had to try so, so hard to get there.
Well, that’s nice.
You can ask me now.
The question from the beginning.
Huh? I—oh. Okay, yeah. Uh, why is Spider-Man not in this film?
I DON’T KNOW. IT IS ONE OF THE BIGGEST MYSTERIES OF MY PROFESSIONAL NERD CAREER.
Are you fucking kidding me? I held off until the end of the FAQ so you could tell me you don’t fucking know?
Look, most of the Sony-Disney Spider-deal makes sense. Sony messed up The Amazing Spider-Man reboot and felt it could make far more money off the character by letting Marvel produce Spider-Man films in exchange for 5% of the box office and the ability to use Spidey in the fully-owned Marvel Cinematic Universe flicks. (Sony has always paid for the movies, while Marvel does the actual making.) After the success of Homecoming and Far From Home, this deal still made sense when Marvel negotiated for 25% of the profits. Except…
Despite Marvel Studios head honcho Kevin Feige recently saying it was up to Sony to make a Venom/Spider-Man crossover, this deal seems to give Marvel the power to decide whether the web-slinger appears in the movies. At one point, Tom Holland was going to briefly appear in Venom, but Marvel reportedly nixed it. Supposedly Marvel only “asked” for the scene to be omitted, but since Venom would have made even more money if people knew the MCU’s Spider-Man would be in it, there’s absolutely no sane reason Sony would have chosen to cut the scene out. Marvel clearly has massive leverage here.
This is why Spider-Man wasn’t in Venom, and why Sony plans on making a million live-action films about Spider-characters in which Spider-Man is highly unlikely to show up beyond a quick cameo, if that. Sony must believe it’s going to make the most money by essentially giving Marvel complete control of the character, which means the studio is absolutely certain it would royally fuck up every Spider-Man movie it tried to make for the foreseeable future. This is probably the right call, but it’s unfathomable to me that a major motion picture company would be so aware of its shortcomings, and that Sony’s practicality outweighs its greed to wring every last potential dollar out of its most profitable franchise—especially after Venom was a surprise success.
Does this mean other Spidey-less movies like Morbius and Madame Web will be surprise hits?
I would have said absolutely not and laughed in your face in 2017, but Venom has forced me to think twice about Morbius. But if a movie about an old lady sitting in a spiderweb becomes a major box office success, I’m shooting myself into space and letting the adolescent symbiote aliens eat my head.
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