VENOM: Not Five, Just A Deadly One.

Venom movie posterFor martial arts movie fans, the word ‘Venom’ evokes a cult classic.  The 1978 Shaw Brothers film, Five Deadly Venoms, placed eleventh on Entertainment Weekly's Top 50 Cult Films list.  It was the launch of a core group of martial arts actors – the Venom Mob – Chiang Sheng, Kuo Chui, Lo Mang, Lu Feng, Sun Chien, Wei Pai – six actors who lead a generation as longstanding action stars and choreographers in a gargantuan filmography of wire-work stunts and traditional Kung Fu.

Of course, VENOM, as we’ll see in theaters this weekend, is something completely different.  It will be acting as the new standard bearer for Sony’s answer to Marvel Studios. Although the uninformed viewer will see the MARVEL logo at the beginning of the film and consider this movie part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), it’s not. Long before Marvel comics launched its movie studio, Sony was one of the first companies to license Marvel characters; Spider-Man in particular. This happened through a series of convoluted mergers and acquisitions, which included a script treatment by post-TERMINATOR/Pre-TITANIC James Cameron. Since then, Sony has retained the rights to the remaining 900 Marvel characters not yet acquired by mergers with Disney, all of them spawned from 56 years of Spider-Man comics in some way. In light of Disney/Marvel’s outstanding theatrical successes, this collection of characters have been rebranded as Sony’s Universe of Marvel Characters (SUMC). Producers hope VENOM will do for SUMC what IRON MAN (2008) did for its once fledgling studio and the MCU.

Venom

Dark Origin

Preceding IRON MAN by six years, Sony was off to a great start with Director Sam Raimi’s 2002 adaptation of SPIDER-MAN. Appearing in a time when superhero films were wrapped in leather X-MEN (2000), BLADE II (2002) and X2 (2003), the trademark Raimi humor was a breath of fresh air and a success among critics and the box office. This success would continue with SPIDER-MAN 2 (2004), only to stumble at what may have been a most crucial moment for the studio; the first introduction of Venom.

Recall SPIDER-MAN 3 (2007), Sam Raimi’s final installment in his Tobey Maguire-led trilogy.  Watching that film feels really dated now.  Not only is the Realistic Police Scanner that Spidey uses a long extinct brand, Raimi’s trilogy precedes the percolation of the MCU blockbuster formula that we all know and love today. As a result, the inclusion of the dark and gritty VENOM made for a wildly erratic movie, at times absurd or overwrought. Raimi was clearly more interested in Thomas Haden Church’s super-powered crook Sandman than the bizarre origin of Venom. As a result, Topher Grace’s Venom appears as an afterthought.  But movie producer Avi Arad, Marvel President at the time, still had toys to sell.

Before Venom was a character, it was a fan-submitted design for a new Spider-Man costume. Purchased by Marvel in 1982 it became a sort of promotional centerpiece for Marvel’s Secret Wars mini-series published May 1984 – April 1985. Secret Wars itself was designed by Ad-Men to promote the line of action figures the Mattel toy company was licensing. Having a second Spider-Man figure to sell – and one with such an easily mass-produced costume design – couldn’t have been coincidence. By 1988, that costume design took on a life of its own, becoming Venom in The Amazing Spider-Man #300 

Black Spider-Man from Spider-Man 3

 

It’s the 90’s all over again

For anyone keeping track, it’s very much the 90’s in Superhero movies. Despite THOR: RAGNAROK’s (2017) love letter to the late eighties, audiences can now enjoy excesses from what comics nerds refer to as ‘The Dark Ages’ of comics publishing. While movies like DEADPOOL (2016) and DEADPOOL 2 (2018) have successfully poked fun at such characters and storylines, one can also blame that time period for BATMAN V. SUPERMAN (2016), SUICIDE SQUAD (2016) and JUSTICE LEAGUE (2018).

Venom would be a titular character in his own comic throughout the 90’s, beginning with Venom: Lethal Protector in 1993. That six-issue miniseries would partially redeem the Spider-Man antagonist, turning him into the Anti-Hero we’ll be seeing on screen. It’s an appellation used more effectively in promotional material than in the movie itself.

Lately, nostalgia has driven a lot of movies and television.  For producers, there’s a previously established franchise with a guaranteed fan base, yearning for glory days long gone.  VENOM opens the 2018 October movies and closing it will be HALLOWEEN (1978) with Jamie Lee Curtis reprising the role in a franchise that has already spawned nine films already, the bulk of which played in the 90’s.  Despite its 90’s origin, VENOM fails to capitalize on any retro love.  Villain Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed) is modeled after the present-day generation of tech gurus.  He’s a psychotic megalomaniac with clear nods to the titans of California’s Silicon Valley, a caricature of Steve Jobs or even Elon Musk. The SF Bay Area is where it’s at now.

 

"I can walk down the streets of San Francisco, and here I'm normal." — Robin Williams

Looking to distinguish itself of Spider-Man’s New York City, VENOM is set in San Francisco. It’s a fictional version of the city, one where investigative reporters can still take down bosses and Uber drivers won’t interfere with high-speed car chases. Tom Hardy’s Eddie Brock is entertainingly bewildered by tech-company corruption and the consequences of poor relationship skills. Much of the movie is spent knocking Brock down and then building sympathy for a man with so much going for him. Good looks, this own show, a beautiful and successful girlfriend in Anne Weying (Michelle Williams) as well as affordable rent in ‘The City’ despite the noisy neighbors. Depending on your willingness to suspend disbelief, this slow build allows the movie to nod towards some light horror tropes before embracing the movie’s super-origin.

From that point forward the movie becomes surprisingly humorous. It’s a dark, almost cruel humor, born from the disembodied voice in Brock’s head. Venom is Eddie Brock’s Id given agency and its resulting public meltdown bears shades of too much time spent on the corner of Haight and Ashbury. Questions of consent fall quickly by the wayside once action fills the screen as Brock becomes little more than a vehicle for VENOM’s survival instinct. The result is another take on the classic SF car chase, also noticed in ANT-MAN AND THE WASP (2018).  Any action director knows that the hill-filled colorful City by the Bay is a spectacular arena for a car chase, going all the way back to the classic BULLITT (1968).  And now, any real denizen of SF knows that it’s completely impossible to really have one with all of the traffic congestion.

The neon-lit car is also reminiscent of BLACK PANTHER (2018), though that movie kept its love specific to the East Bay. Here, even Venom decides he likes life in the Bay Area and imperceptibly switches from harbinger of an alien invasion to defender of the local down-trodden. Perhaps that change in attitude happens while fighting off a plethora of hard-working stuntmen.

It’s a difficult thing to present a believable challenge to a character as super-powered as Venom. Director Rubin Leisher’s work around is to pit Eddie Brock against roomfuls of goons and kamikaze drones for much of the action. It takes a while for the movie to reveal its oily and slathering Venom.  Many a home invader is tossed through walls or impaled upon CGI appendages along the way. The schadenfreude is plentiful.  Everyone takes their licks; something one expects when the movie’s lead character is so well known for its prodigious macroglossia. 

The technology behind CGI enhanced fight scenes has come a very long way in the eleven years since SPIDER-MAN 3’s climax, which was almost exclusively computer generated. While there’s only a very brief fight between two actual people, there is some thoughtful choreography work that make the many falls taken by Eddie Brock and his assailants look bone-breaking.  So many fans used to deride classic Venom Mob-era fight choreography for its wire-work. They considered wire-work as disingenuous to the art of Kung Fu. But it’s actually very difficult to stage good wire-work.  It’s a Kung Fu all on its own.  The same can be said for the melding of CGI and live-action in fight scenes.  CGI is often based on motion capture – or mo-cap for short – where the dynamic movements of live martial artists are captured for a computer to map the actions of a computer-generated figure. And good mo-cap is a Kung Fu all of its own too.  VENOM tightens up both its car chases and fight scenes with some wobbly cinematography.  This can be really annoying to a connoisseur of combat choreography, but here is just enough to polish out the rough edges.  Nevetheless, the early VENOM fight scenes are enjoyable enough, accentuated by Venom’s super powers and Hardy’s perplexity at what is happening.  But once the hulking CGI Venom takes over, the movie gets lost in a haze of dark and glossy computer animation.

Fans of the original comics may riot over the obscure call backs lining up VENOM’s presumed sequel, but it’s the movie’s post-credit sequence that animates the thinking behind SUMC and where it plans to land next. As the alternate universes of SUMC and MCU play out on the silver screen on an epic CGI-enhanced scale, it’s hard not to long for a good old-fashioned print comic book; one with the foil-printed embossed cover.

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About Patrick Lugo :
Find us on facebook Patrick Lugo is Senior Designer at Kung Fu Tai Chi Magazine and illustrated the award winning Little Monk & the Mantis. More of his artwork and comics can be found at PLUGOarts.com.

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