I recently saw a film that disturbed, challenged, and pushed me to consider deep truths about the society we live in. Though it is not a film that others appreciate – in fact, it’s a film that has largely been shunned and criticized — I feel it is a singular vision of beauty and despair, a film that represents the best and worst of our times. I saw “Venom.”
To clarify: by no conventional means is “Venom” a good movie. It’s riddled with poor CGI and shackled to an inane and non- sensical script. It wastes several great actors: Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, and Jenny Slate chief among them. Not to mention Tom Hardy, who eats chicken out of the trash in a symbiote-induced craze and mugs like a possessed man (which he technically is, in the context of the story). There’s a Lady Venom with hourglass proportions, a tacked-on corporate espionage plot, and a truly noxious post-credits sequence that serves as both shameless sequel-bait and an excuse for a terrible foreshadowing pun. So why did I, esteemed cinephile, find myself having so much fun watching it? The reason for my enjoyment of Venom, I think, can be boiled down to one essential quality: this film, for better and for worse, has a distinct lack of self-awareness.
In the past, the concept of a self-aware superhero movie may very well have been seen as a paradox. The superhero genre spent many years languishing in the realm of kitsch. Whether it be the unintentional camp of the early serialized superhero movies, or the more self-referential camp of the 60’s Batman TV show and film, superhero films were seen as greasy kid stuff, the cinematic equivalent of comic books in an era where comic books were an object of scorn from the moral majority (and where the words graphic novel had yet to escape anyone’s lips). And aside from some outliers like the Christopher Reeve Superman films (which descended further and further into camp territory with each sub- sequent sequel) or the Michael Burton/Tim Keaton Batman films (which, ditto as soon as Burton and Keaton left and the notorious Joel Schumacher got his hands on the property), superhero movies remained the stuff of cheap and confused cash-in movies through- out the 20th century.
Around the summer of 2008, an unprecedented sea change took place: with the one-two punch of the breezy and accessible Iron Man and the (subjectively) gritty and mature The Dark Knight, superhero movies suddenly became in vogue. The public demanded more nuanced and surprisingly well-done superhero movies; and whereas Batman auteur Christopher Nolan acquiesced to this demand by making a very confusing three-hour film about how Occupy Wall Streeters are bad actually and retiring from superhero movies forever, Marvel Studios mapped out a seemingly infinite schedule of superhero films – a never-ending stream of marketable goodness.
Thus, Marvel’s cinematic output has come to dominate so much of our contemporary society. The release of each new film is an event, met with weeks’ worth of anticipation and usually followed by the shattering of several box office records. But some, including myself, have grown weary with the surplus of superhero cinema over the
past few years. One thing I find irksome about many of Marvel’s recent efforts is their aggressively generic approach to film structure, particularly with regards to humor. Each film follows a distinct structure – dramatic inciting incident, joke, action scene, joke, more jokes, big fight on a field with a giant portal in the sky, post-credits scene. Even Marvel’s risks don’t feel like risks– yeah, they killed off two-thirds of their franchise stars in one film, but where’s the suspense in that when they’ve all got sequels lined up? There have been a few pleasant surprises recently– the chaotic first two-thirds of Thor: Ragnarok, for example, and Ryan Coogler smuggling anti-colonialist rhetoric into his multi-million-dollar blockbuster, “Black Panther.” But what those exceptions serve to highlight is what Marvel’s slate, and superhero cinema as a whole, is missing: the element of surprise. And no film surprised me more than “Venom.” If by chance you should find yourself before a theater screen showing “Venom,” you might find yourself asking some questions. Questions like “Did I fall through a time loop into 2006? Is this movie from an alternate timeline where Joss Whedon was never born?” You’ll be starved for witty quips or tidy plot resolutions, but you’ll experience something that’s truly rare in this day and age– a film that doesn’t know how to entertain you and, as such, throws everything at the wall to see what sticks. It’s not technically a good movie, sure, but who ever said a movie had to be good to be good?