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Undoubtedly, Sony Pictures’ decision to produce a new film centered on Spider-Man’s icky alien nemesis Venom – sans the Web-Slinger – seemed like a clever idea at the time to the studio’s financially-minded executives. Although Sony essentially leased Peter Parker’s alter ego to Disney, where he’s presently employed for a crowd-pleasing (and heartbreaking) stint in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), the myriad Spidey-adjacent characters under the umbrella of Sony’s film rights remain ripe for exploitation. Of all the baddies in Spidey’s famously colorful rogue’s gallery, however, Venom is among the most conceptually baffling choices for a standalone film. An amorphous extraterrestrial “symbiote” of malevolent intelligence, Venom’s first host was Spider-Man himself. Like most supervillains conceived as dark reflections of their do-gooder counterparts, Venom doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense in the absence of Spidey – first and foremost because his visual design is explicitly based on the Web-Slinger’s distinctive costume. To make a Venom film without Spider-Man is akin to making a Bizarro film without Superman.

One likes to think there’s no high concept so ill-considered that it can’t be salvaged by solid filmmaking. Sadly, 'Venom' doesn’t possess much of the latter, although the feature’s problems have less to do with director Ruben Fleischer’s journeyman efforts than with the sloppy writing, schizophrenic tone, and palpable confusion about Venom’s characterization. Some of the blame plainly rests with that dreaded hobgoblin of all blockbuster filmmaking-by-committee: studio meddling. In a presumed effort to attain the coveted PG-13 rating – and thereby maximize its opening weekend box office take – Venom has been discernibly bowdlerized from the more vicious, ghastly, and bonkers film it plainly could have been. This strategy is doubly nonsensical, given that Fox’s 'Deadpool' films have already established the profitability of the crude, R-rated superhero flick, and the fact that Venom fans who were enamored with the character in his late-80s / early-90s comic heyday are now approaching (or well into) their 40s.

What the viewer is left with, then, is a film that’s been lethally disarrayed for reasons that are wholly illogical. This lends the entire endeavor a bitter aftertaste that frequently overwhelms the sensibility of mad spectacle that Fleischer and his performers strive to tease from the material. That, ultimately, is what’s so disappointing about 'Venom': Squint hard enough and one can discern the film that might have been, a darkly funny riff on superhero tentpoles, steeped in the visual vocabulary of mad science and body horror. That feature might not have been good, but it would be a damn sight more coherent and fascinating than the dreary Mad Libs blockbuster that’s resulted from Sony’s fiddling...

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