At almost every moment, Venom feels dated, tired, like a movie hidden in a vault since 2005, updated with some slapdash computer-generated effects, then dumped into theaters in 2018, when everyone has learned to expect better. It plays like a relic from an earlier era—a second-tier superhero movie from before Hollywood figured out how to make second-tier superhero movies that are actually good.
It's difficult to remember, but the Marvel Cinematic Universe, currently Hollywood's most consistently successful franchise, is built around second-tier characters: Iron-Man, Thor, Captain America, and Hulk—the core heroes who comprise the Avengers—were B-list properties. Even some comic book nerds barely knew who the Guardians of the Galaxy were before the 2014 movie. Marvel (and eventually Disney, after it bought the comic book company) had to make due because it had sold off the rights to more well-known characters like Spider-Man and the X-Men, which, by the time Marvel started making its own movies, had already appeared in successful films.
In the '00s, Marvel's secondary characters—lesser known figures like Ghost Rider, Daredevil, and Punisher—also made big-screen appearances. But the movies, while not entirely lacking in pulp-flick charm (any movie featuring Nicolas Cage as a vengeful stunt-biker whose head turns into a flaming skull is worth watching), were pretty bad. Venom feels like one of those movies, but without as much charm. It's plodding and graceless, save for a few intermittent flashes of wit in the form of Tom Hardy's antic, Vaudeville-esque performance as the alien symbiote title character and his human host, journalist Eddie Brock.
Honestly, though, it's a chore to sit through, and I spent most of movie's (blessedly short) running time thinking about Spider-Man.
That's partly because in the comics, Venom was essentially Spider-Man's evil twin; Brock and the symbiote were joined together by their hatred of the webslinger, and their stories were almost always intertwined with his. A Venom story without Spider-Man is like a cocktail missing its primary ingredient. The comic-book Venom was a quasi-villain who saw himself as a hero. He was a dark reflection of Spider-Man, even in stories where the hero wasn't physically present. He doesn't really work in a world where Spider-Man doesn't exist.
But I also found myself thinking about Spider-Man because, well, he's been on my mind a lot recently, thanks to the excellent new video game, Marvel's Spider-Man. The PS4 exclusive (sorry, Xbox fans) captures Spidey (and his alter-ego Peter Parker) as I have known him for most of my life: He's a scrappy New York kid, struggling to juggle both the extraordinary responsibilities and opportunities of being a superhero and the mundane challenges of being a socially awkward young man. In the game's first act, Spidey puts Kingpin in jail, stops Shocker from robbing a bank, works in a research lab with Dr. Otto Octavius, meets up with his old flame, Mary Jane Watson, attends a birthday party for his aunt, and gets evicted from his tiny, sad Manhattan apartment.
The core appeal of Spider-Man has always been that he's just a regular guy struggling in a relatable manner with family, work, and relationships—who also happens to be a phenomenally powerful superhero in his off hours. Although he is broadly popular these days, the core of the target audience is people who feel some sort of demographic kinship to Peter Parker—specifically, nerdy guys—and who are attracted to the fantasy they could also be Spider-Man. Marvel's Spider-Man captures that appeal, and then collapses the distance between fan and character even further. In the game, you're not just watching Spider-Man, imagining yourself in his place. You are Spider-Man.
You control the way he swings through New York, where he goes and what tasks he chooses to complete. You can decide whether to detour from your objective to fight low-level street crime or stick to pursuing the more eclectic villains from Spider-Man's rogues' gallery. You can take on missions that involve cleaning up the environment—Spidey has always been civic minded—that showcase the complex array of acrobatic movements the game puts at your disposal.
More than anything else, the game excels at letting you move like Spider-Man, whether swinging through the city or taking down legions of video game baddies. The combat borrows heavily from the timed, action-reaction combo brawling of the Assassins Creed and Batman: Arkham Asylum games, which often feels a bit like dancing, but it's even more fluid, more refined, and—in some ineffable way—more Spider-Man-like. All of the things that Spider-Man could do in the comics, all the ways he might move, respond, use his body or the environment, are available to you, the player, and over time you become better at choosing among various options and chaining them together, to fight, to dodge, to swing gloriously through the game's virtual mock-up of New York.
The game is a Spider-Man simulator that teaches you to view the physical environment around you as a space that presents a wide array of unique tactical options that you—as the game's web-slinging hero—can use to your advantage. It teaches you, in other words, to think like Spider-Man.
Once upon a time, a licensed game like this would probably have been a cheap knock-off, a way of quickly cashing in on the Spider-Man brand by changing the look of some boring punching game. But over the last decade or so, game developers have begun taking licensed properties more seriously. Much of the credit goes to Batman: Arkham Asylum, which brought on writing and voice talent from Batman: The Animated Series to give depth to the game's story and characters. Similarly, the voice acting in Marvel's Spider-Man is excellent, and the story is co-written by Dan Slott and Christos Cage, key writers of Spider-Man comics in recent years.
The point is, the developers at Insomniac Games took Spider-Man seriously. They got the character right, got the moment-to-moment feel of the gameplay right, and—perhaps most important—located Spider-Man within his world: a sprawling New York-as-urban-playground, populated by street criminals and operatic supervillains.
Roughly speaking, that's the same approach Marvel took when it built its B-list cinematic universe: by treating B-listers like A-listers (which is what they eventually became). They took the characters seriously, replicated the particular feel of how they interacted with their environments, and situated the characters within a giant, interconnected world, packed with easter eggs and in-jokes for fans. They're movies, not video games, so they weren't quite simulators, but over time, they gave you, the viewer, a world to explore.
Which brings me back to Venom—a solo superhero film that does none of these things, or at least not well. Tom Hardy's performance is the movie's only saving grace, but its comic physicality is both at odds with the grimdark tone of the rest of the movie—think Jim Carrey in The Mask for reference—and a departure from the tortured, angry anti-hero of the comics. The action sequences are, for the most part, dull and poorly shot, especially in the CG-heavy finale half hour. And aside from a handful of references and a mostly predictable sequel tease at the end, there's little in the way of connection to any larger world. It's a second-rate cash-in.
I have argued, at times, that superhero movies should focus more on delivering clear, self-contained stories than on setting up expanded universes. But Venom, the character, is so intimately connected to Spider-Man that he loses all definition in a world without his opposite number. He's Spidey's shadow, and without him, he's just a globular, computer-generated Tyler Durden, another opportunity for Tom Hardy to mumble and grumble weirdly to himself. (His performance is less impressive if you've seen Upgrade, a cheap but clever sci-fi/horror film that worked from a notably similar premise earlier this year.)
The only part of Venom that really, truly works comes at the very, very end, in a second post-credits sequences, which—spoiler!—teases the upcoming animated film, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. In about three minutes, it packs in more wit, emotion, and thrilling action than in all of Venom, including the existence of multiple Spider-Mans from different universes.
Like the new Spider-Man video game, the animated teaser is a reminder that there are still plenty of fresh, fun ideas to be found in the superhero genre. Venom may be stuck in the past, but Spider-Man fans can swing happily into the future.