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Venom Feels Like a Relic From When Hollywood Didn’t Know How To Make Superhero Movies

The dull new movie makes for a marked contrast with the delightful new Spider-Man video game.

Venom/Sony PicturesVenom/Sony PicturesAt 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.

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  • Eddy||

    Has Peter replaced Glenn on the Satellite of Love? Is Glenn all right, all that exposure to bad TV might make a guy go nuts.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    Kurt was the movie guy before. I hope that the bomb that MTV implants in all it's VJs didn't finally go off.

  • ||

    This is really a video game post, right in Suder-man's wheelhouse.

  • Eddy||

    Peter, if you're held against your will on that satellite, just blink your left eye three times in rapid succession.

  • MatthewSlyfield||

    Well first, Venom isn't a superhero movie.

  • Just Say'n||

    I still have the original Venom comic book from when I was a lad. I always liked Venom. Too bad the movie isn't great

  • ||

    second-tier characters: Iron-Man, Thor, Captain America, and Hulk

    OK, I'll grant you that Thor is a second-tier character and that Captain America, while broadly popular and recognizable isn't a consistent big seller/moneymaker. But Iron Man is every bit as popular as Spiderman on Film and TV and, on TV, The Hulk easily surpasses both of them. All of them are, across the board, second tier to Batman and Superman and, maybe Wolverine, making them all second-tier characters. But acting like Spidey is first tier while The Hulk is second is flat wrong.

  • Eddy||

    It's enough to make one...angry.

  • ||

    "second-tier" is a pre-MCU perspective on where the characters stacked up in the comics universe. Top Tier is really the best selling original Stan Lee comics...Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, The Hulk, X-Men. Pretty much all other Marvel characters are secondary to those.

  • ||

    Top Tier is really the best selling original Stan Lee comics...Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, The Hulk, X-Men. Pretty much all other Marvel characters are secondary to those.

    Meaning Spiderman being top tier and Hulk being second tier is flat wrong.

  • Gozer the Gozarian||

    Spiderman could assrape the Hulk. Just sayin'...

  • John Thacker||

    Iron Man was definitely second tier before the recent movies. Robert Downey Jr. and the movies made the character first tier, which is Suderman's whole point. Spider-Man has a much longer history of wide success than Iron Man in TV and movies.

    I agree that the Hulk has a long history and really ought to be first tier (same with Spider-Man).

  • ||

    I could've misread "It's difficult to remember..." I assumed this was more of a "You may not remember so let me remind you." segue. It's possible he actually meant to say he doesn't really remember who was on what tier before MCU.

  • Marcus Aurelius||

    Marvel lived off of the Avengers before the X-Men too off. There were Captain America, Thor, and Iron Man "cartoons" in the late 70s/early 80s. None of them are second tier.

  • Marcus Aurelius||

    If you have a monthly magazine numbered in the 500s, you're not second tier.

  • John Thacker||

    In the late 70s/early 80s? Not Iron Man. Fantastic Four, yes, Spider-Man, Hulk, yes (both cartoon and live action Spider-Man and Hulk).

    Iron Man and Thor appeared in the mid 1960s in that one short series of short segments (that also had the Sub-Mariner; you're not calling him first tier, are you?) but they were absent from the late 70s and 80s (maybe an occasional guest appearance on bigger name titles like Spider-Man). Because they were second tier, at least as far as the general public was concerned.

    Then there was that Iron Man cartoon in the mid 90s.

    Iron Man and Thor were second tier as far as the general public were concerned. It's ridiculous to put them on the same level as Hulk and Spider-Man.

  • Azathoth!!||

    What is this 'general public' you keep referring to?

    You mean 'people who watch TV', don't you?

    Because, if so, then it was kids watching Spiderman and then a long time later people watching The Incredible Hulk.

    Everything else was pretty much a mystery to the general public--at least insofar as Marvel was concerned. There were no 'tiers'--there were only weird kids who read too many comic books.

  • HenryC||

    Actually, more people have been introduced to the characters by the movies rather than the Saturday cartoons or comic books. That definitely makes Iron Man first Tier, along with Hulk, Spiderman, and Thor. Batman and Superman are for the same reason.

  • Brett Bellmore||

    Wolverine was, originally, third tier at best. He was originally something of a joke, the bad tempered Canadian in the ugly yellow costume.

  • Seamus||

    Marvel . . . had to make due because it had sold off the rights to more well-known characters like Spider-Man and the X-Men . . .

    I guess "making due" is this year's answer to "towing the lion."

  • Cynical Asshole||

    Was this supposed to be a review of the movie Venom or the Spiderman video game? The movie must have been really terrible to cause Suderman to go of on a completely random tangent about the video game. He couldn't even bring himself to stay on topic it was so bad.

  • Brian Dixon||

    Marvel (and eventually Disney, after it bought the comic book company) had to make due…

    Not make do? You're due for a spelling lesson.

  • GoatOnABoat||

    Or a grammar lesson... or at least a proofreading lesson.

    "Have you paid your dues, Jack?
    "Yes sir, the check is in the mail."

    That was from one of the greatest movies ever made...

  • Gozer the Gozarian||

    Deepthroat?

  • Conchfritters||

    You leave Jack Burton alone!

  • GoatOnABoat||

    The first couple of MCU movies were good, now they're mostly just cardboard cutouts of each other.

  • Marcus Aurelius||

    Have no fear, girl power is almost here.

  • Brett Bellmore||

    I might have watched a Power Girl movie, when I was single.

    I'm still waiting for Ambush Bug, the motion picture, though. That's when we'll know comic book movies have jumped the shark.

  • Azathoth!!||

    You're waiting for Ambush Bug? That's the 'jumped the shark moment? When we've already had a film about background characters from the Flaming Carrot comic?

    When Howard the Duck is doing credited cameos?

    Comic book movies haven't just jumped the shark, they've thrown a cape on him and added him to the team.

  • John I||

    I'd love to know in what universe the Hulk or Captain America were b-list superheros before the Marvel movies. Captain America has always been one of the most recognizable characters in comic books

    Even Iron Man had a cartoon series back in the 90s that I used to watch so it's not like he was a total nothing character either

  • General_Tso||

    DC > Marvel

  • Eddy||

    Isn't the First Amendment wonderful, protecting such an...*interesting* variety of opinions!

  • ||

    Indeed - it is of such vital importance that very wrong opinions be expressed so that we can expose and mock them publicly.

  • HenryC||

    Not in the movie universe.

  • NashTiger||

    You mean Batman >> anything else

  • JeremyR||

    Captain America was popular enough to have a series of TV movies in the 70s. And the Hulk had a TV show (where they changed the first name from Bruce to David because of the stigma around the name at the time)

  • Eddy||

    Like Bruce Lee changing his name to Sara?

  • Marcus Aurelius||

    Bruce Jenner ...

  • ||

    "Johnson changed the name of the Hulk's comic book alter ego, Dr. Bruce Banner, to Dr. David Banner for the TV series. This change was made, according to Johnson, because he did not want the series to be perceived as a comic book series, so he wanted to change what he felt was a staple of comic books, and Stan Lee's comics in particular, that major characters frequently had alliterative names.[9] According to both Stan Lee[8] and Lou Ferrigno, it was also changed because CBS thought the name Bruce sounded "too gay-ish", a rationale that Ferrigno thought was "the most absurd, ridiculous thing [he had] ever heard"."

  • ||

    "the most absurd, ridiculous thing [he had] ever heard".

    Of course, Ferrigno was deaf, so . . . .

  • All your base are belong to us||

    #ReleasetheSnyderCut

  • Brett Bellmore||

    I thought they changed it because the TV writers though alliterative names were stupid.

  • Agammamon||

    Iron-Man, Thor, Captain America, and Hulk—the core heroes who comprise the Avengers—were B-list properties.

    I'm sorry, what? Not a single one of those guys were B-list.

    If you had said Black Widow or Hawkeye or Falcon - those were B-listers. I mean, half the Avengers *were* B-listers in the comics and yet you list *those* guys? Three of whom have been franchise pillars for a couple of generations?

  • ||

    any movie featuring Nicolas Cage as a vengeful stunt-biker whose head turns into a flaming skull is worth watching

    Having watched Ghost Rider under that exact assumption, I disagree.

  • Brett Bellmore||

    The first one was definitely worth watching. The second Ghost Rider movie was a mess, and I made the mistake of watching it in 3D. Incompetently executed 3d, it was like those old view master comics where everything was flat at different distances, gave me a headache.

  • Nardz||

    The MCU didn't take off so much because they took "B listers" seriously - though they came up with good writing - but really because they hired Robert Downey Jr. to play Tony Stark.
    Remember, before Iron Man there were 2 Hulk films - one directed by Ang Lee, which was weird, and another starring Ed Norton squaring off against Tim Roth. The Norton Hulk was solid, but certainly not a universe-founding work.
    Downey Jr as Iron Man absolutely crushed it and made the whole enterprise viable. They hit homeruns with Chris Evans as Captain America, Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, and whichever Helmsworth plays Thor. ScarJo was a double, and Renner a solid base hit.
    They nailed the casting, and it's all thanks RDJ

  • Nardz||

    Also, F Suderman. Can't take anything this dude says seriously. I'm going to go see Venom. Tom Hardy was a perfect choice.

  • ||

    They nailed the casting

    ^ This. And hardly a misfire since.

  • cosMICjester||

    I've had enough of superhero movies. 99% of them suck balls. Matter of fact 95% of ALL movies these days are garbage. RANT over

  • Brett Bellmore||

    Technically, 90%. Sturgeon's law.

    Fortunately, we can just ignore the movies that get Emmys, and watch the good movies instead.

  • JoeBlow123||

    I like the Marvel movies...

  • JoeBlow123||

    I like the Marvel movies...

  • Nuwanda||

    Judging by the title I thought this movie was going to get a thumbs up since for the most part modern superhero movies have bee responsible for the dumbing-down of plots and the elevation of flash over substance.

    Witness the latest Star Wars and Trek movies, all of them attempting to play the same game as the caricature-heavy, thinly-plotted, tongue-in-cheek superhero outings of recent years.

  • Kirk Solo||

    Send in the Mouse. He needs to get ALL of his toys back!

  • XM||

    It feels like Suderman snuck in an ad for a PS4 Spiderman game in a Venom movie review.

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