The last time I looked at a piece of pop culture storytelling and said, “You know, I’d have done it THIS way,” I ended up spending four years writing Nita Dodd. So I’m a little leery of going there again, except that the film Venom is such an interestingly flawed story. Generally monsters, even super monsters, aren’t my thing which is why it took me so long to get around to this one. Also, I’m kind of Marvel-ed out. And yet, this is one of those movies where the good parts are really good, and the bad parts are just blah (as opposed to those movies where the good parts are really good and the bad parts are horrible–see January Man).
This kind of story always fascinates me. If they could get the good stuff right, why couldn’t they avoid the bad? Hypocrites R Us, of course, my books have the same problem. Still, I wanted to take Venom apart to see why Rotten Tomato critics gave it a 29% favorable rating and regular people put it at 80%. Here’s my take (spoilers all over the place below):In the end, I decided it came down to knowing what your story is really about and focusing on that, no matter what you’d planned before.
MAJOR SPOILERS FOR THE MOVIE AHEAD.
Venom is another Marvel comic book movie, although it appears to happen independently of the Avengers-et-al stories. The protagonist is Eddie Brock, a feckless, reckless journalist who has an elemental approach to life (basically get the story no matter what the cost), a successful investigative news show, and a beautiful fiancee named Annie he plans to marry soon. Life is good. Then a gazilionaire Evil Scientist brings four aliens to earth that can only survive if they bond with human beings, most of whom die from the merge. The local landfills are already full of bodies of the homeless that Evil Scientist has been experimenting on for medical breakthroughs, so a few more from bad alien hook-ups barely register, except on Eddie, who’s a people person. Eddie steals info from his girlfriend Annie’s computer (she’s a lawyer and her firm reps the Evil Scientist) and confronts the Evil Scientist with it on air, and Evil Scientist gets Eddie fired and then makes him unemployable, and Annie leaves him because he’s betrayed her by using her password to get to her files (good call, Annie), which has also gotten her fired. So Eddie hits bottom hard, out of money, out of a job, and out of his engagement, only to be approached by one of the Evil Scientist’s minions who tells him he’s right about the Evil Scientist killing the homeless and offering him proof. She takes him into the Evil Scientist’s research facility, where things go wrong and one of the aliens infects/bonds with Eddie, proving just when you think you’ve hit bottom, there’s another bottom below that (aka, “great plotting”).
But that’s the first thirty minutes of the movie. Yeah, thirty minutes of set-up while you watch the screen and think, “My god, this movie is slow.” Turns out, that’s because it hasn’t started yet.
Because this movie is not Eddie vs. the Evil Scientist, it’s Eddie vs. Venom, the alien who bonds with him (“I am not a parasite!”). It is, in fact, a kind of perverse romantic comedy/buddy picture as Eddie and Venom try to come to terms with their time share of his body: Venom can’t live without Eddie’s body, and Eddie’s only alive because Venom’s supernatural powers are protecting him from the Evil Scientist’s sadistic henchmen.
So basically, Venom is a marriage-of-convenience romance, one that hints at moving to an OT3 if they can they talk Annie around, (there’s evidently a healthy selection of Eddie/Venom slash fan fiction out there), which leads to Eddie’s big synthesis moment at the end of the movie when he announces “We are Venom” and bites a guy’s head off. It’s a nice moment, really. The guy was asking for it. Once I twigged to that, it’s easy to see what keeps me watching again and why I do something else for about half of the movie. I love a good romance.
Tom Hardy plays both Eddie and Venom, and the man earns his paycheck. Without him, this would have been a complete disaster. With him, as long as he’s on screen, this rips along, a lot of fun, with two characters you become invested in. Yes, Venom is a murderous alien who plans to eat everybody on Earth, but he’s willing to make exceptions. Yes, Eddie is a relationship idiot who doesn’t understand how much pain he’s caused others until a human-eating alien points it out to him, but he does care and he does eventually see. They’re buddies/lovers in the best possible way: they change each other for the better. I love the way Hardy plays Eddie as an often whiny schlub instead of a shiny hero: Eddie is a mess. I love the way he plays Venom as the powerful bad guy with the moral astuteness of a ten-year-old until Eddie’s basic good-guy-ness begins to infect him. It’s just a great protagonist/antagonist dynamic.
Except whoever wrote this move thinks the antagonist is the Evil Scientist. The actor who plays him does his best, but the way the character is written makes him a dead spot every time he shows up because the Evil Scientist loves to lecture, pontificate, and generally Polonius every scene he’s in. Okay, there’s one great moment when the Evil Scientist has Eddie in his lair, and Eddie insults him, and the Evil Scientist says, “That’s hurtful. Long journal entry on that tonight.” I laughed out loud. But I think that just emphasized the blandness of the Evil Scientist’s character in general. The rest of the Eddie & Venom movie is comic in an extremely violent, male-action-extravaganza way. Then the movie cuts back to the Evil Scientist who’s killing people we like and explaining ad infinitum why it’s important to do that for his Evil Plan. I’m fine with the Evil Scientist being a complication, but as an antagonist, he’s like every other bad guy in the movie: he gets his ass kicked by Venom.
In fiction writing theory, there are a lot of really-more-of-a-guidelines for antagonists–they should be stronger than the protagonists, they should have a goal as strong as the protagonist, they should actively oppose the protagonist–and the Evil Scientist meets all of those. But he misses on the most important one: he should be more interesting, or at least AS interesting as the protagonist. And the Evil Scientist is just another one percenter, albeit with plans to colonize space by hooking up aliens and humans. Meanwhile Venom is not just stronger than Eddie, he’s stronger than everybody; he’s invading Earth so his people will have a source of food which is a compelling goal, and he’s controlling Eddie while Eddie tries to escape, all the while being active, funny, and interesting. Best of all, his interactions with Eddie are great, the two of them powerful, clueless beings, first fighting each other and then trying to work together as they come to an understanding. As long as Eddie and Venom are talking on screen, the movie works (again, Tom Hardy really earned that paycheck).
This is even evident in the action scenes, most of which are Dick Things. Dick things, as defined by the great Regina Barecca in I Used To Be Snow White But I Drifted, are the things men do because they can’t take it out and wave it around. She mentioned excessively long guitar solos, but in Venom, it’s clear that excessively long, meaningless action sequences are the Movie Dick Thing. So Eddie rides his motorcycle through San Francisco for what seems like hours, causing all kinds of accidents (and Eddie’s been clearly and carefully set up as a guy who works to protect and save people) and doing absolutely nothing to change the story; it’s “the bad guys chase Eddie until they catch him.” And it goes on for days. Same thing with the big action multi-sequence at the end. There’s good stuff in there but it’s buried in a lot of confusing CGI and repetitive bashing. And that crap sucks up a lot story real estate that could have been spent on the stuff that actually worked, Eddie and Venom (and to a lesser extent Eddie and Annie).
The thing is, Eddie is a great flawed character that we really root for. Yes, he screws up, but he does it with good motives and he keeps on trying. And even when he’s down and out, he’s still careful to be good to people, especially the people in his poor neighborhood. Hardy really sells that aspect: Eddie is a good old boy. And since the cast in this story is very, very good, every interaction Eddie has is great, especially his dealings with the Evil Scientist’s minion, played by Jenny Slade, excellent as always. These are characters we care about, but just as we’re getting invested, there’s another chase or action sequence that goes on forever, wasting the great cast.
There is one action sequence that is excellent because it’s not about showing off, it’s about telling the story. Eddie has escaped from the lab (obligatory chase scene that ends with acrophobic Eddie at the top of a very tall tree), and has come home to his crappy apartment freaked out by what happened in the lab and afterward in the tree because he hasn’t realized he’s now a twofer and because he’s now hearing a growly voice in his head. While he’s trying to deal with that, the bad guys attack him, and Venom gets to do his thing, introducing himself to the viewer by mutilating the minions right and left while Eddie apologizes to the mutilated because he doesn’t understand what’s going on. By the time, Venom throws them both out a window to escape, Eddie is barely holding on, telling himself, “Eddie, you have a brain tumor,” before roaring off on his motorcycle. It’s a great “meet Venom and see what he can do scene,” full of character change and humor, and then it’s stepped on by an interminable action scene that does perk up at the end when Venom bites the head off a minion and then throws Eddie into the bay, escaping and ending with Eddie confronting the thing that’s taken up residence inside him. Great scene in the apartment, great confrontation scene, separated by what feels like two hours of cartoon carnage during which many people must have died that Eddie doesn’t notice or care about. WTF?
Basically the Argh edit of this thing would have cut out the center sections of most of the action scenes, made the Evil Scientist more fun and cut his speeches, and gotten Eddie and Venom together in the first ten minutes of the movie, fifteen tops. This is the Eddie and Venom show, and the minute the camera isn’t on them, the story starts to collapse.
Having said all of that, it’s a fun ride and you can hit the kitchen for a snack during the long action scenes (nothing happens in them) so it all works out. And it helped me see that while even though I’m fascinated by Nita’s Big Bad, the story is Nita and Nick.
Conclusion: Your protagonist and your antagonist are your story, keep the focus on them and make sure you’ve tagged the right character as the antagonist.