t is a truth universally acknowledged that a cinema-goer in search of a bad movie at the multiplex today must be in want of Venom. Tom Hardy’s unhinged superhero tale – based on a Spider-Man villain, but lacking even a passing reference to the now Marvel-owned web-slinger – is being showered in the viscous black goo of negative critical reviews. Chris Hewitt on The Empire Podcast declared it could set comic-book movies back 10 years and this publication’s Peter Bradshaw said it was “riddled with the poison of dullness”.
And yet, people are going to see Venom. Its global box office opening weekend of $205m has doubled its $100m production budget and the mammoth $80.3m domestic bow smashed the $55m record for an October opening previously held by Alfonso Cuarón’s Oscar-winning Gravity. It topped the box office again in its second week and is already within touching distance of the global box office total of Solo: A Star Wars Story.
The movie is evidently pleasing those audiences as well, netting a B+ average rating from audience pollsters Cinemascore, while 88% of Rotten Tomatoes users have given it a positive review at the time of writing, compared with just 30% of approved critics – a disparity larger even than the symbiote’s dislocated jaw.
This void between critical and commercial response will be familiar to anyone who followed the fortunes of The Greatest Showman – Hugh Jackman’s all-singing, all-dancing, all-glitter musical biopic of circus impresario PT Barnum. That movie was dismissed by critics as a colourful failure, but that didn’t prevent it from becoming an all-out global phenomenon. It made $430m worldwide and was still playing on cinema screens in its sing-along incarnation until early May, several weeks after it was available to buy on Blu-ray and DVD and months after the behemoth of Star Wars: The Last Jedi made the hyperspace jump out of multiplexes. Its soundtrack also high-kicked into the record books, spending the most weeks at No 1 of any release on the UK album chart for 50 years.
Numbers aside, Venom and The Greatest Showman have a great deal in common. They’re both defiantly silly movies arriving in the wake of heavier, more serious counterparts. Showman’s twee sensibility and embrace of glitter-ball camp felt like a response to the bleakly real rise-and-fall relationship dynamic of La La Land, which had been a critical and commercial smash less than a year previously. With its toe-tapping musical numbers and convenient airbrushing of any material that could have been contentious or difficult, The Greatest Showman was like a breath of sugar-scented fresh air for movie fans over the festive period.
Venom, similarly, is the latest superhero film to step tentatively into the goliath shadow created by Avengers: Infinity War – a movie that ends with an act of finger-snapping, universe-spanning genocide. After that level of heft, audiences can be forgiven for wanting to watch Hardy do not one, but two funny voices and bite the heads off villains’ shoulders as if they’re jelly babies.
Much like The Greatest Showman, Venom appears to have been punished for its refusal to meet audience expectations. Prior to the release of Showman, the movie was being talked about as a potential awards contender in the La La Land mould, with Jackman expected to be a major player in the best-actor race and many assuming the best original song Oscar – a gong that was ultimately handed to Pixar’s Coco – was in the bag. The finished film was emphatically not an awards season beast, playing noisily to the cheap seats rather than the rarefied front row.
Venom, similarly, was initially promised to comic-book devotees as a violent antidote to the homogeneity of many superhero adventures. Many of those edges, however, were smoothed off in order to net that lucrative teen-friendly PG-13 rating in America, though the movie’s occasionally shocking violence was enough to get it a 15 certificate in the UK. Fans of the violent, edgy 90s comic-book incarnation of the character were never likely to warm to Hardy’s goofy antihero, who talks the violent talk, but seldom follows through with the claret-soaked brio of a Logan or a Deadpool.
Those unburdened by these expectations for Venom, though, were seemingly impressed by the movie’s defiant desire to go its own way. In an era in which even the best superhero movies feel as if they are at least cut from the same comic-book cloth, Venom is the partygoer who arrives in a clown outfit when the dress code is black tie.
It’s not likely that Venom will infect popular culture in the same way that The Greatest Showman has bled into every inspiring TV musical montage and holiday-camp cabaret act, but the two movies provide a valuable lesson in terms of the value of silliness in cinema. When the world outside is tearing itself apart environmentally and politically, sometimes a hilariously committed Tom Hardy blabbering on about “turds in the wind” while bathed in inky black pixels is exactly what the doctor ordered.