As elevator pitches go, it’s a doozy. “They’re like two roommates who share a body,” says director Ruben Fleischer. “And sometimes that body can become a super-crazy black scary thing.” Welcome to the savage, psyche-splintering world of Venom, the only hero in the Marvel firmament who will literally bite your head off, and not only on a bad day.
Hero may be pushing it – even anti-hero feels all too charitable, given his dubious morality and brain-snacking lifestyle choices. Originally introduced as a sinister inversion of Spider-Man, Venom became one of the defining icons of ’90s comics, embodying all their excess and ultra-violence in one drooling, unhinged package. It’s a character that hit the Zombieland helmer right between the eyes.
“Growing up I was as much into the comics as I was the cartoons and just the whole milieu of Marvel,” he tells our sister publication SFX magazine. “He always stood out to me just because of his incredibly arresting look, that giant black figure with the huge eyes and big jaws. And the visual is tied to the attitude, because he’s also got this biting humour that’s a great, unexpected complement to his appearance.”
“He really is a unique character within the Marvel canon – he’s always been more horrific and violent than all the others. I’ve loved the idea of Venom for a long time and I was thrilled at the opportunity to bring him to life on screen.”
Venom’s stalked cinemas before, of course. Sam Raimi served up a neutered version in 2007’s Spider-Man 3, more out of obligation to the studio than any true love of a character far outside his cherished pantheon of Silver Age Spidey villains. (“I never want to say anything bad about a much-beloved character because usually it turns out that I’m the one that doesn’t understand what makes it great,” Raimi later confessed.) For Fleischer, this was a chance to bring the authentic Venom experience to the movies, in all its outsized, goo-spattered craziness.
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“Obviously a lot of people saw him in Spider-Man 3,” he says. “To be honest I didn’t go back and watch it once I got the job. I wanted to have as clean a slate as I could and just focus on the story that we were telling. For me the most important thing was getting the look right. There were parts of the iconography we absolutely had to get right – the tongue, the teeth, the jaws, the eyes. He’s a character without pupils but they have to express emotion, so that’s a challenge. There’s a lot of inherent challenges to it.”
“As he’s an entirely CG character it’s about achieving a photo-real Venom that looked like it could exist in our world. As far as his look, his bearing, his size, his scale, we really wanted to make sure that he was as true to the comics as he could possibly be.”
Fleischer knows there’s a fanbase poised to wrench off his own head if he delivers anything less than the perfect big-screen Venom. “I think that’s a pressure that any comic book movie faces,” he acknowledges. “I embrace it. I think it’s a good thing. What’s great is that there are fans who are really excited to see our movie. I just want to fulfil that excitement and deliver a character that people would feel had stepped out of the pages of the comic books.”
Venom brings us an origin tale that honours established backstory while stripping out any direct connection to Marvel’s wall-crawler (gone, tellingly, is the spider symbol on his chest). Tom Hardy is Eddie Brock, a down-at-heel journalist struggling to jump-start his career after a scandal. Investigating the Life Foundation – a shady scientific research centre rumoured to recruit society’s most vulnerable, with deadly results – he becomes the host body for an alien Symbiote, a parasitic entity that grants him astonishing powers along with some seriously anti-social attitude.
“What’s unique about Venom is that it’s really two people,” says Fleischer. “To be very literal there’s the Symbiote and then there’s Eddie, and Venom is a union of the two. The Symbiote is from outer space and doesn’t know how things work on our planet – he only knows what he knows. Eddie has his own morality and the two of them have to learn to work together. That’s what our movie’s about – this relationship between these two very different species, having to work together as one for a common goal. And it’s a learning curve for both of them as they embark upon this relationship.”
“When Eddie is going about his business the Symbiote is talking to him. And likewise when they’re fully formed Eddie’s voice is able to talk to Venom as well. It’s unique from Jekyll and Hyde or something like that – when Jekyll’s there Hyde is asleep and vice versa. These guys have a running dialogue so they really have to learn to live with each other. Hardy does an incredible job of conveying that.”
The film’s star relished the opportunity to be half-man, half-monster. Hardy has spoken of his attraction to Venom’s “brazen swagger” and “zero foxtrot attitude” and, like Fleischer, was enamoured with the visuals, considering him the coolest-looking of all Marvel’s characters. Beneath that tar-black surface, however, lay a deeper appeal, catnip to an actor drawn to exploring fractured personalities on screen.
“Tom’s shown with some of his choices that he likes the concept of duality,” says Fleischer, “whether it’s in Legend where he has to play multiple characters, or in Bronson where you could argue he’s got voices in his head. These are themes he returns to and are consistent with his work, so I can very much see why he was attracted to it. For me he brings a menace and a danger to pretty much every role he plays, and that’s very important for the role of Venom and Eddie Brock as well.”
“I think he’s just one of the best actors of his generation. Somebody who I’m always excited to see star in a movie. He’s a captivating actor. Just at a basic level having an actor you love at the centre of your film is a good starting place.”
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Hardy has proven himself to be a mercurial, livewire presence on screen. Does he bring that same energy to the set? “He’s very focused on performance and making sure what he’s delivering is the best he possibly can,” Fleischer tells SFX. “He’s a bit of a perfectionist and he doesn’t want to do anything that he’s not proud of. So he’s always focused on delivering the best possible performance, whether that’s a pure acting day or a physical action day. He challenges himself to always elevate, which is inspiring to watch.”
Venom finds Hardy adding more off-kilter voices to an arsenal that includes the posh thuggery of Bane in The Dark Knight Rises and the backwoods drawl of John Fitzgerald in The Revenant. For the duelling cadences of Eddie and the Symbiote he took inspiration from such unlikely sources as Woody Allen, Irish martial artist Conor McGregor and the rapper Redman. He’s even drawn a direct comparison with Ren and Stimpy. Do you just have to trust him on these choices?
“I generally trust him just because I think he’s so talented,” says Fleischer. “I was happy to trust his instincts throughout, because his natural instincts are so spot on. He’s such a visceral performer that you’re watching behind the monitor and you’re just taken by what he’s doing in the performance. Voices have always been a component of his work and certainly in developing the Venom voice he was putting a lot of thought into it even before we shot anything. He was always testing different versions and playing with it, and then on set he was listening to the voice in his head as he was performing. That was an aspect of the role he was excited about.”
Making a monster
The movie pits Venom against Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), the malevolent genius behind the Life Foundation and in Marvel lore the creator of such menaces as Riot, the rival Symbiote who’ll claim his body on the big screen. Fleischer also takes inspiration from comic book tale Planet of the Symbiotes as well as 1993 mini-series Venom: Lethal Protector, the story that repositioned the character, nudging him closer to heroic status.
“That’s the one we’ve definitely embraced as our guiding principle,” says the director. “You see Eddie returning to San Francisco and Venom taking on an anti-hero/vigilante role. He kind of reaches a truce with Spider-Man and is able to exist in his own right. I think Lethal Protector is a good title for him because he’s somebody who’s going to be a hero but there’s a cost to it. He’s an anti-hero for sure in that one. He’s not afraid to bite some heads off in the process of administering justice.”
Venom’s appetite for bad guys appears undiminished here. One scene finds him eyeing a miscreant and declaring, in Hardy’s most ghoulishly demented voice, “Eyes, lungs, pancreas... so many snacks, so little time!” How far does Fleischer push the visceral stuff? “I feel like we push it as far as we possibly can,” he shares.
“We didn’t want it to feel like a softened version. I think when you watch the movie you’ll see that it’s a very aggressive version of a comic book character. It’s a really unique tone – there’s also some inherent comedy to the situation of having a giant alien inhabit you. Other comic book movies and franchises are all established. You know what they are before you go in. This is something very new and original. There’s always a lot of challenge in creating something new.”
Venom has more pressure on it than most comic book adaptations. It’s also the first entry in a new cinematic universe, built from the secondary Spider-Man characters Sony licenced from Marvel in the early ’00s – a deal alleged to include some 900 players in the Spider-mythos. Fleischer won’t be drawn on the studio’s ambitions – “My sole focus was just this movie, so anything beyond that is beyond me” – but he’s hopeful there’s sequel mileage, at least, in the ultimate Odd Couple.
“The character that we’ve launched is one that I would love to see in many movies,” he says. “I’d love to see where he goes and who he comes across and what those battles look like. This film has to be appreciated for other opportunities to exist but I’ll be honest, I feel like anybody who watches this movie is going to want to see what happens next with Eddie and Venom, and where their adventures lead.” More brains, anyone?