I’m a big fan of this year’s least expected superhero smash, “Venom.” As you might have expected from somebody who had a staggering human-hearted clay-bleeding golem for a romantic hero, I’m not averse to a little body horror with my genre fiction, and the story of Eddie Brock–a man bonded with an outer-space parasite that wants to eat people–was certainly weird enough to qualify. Critics hated it, but “Venom” scored a surprise hit with audiences worldwide, hitting $822 million worldwide as of late November.
Not bad for a movie whose chief attraction was two hours of Tom Hardy losing his mind.
But there’s more than symbiote antics and acclaimed actors biting the heads off prop lobsters to recommend “Venom.” This humble tale of man and alien has done something that, in my opinion, most big-budget genre movies have failed to do in the last five years. “Venom” understands pacing.
Let’s talk about that. Spoilers follow.
Not that “Venom” understands pacing well. The movie is clunky and stiff in many places, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only audience member who was patiently enduring the extended action sequences in order to get to more alien antics. But in the basic home video edition, it’s 27 minutes before Eddie Brock ever gets to the lab where he meets the alien. It’s 37 minutes before the alien starts manifesting itself to any reasonable extent and launches the first big action sequence. It’s almost 50 minutes before we finally see the entity collectively known as Venom: man and symbiote bonded and about to wreck the joint.
So what’s the big deal about that? Isn’t it a bad thing if the movie takes (in cinematic terms) forever to get to the good stuff?
In “The Mummy” (1998), it takes almost an hour before the creature rises from his tomb. In “Aliens” (1986), depending on what edition you’re watching, it takes between fifty minutes and an hour before the walls in the alien hive start moving and the Space Marines realize just what deep shit they’re in. But the runtime before those moments has not been wasted. Both of those films have taken the time to establish context first.
Context is the lifeblood of a good story. Who are these characters? Why are they here? What do they think about all this? Are they reluctant? Heroic? Who’s paying for all this, anyway?
Think about every action movie where a guy announces he’s got a week until retirement. Or think about the soldier in a war zone, showing off cute pictures of his wife and kid. The instant we hear that, we as the audience collectively know that that guy is doomed.
Why? Because the story is establishing that he’s got something to lose. If a character has something to lose, his death becomes tragic.
The story is trying to force an emotional connection between us and these characters, because it knows that an emotional connection will make us more invested. But because it’s taking no time to build up the world, it instead tries for a shortcut by piling pathos onto one designated sacrificial victim. Establish that it would be bad if this guy dies. Kill him. Boom, you have audience investment.
That’s the theory. Instead, “one week until retirement” has become a running joke akin to “the black guy dies first.” We have no real idea who Retirement Guy is or what he’s like, and it means nothing when he inevitably gets axed.
“Venom” knows this, and takes time to establish its story and its world. We meet Eddie Brock, investigative reporter, who cares a lot about doing the right thing but is pretty bad at thinking his plans through; his well-meaning attempt to take down a corporate criminal ends with him not only losing his own job, but getting his girlfriend Anne fired. She dumps him (rightfully so), and he starts a long slide downwards, desperately looking for work when he’s blacklisted by his own industry and struggling to reconcile his ethics with the fact that he’s ruined his life.
We meet Carlton Drake, a man who cares about the fate of the world so much that he’s equally willing to mentor kids and sacrifice homeless people for the cause of advancing the human race. We meet Dan, Anne’s new boyfriend, who’s a genuinely decent man that admires Eddie’s reporting work even while worrying that he’s lost his damn mind and gotten dreadfully ill.
Through all of this, we see that something is coming. A creature which escaped from a crashed spaceship owned by Drake is now advancing towards San Francisco, hopping from body to body, ruthlessly puppeteering the humans it infests and leaving them battered and likely dead. What is this creature? We know it’s connected to the aliens Drake is keeping in his lab, and as we see Drake’s experiments we’re given a partial understanding of what this oncoming monster is, but we don’t know what its plan is or why it’s heading to San Francisco. In fact, until Eddie is infested near the half-hour mark, we don’t know that the symbiote manipulating those people isn’t the Venom symbiote.
This is not high art. It’s not even regular art. But by building up slowly and setting up its toys before knocking them down, “Venom” earns its subsequent insanity. We have context for why Eddie might be desperate enough to go along with an alien parasite. We have Dan, the doctor, who now has a preestablished connection with Eddie and provides a baseline of sanity when his girlfriend’s ex starts screaming about voices and suffering spontaneous multiple organ failure. Anne, who’s seen Eddie’s meltdown firsthand, knows that when he falls off the radar the situation is serious and she needs to find out what’s going on ASAP.
This is pacing. We’ve introduced the characters and set the stage; we know who they are, what they’re doing and why they do it. We’ve seen some of their quirks and failures. We’re somewhat invested, and we know that something terrible is coming. There’s tension. Now we care … And now, when things go completely to hell, we can see how much of an effect it’s had on the characters and the situation.
“Aliens” is probably the best extant example of this kind of slow build. We know Ripley has suffered something terrible, and we see her struggling with fear and sorrow. We meet the Space Marines, a tightly-bonded unit, and get a sense of who they are when they’re on their game–hyper-confident Hudson, who falls apart under pressure, contrasted to the veteran Hicks, who’s quiet and unassuming but rock-solid in a crisis.
We set the scene, get to know the characters, and then–once we’ve earned it, once it will have some actual impact–we destroy them. Hudson dies hard, having finally found a form of courage in the face of the monsters. Hicks is ground down slowly; he bears up but he’s only human, and in the end, Ripley is left alone to face the hive and save a child’s life.
Not that “Venom” is any equal to “Aliens.” The slow boil in the first part of the movie actually made it harder for me to take seriously during the finale. Carlton Drake ends up bonding with the evil symbiote, Riot, and while I might be able to accept that Drake could be dumb enough not to realize that the symbiote was playing him (or that his egomania wouldn’t let him see it), Riot ended up being a much less interesting character than his host. And because it was Drake we’d gotten to know, not that evil symbiote, the ultimate showdown between Venom and Riot didn’t have any oomph.
That means that by the end of the film, I cared about the hero, but the villain didn’t mean anything to me. Instead of a supergenius convinced the only way to save humanity was to do some frankly unethical things, we now had a big ugly guy who wanted to kill everyone. The villain had become just another pointless action sequence to sit through so we could get back to the real story, i.e., Two Guys One Body: The Venom Story.
So it ended with a whimper rather than a bang. But for giving us a chance to get to know these characters, and appreciate the toys before they’re knocked across the playroom, I still applaud “Venom.” I got more fun out of it, with all its flaws, than I have out of the last five years of Star Wars and Avengers combined.