After seeing “Venom” and recommending it to everyone I know, the question I get back the most often is: “then why do the critics hate it?” It’s a good question, and the gap between audience rave reviews and critics’ disapprovals lies in Eddie Brock’s characterization.
For those who have yet to hit the theaters, “Venom” centers around an alien symbiote (the eponymous Venom) who takes on Eddie Brock, a San Francisco investigative reporter played by actor Tom Hardy, as a host. The two are caught up in the plans of a nefarious bio-research company ironically named the Life Foundation, and are forced to work together to try and save the world from aliens.
As superhero films go, the plot is relatively standard, with a slightly different premise. As was the trend with past Marvel films, “Venom” seemed slated for at least a basic success but was met with largely negative reviews, often with a focus on Hardy’s performance. Rolling Stones critic Peter Travers specifically notes that “Hardy struggle[s] with a mumbly American accent and a script that chokes the vibrant life out him.”
With the reviews calling Hardy’s performance uncompelling and the plot simplistic, why do so many audience members find Venom a good movie?
While critics cite Hardy’s acting as the source of the issue, audience members tend to find Hardy’s performance relatable and genuine, which is rare in the genre of superhero movies. Too often, superhero movies have hypermasculinized main characters, which creates an expectation for heroes, both on and off-screen, to be overly stoic. These are men who stay strong by rarely expressing emotions, humanized by a single tear during a particularly touching scene. Superhero films are starting to break away from this stereotype, a particularly notable example being the depiction of post-traumatic stress disorder and mental illness in “Iron Man 3.”
Many of the superhero movies produced in the past decade feature male leads who fail to cope with their emotions that is at worst lightly reprimanded by others, and who fail to grow from these shortcomings. Think Tony Stark and his alcoholism (which is hardly represented in the movies) or Batman’s stoicism, both of which go through little to no development in how they handle their emotions.
In contrast, Venom’s Eddie Brock is about emotional as a character can be, reacting to everything that happens around him with some form of expression. He screams when frightened, cries when he’s sad and dunks himself into a tank full of lobsters when he’s overheating. Although not all of these are universally relatable, they are understandable to the audience, and they make Brock’s character more compelling because his reactions are understandable.
To critics, Hardy is overacting. In reality, Hardy makes Brock uniquely relatable.
Brock’s reactions, while sometimes played for laughs, are mostly genuine moments of emotion, such as his apology to his ex-fiancee, Anne Weying. Brock’s reactions to everything around him are very human and aren’t always meant to be humorous, which marks a departure from superhero films in which moments of genuine emotion are often cut by comedic one-liners or sudden, forced levity.
This is not to say that “Venom” did not suffer from other flaws, most prominently the uncompelling villain, but the expectation of an overly masculine main character was likely a significant factor in why “Venom” fell short of critical expectations.
Although “Venom” is by no means a perfect movie, it introduces a more openly emotional character who is able to express himself in a more healthy way than other superheroes in recent films. It represents a potential shift towards more sympathetic, understandable male protagonists in supposedly shallow superhero movies.
Caroline Zhu is a first-year computer science and economics major with a deep and abiding love for Shakespeare. She is currently trapped indefinitely within a block of ice due to the combination of a southern Californian constitution and Cleveland’s cold weather.