Dec 122018
3,5 reels

Miles Morales (voice: Shameik Moore) is a regular teen with a number of normal teen-type problems, mostly related to his father (voice: Brian Tyree Henry), until he’s bitten by a radioactive spider. He’s saved by Spider-Man, who soon after dies at the hands of King Pin (voice: Liev Schreiber). King Pin has a plan to bring back his dead family that involves cracking open the universe and will result in the destruction of the world. The first attempt with his dimensional vortex machine zaps spider-people from other universe’s into Miles’s, including a middle-aged Peter Parker (voice: Jake Johnson), Spider-Gwen (voice: Hailee Steifeld), Spider-Man Noir (voice: Nicolas Cage), the anime Peni Parker (voice: Kimiko Glenn) and the cartoony Spider-Ham (voice: John Mulaney). Together they need to defeat King Pin, and return to their own universes.

Into the Spider-Verse is the best looking animated movie in the last decade, but it ranks far higher when considering visual artistry, where I can’t think of any feature-length animated film in the last 40 years that can compete. The backgrounds are beautiful, the animation is exciting and active, merging 2D and 3D, illustration and pop art, into a coherent whole. Into the Spider-Verse then adds to that artistry a clever gimmick of having three of the stranger spider-people, as well as several villains, rendered in their own styles. That kind of creativity is rare, which makes the conventional nature of much of the rest of the film standout.

The basic story is a traditional teen coming of age one: Miles has some trivial disagreements with his father and isn’t fitting into his new school, and is trying to find his way. I’ve seen this kind of thing over and over and over again. It wasn’t all that interesting the first time, and repetition has not helped. Nothing about Miles’s story, outside of the spider-gang, is interesting because it is so familiar. That might not have bothered me so much (a lot of superhero films are filled with familiar beats) if it wasn’t so contrasted by the visual work, or the other segments of the plot. Miles and old Peter together have fine character interaction and are a lot of fun. Adding in Gwen, Spider-Noir, Peni, and Spider-Harm makes it all better. But there isn’t much of that. The ads gave the impression that the whole gang are in a major portion of the film, but half of their material, and most of their best moments, are in the trailers. There’s far more Miles brooding about his father than there is anime robot fighting of Spider-Ham with oversized weapons.

This is a routine (very routine) teen superhero original story, with the fantastic multiverse stuff tossed in, all designed beautifully. It makes for an enjoyable flick, and one of the better Spider-Man movies, that could have been more.

Dec 082018
three reels

Evil CEO Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed) retrieves three alien goo monsters from a comet, with a forth escaping. Drake plans to merge the creatures with humans in order to colonize space, but it is hard to find a compatible human. Enter obnoxious reporter Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy), who’d lost his career and fiancée due to a particularly stupid interview with Drake. He breaks into the lab with the goo, and is infected by one named Venom, and Eddie turns out to be a perfect host. Eddie gains superpowers but with the problem of having to reign in Venom who wants to eat people. Drake wants his creature back and Eddie wants to expose Drake, while Eddie’s ex (Michelle Williams) wants to help.

As far as unnecessary, empty, franchise, action cash-grabs of 2018 go, Venom isn’t bad. It’s better than Mission Impossible: Fallout, Pacific Rim: Uprising, Incredibles 2, The Meg, and Solo: A Star Wars Story, and not too far behind Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. It has the advantage of lowered expectations. Being the trial balloon for Sony’s Spider-Man-free Spider-verse—coming after two failed Spider-Man films and the character going to Marvel—hardly suggests a quality project, but also doesn’t damn it. And like Solo and Fallen Kingdom, it’s stupid and a little childish, but fun. And it doesn’t harm any previous films, so that’s something.

Venom gives us something unusual for a superhero film, a complete loser as our main character. We’ve had flawed (very flawed) protagonists before, but Eddie is an extra level of worthless. He’s dim and makes one horrible decision after another. And he isn’t a protagonist; things happen to him. The film knows all this and never tries to make us sympathetic toward him, which means we also don’t hate him. He’s a pathetic guy and I felt sorry for him. Tom Hardy does a solid job of selling Eddie as a nearly-likable sad sack.

And while the first third of the film works well enough, things take off once Eddie and Venom join together. And I’m not referring to the endless CGI battles. Yes those are fine—for ten years ago—although mostly I was left thinking of the old Spawn movie. All the tentacle flopping and guns firing and explosions are emotionally distant and none are exciting, but I’ve seen worse. No, what works is the tone shift. Someone at Sony (probably one of the 5 credited writers, as nothing says quality like 5 writers), worked out this whole thing was ridiculous so grim and gritty wasn’t going to cut it any more than action would, so he stuck in comedy. And the humor works. As a goof-ball buddy film, Venom is pretty amusing. There’s loads of slapstick, bickering, and swapping of who controls the body. As a drama, or as an action pic, stakes are important and things need to matter. As a silly comedy, it’s not a problem that plans make no sense and everything is insignificant.

It would have been nice to have a theme. With main characters including a crusading, journalist and a corporate head who is concerned with how humanity is destroying the Earth, it took real effort to have absolutely no message. But nope, there’s nothing under the hood. You get some uninspired, bloodless, CGI violence and some jokes. That’s it. And it’s enough for a matinée or a home viewing.

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