Venom and the Rotten Tomatoes Problem
Let's start things off by admitting that an apple is an apple. Venom is not a good movie. The reasons are many and have been gone over by literally hundreds of reviewers but the bottom line is that Venom is not a good film. The thing is, the public enjoys it. My social media feed has been awash with people saying something to the tune of "Well it's not good but I had fun.". And that's fair. For all its problems as a film, it isn't a trash fire the way that 2003's Hulk or Catwoman was. But it's stirred up a debate that I've seen over and over again a few times in the last couple of years: that critics are either too harsh or out of touch. Well, I want to explore that because I feel that it is also a fair conversation to have and I find myself in a rather unique position to have it. I make no secret that I am an unabashed fanboy about almost all the nerdy stuff around me. The past decade has been a golden era for me as I could jump from one IP to another with glee to see what new surprising and astounding directions the things I enjoyed as a younger man grew into. But I also work as a film critic and so I've had to pull apart the very things that bring me so much joy. So let's get into it. Why is there such a massive difference between critics and fans with regards to Venom (as a microcosm for the wider issues) and are critics unduly or unfairly harsh in their assessments?
As of writing Venom sits at a 21% rating on Rotten Tomatoes for critics but an 89% rating among fans. This is by no means the first time something like this has happened but recent examples are easier to work with. Critics overwhelmingly agree that while Tom Hardy is incredibly good on screen and in his conversations with himself the rest of the cast is poorly directed, the scripting is weak, the tone and pacing of the film are all over the place and there are major aspects of character and plot that simply do not make sense. The quick way of putting this view to words is "It feels like they mashed together two versions of the same film and then cut out a third of the run time" which, if reports of executive meddling are true, may actually be what happened. And I agree. I was confused throughout the film as to why characters acted in certain ways, what the villain's plan was or why/how literally anything I was watching was happening. The first act goes a long way to set up Eddie Brock but from the point of the 2nd act to the end the film moves at a lightning pace. Eddie Brock being glib about a SWAT team trying to arrest him turns into an action scene that looks like it came out of a horror movie. The film is all over the place.
The fan reviews find something different to agree upon. Tom Hardy carries the film on his shoulders, the supporting cast does the best they can with the material given, Venom looks like Venom, the humor in the film is charmingly goofy as are the various one-liners. If this movie had come out in 2005 it would have made a fantastic comic book film. And again, that's fair. Tom Hardy is incredibly fun to watch as is a realistic looking Venom that stays true to his comic book appearance. Riz Ahmed is actually pretty good in the first act but then given very little to work with going forward but he makes the most of it. Venom dropping little commentary lines are indeed quite funny and there is a lot of fun to be had in this movie. But as a critic, that's not my job.
When you go to Rotten Tomatoes and look at the early reviews they are written by professional critics. As such, we have a job to do. To measure of the film on its use of artistic devices within its medium to convey whatever it's trying to convey. A good horror film should be scary, a good comedy should be funny, etc. Importantly, it is also our job to see how inventively a film does these things. Does a horror film disturb or frighten in unexpected or unique ways? Is the comedy film just fart jokes? We need to also consider when a film was made. Modern romance films bear almost no resemblance to those made twenty years ago and for good reason. There's a lot to consider and a lot of different ways elements can be put together, expanded or even omitted that change how we react to any work of film. My job as a critic is to judge a film based on those elements regardless of how much I might enjoy a single aspect of it.
It's really cool to watch Venom swinging around and smashing through things while wanting to eat people and if that's all you wanted/ why you had fun, so be it. You are perfectly valid in your enjoyment of that and no critic has the right to say otherwise. Michael Bay and Mathew Perry both still have careers because their films are enjoyable to rather large groups of people. But as a critic, that's just not good enough. Venom would have been a pretty great comic book movie in 2005 but in 2018 we've seen just how incredible super hero films can be and the quality of the past isn't the quality of today.
But now we hit another question: are critics being overzealous? Is a messy but otherwise enjoyable film being unduly vilified? Are critics giving 2's to what deserves a 5? Personally, I don't think so. I believe that Venom is a mess of a film and it's only redeeming quality is Tom Hardy's stellar performance. Because literally nothing in the film makes sense. Observe:
How is it that Jamison's team was able to retrieve four symbiotes from a comet with millions? Why do the symbiotes devour their hosts except for "ideal ones"? Why is Riot able to switch so easily between hosts if symbiotes require an ideal host? Why is Riot able to produce weapons but Venom isn't? Why does Venom care about Eddie's love life? Why is Venom okay with sharing Eddie's body when at first he repeatedly claimed the body was his? Why does Venom seem to need to eat living things but later wants chocolate and tater-tots (it's explained in the comics but never in the film)? If Eddie is an ideal host why is Venom devouring him? What do symbiotes eat in space? If Drake is obsessed with human beings surviving as a species why is he so ready to bring millions of symbiotes to the planet when he knows through Riot that they want to eat all the humans? Why does Drake think that a proper symbiote/human blending would let us colonize space? Why does Venom decide he likes humanity? Wouldn't Dan want to tell literally everyone in the medical community about this alien parasite? Are there no cameras in the MRI room that would have spotted the alien Venom? How does Drake manage to blow up 30 odd major roadways in San Francisco and face no questions or consequences? Why is Eddie Brock not a bigger cult hero for his reporting on and asking tough questions about/to people in power? If what Eddie eats affects Venom, does Venom eating people affect Eddie? If Riot has total control over whomever he possesses, why is he trying to get to Drake in the United States when he could just possess any astronaut anywhere in the world that's closer and then take over the ship? What makes Venom a loser amongst his own kind? Why is a "loser" symbiote like Venom able to go toe to toe with Riot? Why is Anne even in this film? If Venom is supposed to be a fun romp movie why are scenes like the SWAT fight or the first full suit up of Venom shot and directly like they came from a horror movie? If Venom is supposed to be a darker breed of comic book adaptation that throws the heroics out the window why do we have slapstick physical comedy and lines like: 'He's got shit you ain't ever seen.' that is meant to evoke a laugh?
Now, that doesn't mean that critics haven't done that in the past or even currently for other films. Clickbait and over exaggeration generate a lot of clicks and ad revenue. Careers and even whole businesses have been built upon tearing down what isn't terribly flawed through nitpicking and magnification of faults. One of the best examples of this is The Matrix.
My point is that we need to understand and measure these issues on a case by case basis. Popular films aren't necessarily good films, and the same is true in the other direction. What matters is that an understanding exists. As a comic book fan who grew up thinking the symbiote was the coolest thing ever when watching the 90's cartoon, I enjoyed Venom as a turn your brain off and just look at a good rendition of that character. But as a critic? I can't. To do so would run entirely counter to the precepts of my job. And I hope we can understand that.