Move over Deadpool, there’s a new Marvel antihero in town. But will this version of Venom finally do justice to Marvel’s head-chomping symbiote? Total Film meets the team behind the split-personality superhero epic set to shake up the genre and launch a n
TF talks Venom with tom Hardy and his co-stars.
Tom Hardy had a pretty great time at San Diego Comic-Con this year, and you don’t know the half of it. “I really enjoyed it,” he grins to Total Film when we catch up shortly afterwards. “I managed to get a mask on and walk around with my son, so it was great being with him to really enjoy it. I had a dad experience, as well as being there with Venom.
It was a double whammy of pleasure.”
So, what disguise does someone like Tom Hardy have to don to wander around the convention centre floor, then? “I had a few, actually,” he laughs. “I kept burning them out. I went through Yoda, Deadpool, Spider-Man. I may have done a stint as Venom.
I may have done a unicorn and a llama.” He breaks out into a chuckle. “It was really hot. I was trying to find something I could breathe through and see through as well, so I could keep eyes on a roaming young man. In the end, I just took it off, because I was like, ‘You know what? I can’t breathe.’ I walked around. No one really notices you anyway!”
If it’s shocking that someone as famous as the Oscar-nominated Hardy – who has The Dark Knight Rises, Inception and Mad Max: Fury Road on his CV – can stroll through the Comic-Con crowds unscathed, that might be about to change. If the raucous reception that the Venom footage received in Hall H is anything to go by, Hardy will be Comic-Con royalty if this new standalone superhero project delivers on its promise. “Because Venom is such a beloved character as well, that was big, to be in the presence of so many fans who love the character and the comics,” adds Hardy, whose son’s love of the character was a big influence on him taking the role.
In his professional capacity at Comic-Con, Hardy was in town with director Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland, Gangster Squad) and co-star Riz Ahmed to give the crowds a better taste of what to expect from their take on Venom. And when he told the crowds, “I think he’s the coolest Marvel superhero that there is,” the chorus of applause certainly didn’t disagree. Outrageously popular since his first full appearance in a 1988 Spider-Man comic, Venom rivals Deadpool in terms of Marvel fan-favourite antiheroes. Like Deadpool, Venom also had a lacklustre first big-screen appearance. Turning up as a second-fiddle villain in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3, Venom disappointed, and the director even admitted, “It’s a movie that just didn’t work very well.” Well, now he’s set to get his dues as the star of a totally standalone launch, with a comedy/ horror/action tone that reflects Venom’s own rampaging personality.
Talking to TF after Comic-Con, Fleischer beams about the experience of bringing a comic-book movie “to the most diehard comic-book fans in the world”. He explains, “When they first saw Venom’s full body, in all of his glory, people were screaming like they were at a rock concert.” Although, even when you’re rolling out some much-
anticipated footage to the hungry hordes, it can still be a daunting experience as Ahmed – rocking a fresh new peroxide blond do for an upcoming role in Sound Of Metal – can attest. “When the footage starts screening and the lights are off, then you can see the whole size of the crowd,” explains Ahmed. “So your awareness of the size of the audience only kicks in just when you’re at your most vulnerable, showing the footage. It’s a psychological trip for us.”
Psychological trip might be an apt way to describe Venom, given the character’s duelling dual personality and the out-there tone required for a character who leans on the anti side of antihero. In the same way that Deadpool took a sledgehammer to the fourth wall, Venom looks set to shred up superhero conventions. Although, if you’re not well versed in the character and think he looks like an evil Spider-Man, you’re not alone. Hardy thought the same thing. “I’m not going to lie, I just thought he was a black Spider-Man,” confesses Hardy, “I didn’t really read comic books, so my information was limited. But I was given loads of comics when I got involved. All the comics! And more importantly, I had my son as my guide… I was versed in the way of Venom by a 10-year-old. I consulted the oracle, there. And he would steer me on.”
The reason Venom does actually look like an evil Spider-Man is because he sort of is. In the comics (much as in
Spider-Man 3), Peter Parker bonds with a mysterious alien symbiote that acts as a sleek new suit, but he bins it off when he realises it has a mind of its own. The symbiote then merges with journalist Eddie Brock, and together they become Venom; the white spider symbol on Brock’s chest indicating the connection. He also has the same running/leaping/ swinging powers as Spidey, plus a predilection for head-chomping. The Spider-Man link (and the chest logo) have been jettisoned for this version of the origin story, as Tom Holland’s Spider-Man currently has one foot in the MCU, while Venom marks the launch of a new standalone universe for Sony’s Marvel Universe (though the door seems to be open for possible Spidey appearances in the future).
In the film’s origin story, Brock is a tenacious journo who sniffs out dodgy goings-on at the Life Foundation, which is led by billionaire Carlton Drake. With the aim of ensuring the survival of humanity, Drake believes that combining humans with symbiotes is key. And of course, during Brock’s investigation, he’ll end up playing a reluctant host… But here’s another thing that sets Venom apart from standard superhero fare: its cast. Alongside Hardy, the supporting cast is populated by a cool, offbeat, edgy array of actors that you wouldn’t necessarily associate with the genre: Riz Ahmed, Michelle Williams, Jenny Slate, Woody Harrelson.
“I mean, when you start your casting with Tom Hardy, it sets the bar as far as what kind of film you’re trying to make,” says Fleischer, and Ahmed concurs. “I think Tom being at the heart of it was a big pull for everyone,” says Ahmed. “I’ve known Tom for many years now. Our paths crossed really early in our careers, about 10 years ago. We always kept in touch periodically. It was great to reconnect with him.” And as you’d expect, Ahmed takes a very grounded approach to his character. “Honestly, I don’t see him as an evil megalomaniac,” he explains. “He doesn’t see himself that way. No one thinks they’re the bad guy. There’s a strong case for what Carlton is trying to achieve, which is trying to ensure that humanity has a future. And he’s looking at the big picture.” Ahmed didn’t base Drake on any of the pre-eminent industrialists of today, like Elon Musk or Richard Branson. “It’s more about bringing the Carlton Drake of the comic books up to date in a contemporary reality,” he says.
Another character being brought up to date here is Michelle Williams’ Anne Weying, a district attorney who has a relationship with Eddie. As with Ahmed, the Hardy-factor was a draw for Williams: “A huge part of the appeal of this project was to get to work with him,” she tells TF. But there was also something else she wanted to bring to the table. “I think Anne is a strong character, and very intelligent,” says Williams. “In this film I wanted her to be born of the #MeToo world, and I worked hard to convey that with her wardrobe and dialogue.”
Fleischer gushes about the experience of working with Williams, who’s more often seen in intense indie dramas than tentpole blockbusters. “She just brings so much empathy to her characters,” he says. “And especially within the dynamic between Anne and Eddie in our film. She grounds it so much.” Although, it may prove to be the case that there are actually three people in that relationship, once the symbiote and Brock become one…
The movie primarily takes the comics run Lethal Protector as its inspiration (the 1993 series was the first one headlined by Venom/Brock), and as that title suggests, he’s very much the antihero. It was suitable source material, because Spidey is set aside while Brock heads home to San Francisco. “It’s very much a pure Venom story, which is something that we’ve done with this film – try to make it as much Venom’s movie
‘I wAS VeRSeD In THe wAY oF Venom BY A 10-YeAR-oLD’ tom hardy
as we could. You know, we have limitations in the inception of the movie… And then also the title, Lethal Protector. At that point, Venom has achieved this antihero quality. But he’s not just a pure villain. As it says, a lethal protector. So he’s a violent vigilante… So he’s somewhere in between.”
It’s that combination of duality and intensity that makes Venom the right fit for Hardy. “Tom brings so much complexity, and I would say danger, to the roles and characters he plays,” continues Fleischer. “Those are two inherent qualities of Eddie Brock and Venom, the complexity and the menace. So getting to watch Tom live between these two characters who are sharing a body and having to navigate these two forces simultaneously was really impressive and fun to watch.”
That warring internal double-act was key to the attraction for Hardy. “For me, it was the multiple personalities, because to play that, on a kind of epic level, a superhero level, that was the big draw,” he confirms. “I was like, ‘This is a great character, because he’s a diverse antihero. He’s not a good guy, and he’s not a bad guy.’ He’s connected to this alien who’s not from this planet. They’ve got to figure out an ethical framework between the two of them, and neither of them are run-of-themill types. There’s this kind of Odd Couple [relationship] between the two of them. I enjoyed the Jekyll and Hyde nature of that, in a superhero world.”
And despite the out-of-this-world/ science-fiction element to Venom’s creation, it wasn’t entirely new territory for Hardy. “It picked up a little bit from, I suppose, Bronson and then the Kray twins [in Legend], and then doing that with superheroes,” muses Hardy. “It’s in a bigger space, an epic space, and double-teaming with myself and this big CGI, visual effects element, like a double act. So to play two characters, really drew me into it. And the dark humour and the ferocity and the psychological greyness, really, of the two. Because there’s no good and bad in it. It’s so grey… It’s a psychological adventure.” So, how do you go about creating these two sides of the antihero coin that will define this film?
In many ways, it all begins with the voice. Venom gives Hardy the opportunity to essay another distinctive accent after the “lovely, lovely voice” of Bane. “I like to just play, and be playful, really, and just have fun,” smiles Hardy, who looked back to Warrior (2011) when coming up with Brock’s voice, as well as adding “a little bit of Woody Allen neurosis in there”. “At some point,” he adds, “he’s going to become at one with this creature that’s living rent-free in his body, and come to terms with it. So he had to have a range in his voice.”
For Venom’s vocals, the actor had to reach even further. “Initially, when I read it, I was like, ‘He’s outlandish and big,’” explains Hardy. “I wanted to do something that would stand out, so that he was enigmatic and charismatic, as well as being dangerous and scary.” Hardy looked to musical influences, from rappers Redman and Busta Rhymes, to, surprisingly, godfather of soul James Brown. “There’s something electric and soulful, but at the same time, primal about those voices,” says Hardy.
“We wanted him to be this dark and menacing character, but we also wanted him to have a lot of personality, because he is the co-star of the film, if you will,” says Fleischer of finding a voice for Venom. “So I would say that it had to be distinctive. It had to look like it fit that massive, iconic character.”
The role didn’t require any performance capture from Hardy, because, frankly, the proportions don’t match. “It wasn’t motion capture, because the eyeballs on the creature, on Venom, and the mouth, they don’t match with my eyeballs and mouth,” laughs Hardy. “So the mo-cap
‘I LIKE TO JUST PLAY, AND BE PLAYFUL, AND HAVE FUN’ TOM HARDY
treatment went out of the window pretty quickly. So facially, your eyes and teeth and tongue are not going to match with this. And you need a 7ft-tall basketball player in a Lycra suit for the physical shots.” He describes the combination of stunts, practical effects and VFX wizardry as “mental sudoku”, although, that’s not the only mindtwister when it comes to making a Venom movie a reality…
Tone IT UP
When it comes to any antihero, tone is key. As soon as a not-entirely-straight arrow is loosed, conventions have to be upended. Hardy says of Venom that “he’ll do whatever he has to do to get to [his] goal”, so don’t expect him to abide by any arbitrary rules. “I think it’s an interesting mix of tones, actually,” adds Ahmed of the vibe of the film. “It walks that fine line. It’s that mixture between horror and comedy we saw in [Fleischer’s] Zombieland that worked so well.” Like the shapeshifting antihero, the tone is set to twist and leap all over the place. The first trailer (which controversially didn’t actually feature Venom; see left) played more like a horror movie, while the latest brought the dark comedy and head-chomping to the fore.
Hardy cites some ’80s classics as touchpoints. “I think, you know, we’ve taken inspiration from An American Werewolf In London. The tonality of that, and the humour in An American Werewolf In London, and the violence and aggression. I remember, also, when
I was a kid, the original Ghostbusters.
I’d also think about Beverly Hills Cop… God, I’m giving away my age. Well, I remember it from the ’80s. I don’t know if it’s dated now, but there was a certain edginess to the comedy as well.” Not forgetting, there’s also another big genre Venom has to deliver on…
While Hollywood studios have a reputation for playing it safe, recent comic-book movies have been exhibiting more edge. The Dark Knight trilogy didn’t pander to a younger audience at all, but recent spin-off movies in the genre like Deadpool and Logan have gone ‘hard R’ on the violence and swearing. At the time of writing, Venom was yet to be classified. “We’re curious to see where it’ll land,” says Fleischer. “But we pushed the envelope as far as we possibly could in terms of just making it the most true-to-the-comics version of the film that we could. He’s a character that goes around biting people’s heads off and eating brains. So we tried to respect that as much as we could.”
Based on what’s been filmed, Hardy could see the rating going either way. “You want to reach as big an audience as possible with one of these movies,
because they’re good fun,” ponders Hardy. “My son steered me onto Venom. There would be things I would probably cover his eyes for. It depends how sensitive a nine-year-old’s parents are. It’s not my place to say. I don’t really know what [rating] they’re going to give it. But, it can pivot to either/or, if that makes sense. The IP lends itself to gore, and it also lends itself to a black-comedy action-thriller, as well.”
Whatever happens, expect a lot of symbiote-on-symbiote action, as Eddie Brock’s not the only human vessel playing host here. The footage shown at Comic-Con suggests Ahmed’s Drake merges with a symbiote to become Riot, one of Venom’s most popular adversaries in the comics, although Ahmed’s keeping schtum for now. Tight-lipped throughout our interview, Ahmed pleads the fifth, before cryptically adding, “It’s certainly a film where all the characters, at least emotionally, have to face themselves and make decisions about what kind of person they want to be.”
Fleischer is similarly secretive, though he teases a little more. “Without going into too much detail, we tried to make [the other symbiotes] look as cool, and evoke the comics as much as possible,” he explains. “With Riot, who is our featured symbiote, there’s some distinctive qualities to his character from the comics that we definitely channelled. The look of his eyes, his hands, his colour, and his bearing are unique from Venom. So we made sure that he stands out, and try to make him look as close to the comics as we could.”
Fleischer has also confirmed, “There are other villains in the movie too – we’re definitely planning a big world with these characters.” Given that Fleischer’s Zombieland star Woody Harrelson is also set to show up in an undisclosed role, can we expect him to play someone significant in the Venom-verse? “I think it’ll be really fun for fans to go see the movie and see for themselves,” is all Fleischer will offer on that front. And, there’s even a possibility – given the history of the comics – that Anne Weying could merge with the symbiote in the future. “She-Venom would be a dream come true,” exclaims Michelle Williams when TF puts the possibility to her.
While the groundwork is clearly being laid for a larger Venom-verse, and both Fleischer and Hardy have admitted it’d be cool to see Venom go head-tohead with Tom Holland’s Spider-Man, it seems that, for now, everyone is taking it slowly, moving in human steps rather than symbiote leaps. “We definitely are thinking about this world as a big evolving world, and we want it to have the option of going in different directions,” says Fleischer, teasing. “You’ll have to see what groundwork has been laid.” Though, he is firm that this is very much a standalone. “This movie’s just all about Venom. So that’s what we’re focused on. It’s introducing Eddie and Venom. And then as to where it goes from there? We’ll have to see...”
One thing’s for sure: Hardy’s certainly up for a revisit. “I’m open to whatever you want to do with it,” he says. “We’ve signed up for three of them. So it’s very much an open case. We’ll see what people’s responses are to it. I think it’s an awesome character. I love playing both of them. It’s an amuse-bouche, and for Sony, it’s the Venom-verse launched in isolation, as it were. We all prepped for it to be a standalone universe. So whatever Sony want to attach to it at a later date, it’s a fulcrum piece… But let’s see what happens when it lands.”
Another certainty for now is that whatever happens, post-Venom, Hardy will have an even bigger presence at Comic-Con than he does now, given that he’s one of a select group of actors (which also includes Michael Keaton, Ben Affleck and Ryan Reynolds) who have played characters from both the DC and Marvel stables. “I’m quite mercenary,” he laughs of his comic allegiances. “I’m not a fully paid-up member to any group. It’s really awesome to have played in both camps. It’s a real honour. And I got really cool ones. I got Bane and Venom, and I’ve got Mad Max as well. I’ve got some nice cosplay under my belt, some cosplay scalp, as it were…” Perfect for going incognito at Comic-Con.
‘we ARe THInkIng ABoUT THIS AS A BIg eVoLVIng woRLD’ ruben Fleischer