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American films

Tom Hardy stars in new Spider-Man spin-off. Venom director talks about the anti-hero and building a universe

Hardy’s character transforms into a shape-shifter called Venom in the Zombieland director’s attempt to expand the Marvel Universe with a non superhero lead role

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 September, 2018, 10:03am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 September, 2018, 10:03am

In an edit bay on the Sony Pictures lot, Ruben Fleischer looks outwardly calm but is clearly feeling some heat. At 43, the director is just weeks away from the release of the biggest film of his career: the dark comic-book movie Venom, which Sony is banking on to launch a series of interconnected films that will expand on the world of the studio’s comic-book star, Spider-Man.

“Every time, you’re nervous,” says Fleischer, who directed Zombieland, 30 Minutes or Less and Gangster Squad. “But this is the most predominant film genre so you’re under a bigger magnifying glass. That is a new experience for me.”

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Venom, in Hong Kong cinemas from October 4 (and US cinemas from October 5), stars Tom Hardy as Eddie Brock, a journalist whose body becomes host to a bloodthirsty alien life form known as a symbiote, transforming him into the shape-shifting Venom.

In the comics, Venom was originally introduced as an enemy of Spider-Man before evolving into a kind of vigilante anti-hero. (Topher Grace played the character in 2007’s Spider-Man 3.) But Venom wipes the slate clean with a different origin story. A hybrid of man-monster, Venom falls into the grey area between do-gooder and villain, with Brock’s urge to defend the innocent counterpoised with the symbiote’s penchant for biting off heads.

Beyond that basic description, plot details about Venom – co-starring Michelle Williams and Riz Ahmed – have been kept under wraps. “It’s a big-stakes action film, so the goal probably involves saving something,” says Fleischer.

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Asked about fan speculation over whether Spider-Man himself will appear in the film, Fleischer stays quiet. “I honestly don’t know what I’m allowed to say,” he says. “I mean, I know the answer – I’ve seen the movie. But I don’t want to get in trouble for saying something I’m not supposed to.”

Earlier superhero films like The Dark Knight trilogy, Deadpool and Logan have pushed the genre into grittier, more adult territory. But Fleischer says his touchstones for Venom were more along the lines of early 1980s horror films such as An American Werewolf in London and buddy comedies like 48 Hrs and Midnight Run.

“The symbiote bonds early on with Eddie and it’s kind of like The Odd Couple, but instead of sharing a flat, they share a body,” Fleischer explains. “The fun of the movie is the dynamic between them, with Eddie trying to rein in this basically unbridled id and find a balance with him. That theme of duality and trying to control your id – I think that’s what Tom and I responded to in terms of why this character is unique and special.”

Hardy – who made an earlier foray into the comic-book realm as the villain Bane in 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises – performed the dialogue of both Brock and the symbiote, with the alien’s lines, modulated to sound more sinister, fed back into his ear on the set during scenes.

“I think Tom is going to surprise a lot of people with his performance in this movie,” says Fleischer. “It’s just a little different than we’re used to seeing him. There’s no mask in front of his face. He’s not playing a period. He’s just playing a contemporary guy. I think it’s just a little more of Tom than people have seen in a little bit.”

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In a landscape saturated with comic-book films, Fleischer is hoping that Venom – a combination of action, horror and comedy, with a level of violence that the director says will be “pushed to the hilt” (the film is as-yet unrated) – will stand apart. In its marketing campaign, Sony plays up the film’s against-the-grain quality with the tagline, “The world has enough superheroes.”

“I feel like the casting, the aesthetic and the character himself all combine to make something that just feels different,” says Fleischer. “Tonally it doesn’t remind you of other movies. It doesn’t feel like we just tried to do what everyone else is doing …. The DC universe is so aggressively dark and the Marvel universe has become so light. It was kind of exciting to craft something that just felt a little bit more real and grounded and in our world.”

Disney may control the characters of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, most notably the Avengers, but Sony’s licensing agreement with Marvel includes the rights to some 900 characters. The studio hopes that Venom will help set the table for its own comic-book cinematic universe, with Spider-Man at the centre of an ever-expanding web of films featuring characters like Morbius and Black Cat.

“I got really lucky because Venom is I think truly one of the coolest of the characters, and it’s the opportunity to launch a whole new world as opposed to just being plugged into a pre-existing one,” says Fleischer.

How exactly that new world might evolve, though, remains to be seen.

“As to where it goes from here and what worlds it intersects with, I think that remains to be written,” says Fleischer. “Ultimately it comes down to the studio’s deals with the different characters and I don’t really know the specifics of all that. I’m a pawn on that board. I’m one of the pieces.”

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“My responsibility is honestly just to make this movie the best I can. You just want people to like what you make and for it to be appreciated.”

But beyond delivering a great film to the box office gods, Fleischer does have one more modest wish. “My hope is that it’s going to be a big Halloween costume this year for kids,” he says. “A Venom Halloween mask is such a winner.”