Films we didn’t need but got anyway

I finally caught up with Tom Hardy in Venom and it was quite enjoyable. Mixing elements of horror, comedy and superhero origin stories, the film didn’t push any interesting new boundaries. However, it held its own as an entertaining superhero movie in what is now a crowded field with critically acclaimed comic book sourced films.

Venom was one of several films that I dismissed as pointless when I first heard about them. Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse was another — really Sony? Desperately trying to get what money you could out of a franchise that was overdone and which was now being done better as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe? It is fair to say that my opinion was stupid. It was a bit stupid when looking at the final result of Venom (a Spider-Man free attempt to wring dollars out of the Spider-franchise), it was extraordinarily stupid when looking at the final result of Spiderverse — which was frankly brilliant.

Maybe I should just stop having opinions but perhaps two bad opinions is just a coincidence? Speaking of Spiderverse, two key people involved in that film were Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. As a duo they’ve certainly managed to work some magic into films that potentially were that promising on paper. Which leads me to a third film I was wrong about: Solo: A Star Wars Story.

Lord and Miller were initially hired to direct the Solo spinoff but months into production they were sacked by Lucasfilm and replaced by Ron Howard. To what extent the final product reflects Howard or Lord/Miller or an amalgam of both, who knows. Films in general and major commercial blockbusters, in particular, don’t really represent any one single creative vision.

Solo was a solid and entertaining Star Wars movie. It didn’t have the gravitas of Rogue One but it delivered a wry space opera with great performances from all the cast. Hampered by troubled production, unwise release date and that overarching sense of redundancy, the film didn’t do that well. Yet, it was worth having. It was entertaining and well made and Donald Glover’s Lando was worth the ticket price by himself.

But shouldn’t the studios be creating new properties? Shouldn’t they be generating new franchises or getting original films to the screen? I’m not saying they shouldn’t and I haven’t abandoned my desire for more heroic failures of new properties. However, I can fall into the trap that is the cult of originality. It is a trap and it can lead you to being too dismissive of not just movie studios mining franchises but also fan-fiction and also micro-genres where the framework of the story is strongly established.

Solo wasn’t that original in terms of setting and character and rested on some lazy moves (e.g. establishing sources for backstory trivia like how Solo got his surname, or blaster or what-parsecs-mean-in-context etc) but if you see “Star Wars” as just a mechanism to get a major movie studio to produce a space-opera heist western then it stops looking quite so derivative.

Venom was given a budget to convert the IP controlled by Sony into fungible currency but that only tells us about the financial motive for the film and beyond certain limits doesn’t predict what the qualities of the film will be. What we got was a dark buddy comedy, in which Tom Hardy’s Eddie Brock is sufficiently an obnoxious shithead to fit the character without being so much of a shithead that we’d be happy to see him die early of organ failure*. It’s nicely done, as is the symbiote’s later motives in the film (in which it concedes that in its own environment it is is a bit of a loser).

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse took this commercial subversion to another level, exploiting the frequently used comic-book crossover premise (lots of parallel world versions of superheroes!), to explore the absurdity of canon in superhero franchises, bring the Miles Morales Spider-man to the big screen and make a visually extraordinary animated film.

Yes, these are products of a cynical capitalist industry that aims to control our consumption by semi-monopolistic control of popular culture. That in itself doesn’t determine whether the end products are worth watching or not.

*[Viewers mileage on this point may very depending on your tolerance of shitty behaviour.]

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