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Topher Grace’s Venom Set the Bar

Low. The actor’s portrayal of the notorious comic book villain in Sam Raimi’s ‘Spider-Man 3’ set the bar extremely low.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

What we need more of is science. So for all its stumbles, all its bloat, all its catastrophic miscasting, give Sam Raimi’s woebegone 2007 blockbuster Spider-Man 3 credit for describing the Venom phenomenon in simple biological terms anyone can understand. A meteor falls to earth. A gross black slime oozes out. It gloms onto Peter Parker, the lovable doofus otherwise known as Spider-Man, and wraps him up tight in a new black suit, which seems ominous. But before he turns fully super-evil, Parker hands off a slime sample to a scientist buddy of his. The scientist runs some tests. And this, hand to god, is what he sees:

Biologically speaking, Venom is a big ol’ dark cell that beats up all your existing cells. This explains a lot. It does not, however, explain how Topher Grace got cast as a vicious extraterrestrial supervillain in the first place.

On Friday, Venom, an extra-dark and slimy and body-horror-oriented spin on the feared/beloved Marvel character, will hit theaters, with Tom Hardy in [alien hiss] the titular role. How’s the PR campaign going? The Telegraph headline “Tom Hardy: ‘My favourite 40 minutes of Venom were cut from the film,’” that’s how it’s going. (Lady Gaga fans are also allegedly writing mean fake reviews so as to confer greater internet favor on A Star Is Born, as though that’s even possible.) But whatever this movie’s fate commercially or culturally, Hardy will surely be a vast improvement over the last guy who tried to fill this particular suit.

Spider-Man 3 was a huge success ($891 million worldwide!) that also marked, improbably but definitively, the ignoble end of an era. When the original Spider-Man debuted in 2002, the skittish and perpetually baby-faced Tobey Maguire seemed an odd fit to don the mask, but he flourished under Raimi’s whimsical and visceral direction, and 2004’s Spider-Man 2 kept that same off-kilter energy. But Round 3, released just a year before Iron Man kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe in ’08, was a debacle. It is nearly two and a half hours long, for one thing. There are too many villains (including a muted Thomas Haden Church as Sandman, and James Franco still kicking around as the vengeful New Goblin). Too many subplots (Kirsten Dunst, as Parker’s long-suffering girlfriend Mary Jane, fares poorly on Broadway). And too much of this fella:

Topher Grace spends most of the film playing plain old Eddie Brock, cocky new freelance photographer for the Daily Bugle, one of Spider-Man 3’s innumerable diversions. (Other topics include Parker’s botched proposal to Mary Jane, what really happened the night his Uncle Ben died, and a lengthy scene where we watch James Franco try and fail to flip an omelette whilst dancing to Chubby Checker’s “The Twist.”) Eventually, Brock fakes an exclusive Spider-Man photo, gets fired and disgraced at Evil Parker’s behest, and vows revenge, but by then Spidey’s got much bigger problems, and so do his (at this point) long-suffering fans.

Venom first showed up in the comics in 1988 as an “alien symbiote” who functioned, essentially, as Spider-Man’s evil twin, and one of the character’s more unsettling and gruesome adversaries overall. Here, consequently, we get to watch an increasingly Venom-ized Tobey Maguire act mean, and cocky, and suave in an enraged and frankly hilarious sort of way. His hair takes on the bangs-heavy aspect of a My Chemical Romance fan. He yells at his landlord, and then flirts with his landlord’s daughter while she feeds him cookies. He struts malevolently down the street to the strains of James Brown’s “People Get Up and Drive Your Funky Soul” as women recoil in disgust. (For maximum discomfort, here is what that scene looks like with no soundtrack.) And when Mary Jane is reduced to working as a singing waitress in a jazz club, he humiliates her by showing up with a new paramour (Bryce Dallas Howard as Gwen Stacy, driving subplot no. 255) and launching into the dumbest Evil Dance Sequence of all time.

All of this is corny and terribly long-winded, but not quite fatal. For an 11-year-old superhero movie, Spider-Man 3’s fight scenes and CGI aren’t terribly dated: Raimi’s slapstick-ballet style, undercut by just a dash of Evil Dead brutality, has aged well, from Franco’s bitchin’ hoverboard to Sandman’s savage subway brawl. It takes a very, very long time for Spider-Man to get wise and ditch the black suit and drag this movie toward its abrupt Time to Save Mary Jane Again climax, but then the alien ooze just gloms onto poor Eddie Brock instead and beats up all his cells, and the mercifully brief but genuinely terrible portion of this movie begins.

The teeth are supposed to be scary; so is the voice. One unexpected advantage Tobey Maguire held over, say, Christian Bale is that he never felt obliged to get all gruff and throaty just because he was wearing athleisure. But listening to Grace voice a bloodthirsty alien symbiote like he was back on That ’70s Show is just painful. (He also refers to himself as I instead of we, always the coolest and creepiest thing about Venom.) His big final fight with Spider-Man and New Goblin is 80 percent special effects and stuntmen, of course, but the lethal goofiness here is all the more disturbing for its brevity.

To repeat, Spider-Man 3 made an ungodly pile of money. But Raimi, evoking a rushed release schedule and “creative integrity,” balked on making a fourth movie, and in 2012 the series rebooted with Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone instead. How has this first film iteration of a classic comic book villain aged? The summer 2018 headline Spider-Man 3’s Topher Grace Isn’t Sure Why He Got The Role Of Venom,” that’s how. Grace is, to his credit, vocally excited about Tom Hardy’s version, which is in part self-preservation, as Tom could definitely beat up all of Topher’s cells with no need for magnification. Though that was always the problem in the first place. Hardy’s Venom is unlikely to change the course of comic book–movie history—Lady Gaga’s Little Monsters will likely prove a more formidable opponent. But in the modern, Marvel-saturated age, we’re at least a little more careful about just handing out these costumes to anybody. Venom deserved better. Or as Venom would put it, we deserved better.