Venom has been a polarizing movie force ever since it was first announced. Sure, the character is massively popular and responsible for one of the greatest turns in Spider-Man comic history, but details about the long-awaited adaptation slowly turned it into a harder sell. It will have little to nothing to do with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, even though they and Sony Pictures still share custody rights to Spider-Man films.
Much like Wolverine before the lauded Logan dropped last year, Venom's PG-13 rating felt like a missed opportunity for one of comics' most notoriously grisly characters. The Venom suit, missing its iconic white spider chest and back emblems, looks like spit-up frosting with veins. The jokes almost all fall flat ("Like a turd. In the wind.") And even actors the likes of Hardy, Ahmed, and Michelle Williams can't even pronounce the word "symbiote" right. A disappointing idea on paper shaping up to be an even more disappointing finished product is a recurring theme in 2018, but as I've watched every trailer and kept up with every new development, one thought always comes to mind: "This movie looks a lot like Upgrade."
After a premiere at this year's past South By Southwest, Upgrade leaped into theaters this past summer with science fiction on its mind and gore in its heart. It follows mechanic Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Greene), who lives in a future where ever-evolving tech is making his job more and more obsolete to people who aren't vintage collectors. Grey and his tech sector wife Asha wind up in a car crash while on the way home from a potentially huge car sale; she's shot in the stomach and left to die, he has his spine severed and is left to pick up the pieces of his life as a quadriplegic.
Eddie Brock in Venom, meanwhile, is a no-nonsense reporter who wants the scoop on the seedy Los Angeles tech sector, led by Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), who is experimenting with alien symbiotes as a cure-all for the planet's ills. Brock is unwittingly infected with one, which quickly takes over his body and transforms into the Venom that we all know and love. The person Grey sold the vintage car to in Upgrade just so happens to be Eron Keen, the head of a tech company called Vessel that has been working on some groundbreaking tech: a tiny robot called STEM that can be implanted into the spine, essentially giving you remote control over your body. Grey accepts but quickly realizes things are moving faster when STEM begins talking to him, egging an already grief-stricken Grey to search for his wife's killers. In moments of stress, Grey can even turn control of his body over to STEM, who fights with bloody efficiency and renders Grey a passenger in his own body, much like the Venom symbiote renders Eddie...at first.
Starting to see the pattern here? I couldn't help but feel that I'd already seen the best version of the Venom story in the form of Upgrade. Its story paid more than lip service to a satire of real-life science and technology and indulged in the kind of Hard R violence you would expect to see in an exploitation movie. It's a joy to see Marshall-Greene react to his body moving on its own and especially jarring when the first action scene inside of one of the killer's houses leads to a severe cut smile that would even make the Joker blush. The dark humor of Grey reacting to both his overwhelming situation and STEM's constant invasion of privacy - a direct parallel to the way Eddie and the Venom symbiote communicate - feels natural instead of stilted. There's an almost Black Mirror or Twilight Zone quality to the film's balance of dark humor and even darker social ambitions that doesn't hold up all the way through but showed more promise in its first half than most of Venom is sure to show in its entire 2+ hour run time.
It feels unfair to make the comparison if only because Venom is a movie I haven't seen yet. Early press and trailers have forced my foot into my mouth before and I still hold a lot of love for the entire symbiote family. Venom also isn't working toward the same lofty ambitions as Upgrade; not every thrill ride needs to be cerebral. But the footage we have is the footage we have, and Venom is shaping up to be yet another "grown-up" superhero adaptation that went tame and missed the mark. I won't be surprised when/if Upgrade proves itself a sharper story better told when Venom finally drops in theaters this Friday.