There are good movies, there are bad movies, there are really bad movies, and what drives the people in Hollywood crazy is that it’s hard to figure out the difference. Over the course of film history, hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars have been spent on projects that turned out so terribly you can’t understand how anyone thought they were a good idea in the first place. And then there are projects that no one has any confidence in, which appear doomed from the very first day filming starts, and they turn out to be inexplicable hits.
This edition of KIMT’s Weekend Throwdown is going to examine this paradox with a film that began with the highest of hopes and ended in a career-altering catastrophe and another film that was born out of bloodless corporate bookkeeping and grew close to flirting with genuine artistic ambition. It’s “Catwoman” (2004) vs. “Venom” (2018) in a contest between “What were they thinking?” and “Why didn’t they think a little harder?”
Seriously, how did no one notice that cat-hat makes her look like something from an SNL Coneheads skit?
It’s hard to recall now but as recently as the late 90s, super-hero movies were not thing anyone cared about. In 1997, it had been ten years since “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace” had killed that franchise and the critical and commercial bombs that were “Batman and Robin” and “Steel” seemed to signify the end of comic book cinema as we had known it. And that era had come and gone without Marvel Comics making a single movie that wasn’t an embarrassment. Over the course of almost 20 years, there had been maybe three legitimately good mainstream super-hero flicks made in Hollywood and by the end of 1997, it looked like it might be another 20 years before anyone even tried to make another.
Then Wesley Snipes, at probably the peak of his career, produced and starred in “Blade” (1998). It wasn’t really a super-hero flick but its comic book origins couldn’t be denied and its success got the wheels turning again. Two years later, the critically lauded hit “X-Men” proved the super-hero genre still had life in it and the global mega-success “Spider-Man” came two years after that, sending everyone in the movie business scrambling to get their own comic book project.
I mean, is she supposed to be keeping her civilian clothes under that thing?
And Warner Brothers, owners of DC Comics and the people who had owned super-hero cinema in America up to that point, decided to get back in the game. Not with Batman, though. And not with Superman. No, they decided their first super-hero movie in seven years would be about a Batman super-villain, Catwoman. That seems like a really dumb choice now but it actually made all the sense in the world back then because they managed to sign Halle Berry to star in it. At the time, Berry was not only coming off an Oscar-winning performance in “Monster’s Ball” (2001) but had already been in two X-Men movies and was praised for redefining the “Bond girl” for the 21st century in “Die Another Day” (2002).
Take one of the biggest movie stars on the planet, pair her with a popular anti-hero from both the comics and the old Batman TV show, and wrap it all up in a story of female empowerment? It must have seemed like a no-brainer but it turned into a brainless disaster.
Yeah, this is the way an "empowered" woman would want to dress.
“Catwoman” (2004) is truly one of the worst professionally made films you could ever see. It was a massive failure at the box office and was so harshly trashed by critics and moviegoers alike, it’s a miracle the aftermath of its implosion didn’t suck in the plans for Christopher Nolan to reboot the Batman franchise. To start with, this movie isn’t even about the Catwoman we all know and love. Badass, whip-wielding jewel thief Selena Kyle is nowhere to be found. Instead, we get Patience Phillips (Halle Berry). A clumsy and timid ad designer at a cosmetics company, Patience discovers her employers are producing toxic makeup. She gets killed and revived by the power of cat magic, visits an old cat lady to learn she’s the inheritor of ancient cat powers, dons the worst costume in the history of super-hero movies (and yeah, I’m counting the 1990s Captain America flick where Cap’s outfit came with fake plastic ears), and saves the day through a combination of hilariously awful CGI special effects and some of the most atrocious fight choreography to ever appear on screen. There were more convincing action scenes with the Sleestak on the 1970s “Land of the Lost” TV show.
I mean…this is self-consciously a film trumpeting itself as a champion of female empowerment and its plot hinges on TOXIC MAKEUP? Where its star and her comedic sidekick don’t pass the Bechdel Test because they never have a discussion that DOESN’T involve a guy? Where Patience’s expression of her newborn confidence and feminine agency is banging some dude she barely knows? AAAGGGGHHHH!!!!
"I now bestow upon you...the power of THE MAGIC HAIRBALL!!!"
Virtually nothing in this film makes sense. From the comedic sidekick played by Alex Borstein being given so much screen time it’s like they hoped to launch her into her own spinoff, to the audience knowing who the real bad guy is about 90 minutes before Catwoman figures it out, to a moronic murder frame up which only works if you’ve never seen an episode of any of the CSI TV shows, to the fact that neither Berry nor Sharon Stone apparently took even one martial arts class to get ready for their climactic battle to end the film, “Catwoman” is a non-stop parade of stupidity.
And let me single out the director, some French visual effects guy named “Pitof,” for an extra helping of abuse. This is perhaps the most annoyingly directed movie I’ve ever seen. If it had included just one more CGI tracking shot through the city, I would have grabbed my rifle and climbed into the nearest clock tower. He makes Halle Berry, one of the most arousing women who ever lived in 2004, look about as appealing as a cheap Ukrainian sex doll and makes this 104 minute movie feel like a three hour slog.
There have been some epically awful comic book movies. “Catwoman” is absolutely in the discussion for worst of the bunch and by all rights, “Venom” should have joined right in. Years and years ago, Sony Pictures signed a contract with Marvel for the movie rights to Spider-Man and hundreds of characters that have appeared in his comics. However, Sony’s last three attempts at making Spider-Man movies were such thoroughgoing disappointments, they literally gave the character back to Marvel. Essentially, Sony publicly announced “We stink so bad at making Spider-Man movies, we don’t want to even try any more. Here, Marvel, you make Spider-Man movies from now on.”
"Is it hot in here or am I just going through male menopause?"
But while they gave back Spider-Man, Sony kept the rights to those hundreds of other characters and planned to make motion pictures about them. It’s like Warner Brothers deciding to stop making Batman movies but keep on making films starring The Penguin, Doctor Double X, and The Ten-Eyed Man. Why? Not because anyone at Sony cares about those characters or believes any of them deserve their own movie. It’s because the people who run Sony can’t conceive of a movie studio that does something besides exploit pre-existing intellectual property.
And so, Sony Pictures mandated the creation of a movie about the greatest Spider-Man villain of the 1990s. They didn’t have a story that anyone wanted to tell. They didn’t have a big star for whom it could be used as a vehicle. They had a spot in a release schedule determined years ago that needed a movie and they decided “Venom” would have to fill that spot. That is the classic Hollywood formula for a soulless piece of crap.
But somewhere and somehow, something incredible happened. “Venom” isn’t bad. In fact, parts of it are actually quite good, which might be one of the most astonishing things to happen in motion pictures in a very long while. Basically everything that makes Venom an interesting and entertaining character flows out of his villainous relationship with Spider-Man, which had to be entirely removed from this film. It’s like making a movie about Professor Moriarty that had to pretend Sherlock Holmes doesn’t exist. And the people behind “Venom,” defying all possible expectations, managed to pull it off.
"STOP CALLING ME TOPHER!!!!"
Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) is an aggressive and arrogant investigative reporter who screws up a big interview with a high-tech industrialist (Riz Ahmed) and loses his job, his fiancée (Michelle Williams), and his hope for the future. After descending into a pit of self-loathing and despair, Eddie gets another chance when one of the industrialist’s scientists asks Eddie to help blow lid off deadly experiments involving alien symbiotes. One of the symbiotes winds up bonding with Eddie and he has to deal with its disturbing powers and more disturbing taste for human flesh while trying to avoid being captured by the industrialist’s hired goons.
To be honest, there are parts of “Venom” that range from meh to outright bad and they are all the parts where it tries to be a traditional super-hero movie. The last 15 minutes or so are rather jarring because it’s like the filmmakers got to that point and realized “Damn! We need a super-hero ending!” and pulled something straight out of their butts. Even with that, however, the action scenes are fairly well executed and balanced out with enough humor to keep the story humming along.
What elevates “Venom” are the elements running through it that are left over from an early stage in its development. It is clear when you watch this film that, at some point, someone got a hold of it and tried to make something really interesting out of it. Whoever it was, perhaps they were inspired by the success of “Deadpool” but it’s obvious there once plans to make “Venom” into R-rated body horror flick, like John Carpenter’s “The Thing” (1982). I don’t know how long those intentions lasted before Sony chickened out and went back to making a PG-13 super-hero movie, but the bits left behind that directly confront the terrifying prospect of an alien creature taking over your body and making you into a monster unite with Tom Hardy’s sweaty and unhinged performance to make something completely watchable and engaging.
I admit it. I have no idea what's supposed to be going on here.
To put it in terms of contemporary super-hero cinema, “Venom” probably isn’t as good as “Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018) or “Doctor Strange” (2016) but it’s probably better than “Captain America: The First Avenger” (2011), either of the first two Thor movies, or any DC movie made in the last 20 years besides “Wonder Woman” (2017).
“Venom” spanks “Catwoman” to win this Throwdown. All the proof of that is in how the two movies handle the exact same cliché. In both, the heroes have noisy next door neighbors they have to tolerate when they are normal. When they get their powers, however, they both go over and get them to shut up. But while “Venom” treats it like the one-off joke it deserves to be, “Catwoman” turns it into this extended scene that gets more awkward as it goes along.
If you could take the executives and filmmakers involved, strap them down and inject them with truth serum, I’d bet the people behind “Catwoman” honestly thought they were making the next big super-hero smash while the people behind “Venom” feared they were cranking out a mess of a motion picture. They were both wrong and no one can explain why. And we still wonder why Hollywood has a drug problem.
That is the turtleiest turtleneck I've ever seen in a movie.
Written by John Brancato, Michael Ferris, and John Rogers.
Directed by Pitof. I’d make a joke but this doofus doesn’t deserve a real name after making this thing.
Starring Halle Berry, Benjamin Bratt, Sharon Stone, Lambert Wilson, Frances Conroy, Alex Borstein, Michael Massee, Byron Mann, Kim Smith, and Peter Wingfield.
Written by Jeff Pinker, Scott Rosenberg, and Kelly Marcel.
Directed by Ruben Fleischer.
Starring Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, Scott Haze, Reid Scott, Jenny Slate, Melora Walters, Woody Harrelson, Peggy Lu, and Malcolm C. Murray.