Villain Stories – Another Movie Comparison
Through some combination of whims and serendipity, I watched two villain-led movies in the last two days: Reservoir Dogs and Venom. If I’d known on Thursday that I was going to do that, I would’ve expected to like one more than the other. And that prediction would’ve been correct, except that I would’ve thought they’d be the other way around.
Yes, I liked Venom more.
It wasn’t a matter of the overall plot, since Reservoir Dogs was certainly better in that regard. It wasn’t a matter of visual or sound design, since Reservoir Dogs had an actual identity in those regards while Venom was quite bland (when it wasn’t showing off laughable CG effects). As while I do tend to like Tom Hardy’s performances, there were multiple actors in Reservoir Dogs that matched or exceeded his performance in Venom.
Part of it was surely a matter of expectations. I’d heard good things about Reservoir Dogs, despite not knowing anything about it other than pop culture references to the famous torture scene. I’d heard bad things about Venom. But that both seems like too easy of an explanation and doesn’t do enough to explain the disparity in how much I enjoyed each of them.
Reservoir Dogs established a number of things that have gone on to become signature elements of Tarantino’s movies, like an Anachronic Order plot, juxtaposing the banality of regular life with exaggerated moments, and a relatively minimalist approach to exposition that isn’t afraid to leave the audience with questions for them to fill in later. I like all of that stuff, and while I haven’t tried writing in Anachronic Order, Tarantino’s other stylistic quirks have influenced my (fiction) writing style. The main characters all feel like real people despite their larger-than-life flamboyance, and the actors all fit their roles well.
There was just the one problem that I was palpably bored throughout the movie. I had a brief tick of interest at Mr. Blonde’s death, but that withered away under Mr. Orange’s backstory. I just never got invested in the characters, and that’s a rather important part of enjoying a movie that’s mostly about a group of men arguing in an empty warehouse. With the one exception mentioned before, nothing happened during the course of the movie that made me want to know what comes next or what came before to set it up.
If I had to make a guess, I’d say the major failure of Reservoir Dogs was that it was too grounded. I understand that it was trying to be a realistic movie, but even in that case, I think there has to be something about either the characters or the plot that evokes a reaction beyond “well, that is a character” or “well, that is an event”. Even the whole diamond heist felt ordinary. It was supposed to be a simple matter of business, as opposed to other heist movies like Ocean’s 11, The Bank Job, or Entrapment treating their big heists as actually being big deals. The characters in Reservoir Dogs showed more energy when analyzing Madonna lyrics or complaining about nicknames than anything to do with the heist.
To be fair, there was a lot of energy in dealing with the aftermath of the heist, but even that was treated like something that could be fixed just by talking to their proverbial manager. Those scenes required the audience to have some interest in the characters in order to care about their individual outcomes, but the movie never built that up. The end result was that it never got free of that “just another thing that happened”-feeling for me.
With Venom, I started off disliking pretty much all of the main characters. The movie tries to build sympathy for Eddie Brock by having him stand up for his principles despite the obvious consequences or give extra money to a homeless woman for a free newspaper, but considering his downward spiral started largely because he violated Anne’s privacy, he came off more like a narcissist doing good things to be praised rather than like someone who was just good to a fault.
I also didn’t care much about the plot at first, but that started to change when the symbiote began influencing Eddie. That actually felt like a fitting Laser-Guided Karma punishment for Eddie, violating his privacy in a thematically-similar fashion to what he had done, which provided enough pathos to wipe the slate clean for me with respect to his earlier scumbag behavior.
However, what really got me to start liking Venom was when the symbiote told Eddie he was a loser. That spark of honesty and awareness made me start seeing the symbiote as an actual character rather than just seeing it as a plot device. Having the symbiote echo that later by calling itself a loser compared to the rest of its kind was a cute moment, too. I didn’t connect with it to nearly the same degree as the T-800 in Terminator 2, but I was surprised at just how much I started liking the alien blob, and it was the symbiote’s emotional attachment to Eddie that ended up making his character arc satisfying, too.
By the end of Venom, I still didn’t care about anything to do with the plot of the movie, but the closing “we are Venom” line felt like a solid conclusion, even with the horrible CG effects.
It’s been said before that a compelling villain is a more important part of a story than a compelling hero, which is even more true when dealing with stories that have no real heroes. I know that, by any objective standard, Reservoir Dogs was a better story than Venom. Reservoir Dogs had better writing, better acting, and was simply an objectively better movie than Venom. However, when it comes to the entirely subjective matter of how much I enjoyed it, Reservoir Dogs didn’t do anything to make me care about the characters. I’m sure it was more impactful at the time of its release than it would be to someone watching it after seeing the likes of Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill, but for the fact that I still enjoy watching those movies and consider them among my favorites of all time. Ultimately, I had zero interest in the success or failure of any of the characters in Reservoir Dogs by the time the ending credits hit. And while Venom was bland and formulaic in its plot, the symbiote and (to a lesser degree) Eddie did enough to catch my interest that I did enjoy seeing what they were able to accomplish.