Over a decade has passed since the Venom symbiote was given its live-action debut in the 2007 failure that was Spider-Man 3, and just when it looked like audiences were going to get another topnotch comic book film their hopes were scattered, like a turd in the wind. Sony made a last minute compromise with the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) to make room for the possibility of a crossover between the Spider-Man of the MCU and his symbiote nemesis, Venom. As a result, what was initially announced as an R-rated picture became a second-rate PG-13 antihero film that minimizes the bloodthirsty personality and visual potential of the character. The immutable success of films like Deadpool and Logan have generated a new craving toward unconventional superhero films, and Venom is a disappointing addendum. Elements of horror that would have merited renewed appreciation toward this growing sub-genre of the superhero tradition were poorly executed, and the grim subject matter fell flat against misplaced comedy and a quasi self-awareness that detracted from the underlying drama. However, though Venom lacks the independent strength of its contemporaries, director Ruben Fleischer was able to craft a functional film, benefited especially by Tom Hardy's performance as journalist Eddie Brock. The music was composed by Ludwig Göransson, reuniting with Fleischer after their work together on the 2011 comedy 30 Minutes or Less, and returning to the realm of superhero scoring after the monumental success of Black Panther. Göransson shared his interest in working on superhero films in a recent interview, stating "as a young film composer that is one of the things you dream of [because] superhero themes really resonate with audiences." One significant difference between scoring Black Panther and Venom (aside from the obvious cultural inspiration of the former) was the budget, which dropped an estimated $100 million between films. These more limited funds are likely what prompted the stay-at-home style of scoring, using whatever resources were at the composer's disposal, and all things considered the yield was satisfactory. The most prominent feature of the score is the theme Göransson wrote for Venom, heard across nearly every scene of the film. The theme is built on a three-note motif in the bass register, performed on tuba and bass drums, and using electronic timbres. This underlying motif is joined by a series of rising, atonal triads in the upper register, performed with horns, trumpets, woodwinds, and a treble chorus. The irony of being handed an antihero when all Göransson wanted to do was write a heroic anthem is almost tragic. Even more so when the theme he wrote for Venom cries villain. But what cries antihero? To date I have not heard a thematic idea that is a properly ambiguous representation of an antihero. At least not of the superhero variety. And considering the rich themes he has painted in the past it is not outrageous to have expected something more inventive from Göransson. The theme does manage to become full out heroic at the film's climax ("Battle on the Launch Pad"), taking on a major guise in the harmonies and encouraged by superlative string lines. Situated in the dorian mode, the Venom theme appears most often in the key of E-flat, peaking on a raised fourth against a diatonic fourth in the final statement. The other figure to come in and out of the score was the Riot motif, appearing whenever the antagonistic symbiote would pass through a new host and making numerous appearances toward the latter half of the film. The Riot motif winds in quick succession around a C-sharp pitch centre, almost as if methodically searching for something. Themes aside, the string writing was objectively the most impressive ingredient to Göransson's score, appearing at the end of the film and earlier when the Venom suit is fully revealed for the first time ("Eyes, Lungs, Pancreas").
The synthetic score components informed the predominant texture of the score, using electronic rhythms, pulsing tones, alternating whines, crawling sound effects, and seismic echoes that would constrict the fringes of the screen against growing tone clusters, choral dissonances, heavily distorted brass groans, and even brief aleatoric passages. One instrument in particular (whose identity is yet to be confirmed - heard at the onset of "What's Wrong With Me?") was frequented throughout the score, providing a monolithic gravitas to the threat of the symbiotes. It is a similar sound to the one in Alien: Covenant during the "Payload Deployment" cue, almost like a bending guitar that has been put through a filter. The affectation this sort of music evokes is quite aptly anxious and esoteric as it suggests there is a presence that can not be fully understood by human experience. Though little used the woodwinds provided a disarmingly keen atmosphere during the first human trial in attempts to bond the symbiotes ("First Contact"). A duet between standard concert flute and bass flute moves steadily in ninths with a detached emotional coolness, the tone of which was clean to the point that overtones impersonate a pianissimo organ. The piano that enters on the Venom theme, following the shuttle battle as Eddie falls into the water ("Battle on the Launch Pad"), was similarly penetrating in the way it brought a bereaving closure to the cue. Whether the persuasiveness of these moments was due to an inclination for natural acoustics or whether it was instigated by a true partnership between music and visuals is difficult to say. The chase scene through the streets of San Francisco set a contrasting tone to the rest of the score ("Pedal to the Metal"), using a drum kit, brass shots, and tight choral swells to keep the adrenaline high. The electric guitar, used to open the cue with a subdivided riff on the Venom theme, felt more at home in the dejected, gloomy life Brock leads after loosing his job ("Eddie's Blues"). But if you were hoping to hear a legitimate blues scale here the title can be misleading. Whoever was responsible for that handle on the studio album ought to be told playing a guitar does not count as blues. This annoyance aside the music was altogether accomplished and had lots to offer the film, if a bit monothematic. The one exclusively frustrating cue was "Venom Rampage", performed as Venom assaults the SWAT team in the foyer of Brock's old workplace. The music relies on the arsenal of electronic components that had been developed up to that point, straddling action and horror but failing to deliver either. Sliding brass and building clusters rage against a techno beat before suddenly cutting out to a soft tremolo string pedal in a way that lacks direction. Imagine how much better the scene could have been scored under the right circumstances? Had the Venom suit reveal been more gradual and the horror of its power kept hidden in the shadows up until this scene Göransson might sooner have thought to use stinger chords, much as James Horner took advantage of piano stingers in The Amazing Spider-Man while Gwen Stacy sat in hiding from the Lizard ("Saving New York"), or a similar device. The Venom credits were more entertaining than the usual cinema routine, featuring Eminem's "Venom" before a mid-credits sequence and a generous post-credits reveal of the upcoming animated film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. I imagine this is meant to build on Sony's Marvel Universe, though it may all play into the MCU eventually. Sorry to say the cue Daniel Pemberton wrote for the animated feature was the most captivating of the night. That said, the score for Venom elucidates an intriguing synthesis of musical genres, integrating electronic elements and horror techniques with nu metal, and even using orchestra arrangements that emulate an alternative rock band to an extent. These are certainly apropos choices for a film that follows an "action speaks louder than words" type of character, and it is music that packs a punch. What suffered was the tone of the score by relation to the film because the film remained indecisive about how seriously to take itself; an adverse effect beyond the composer's control. However, Göransson could have taken the horrific elements of the score further rather than planting ambient, unresolved dissonances, as was often the case. #LudwigGöransson