The last time this writer spoke to Todd McFarlane, maverick comic book artist and entrepreneur, was in 1997. Back then, he was doing his bit to spread the gospel of Spawn, a SPFX-packed, visually eye-popping live-action adaptation of his comic book of the same name, which he was its executive producer.
The movie — the first comic-book flick to feature a minority character lead, way before Blade and Black Panther — stars Michael Jai White as a dead covet agent who enters into a Faustian pact with the Devil to lead his Army of Darkness. Problem is, the newly-anointed Hellspawn has second thoughts about his new job.
Flash forward to the present. I’m on the phone with McFarlane again, this time we’re talking about another movie: Venom, the critically maimed but wildly successful thriller about a man (Tom Hardy) who becomes an unlikely superhero after being infected by the titular parasitic alien symbiote.
It’s based on a Marvel character McFarlane co-created (with writer David Michelinie) some 30 years ago. Venom’s been on the big screen before, in a villainous turn in 2007’s overcrowded Spider-Man 3. McFarlane wasn’t too happy with that version of Venom (who isn’t?) but is very pleased with the latest incarnation
Here, McFarlane, 57, tells 8 DAYS why Venom, now out on digital, Blu-ray and VOD. is critic-proof and gives an update on the long overdue Spawn reboot that — when the stars align — will star Jamie Foxx and Jeremy Renner.
8 DAYS: Venom wasn’t well reviewed but that it didn’t stop the movie from making US$855 million worldwide. Bad reviews didn't hurt the movie as much as they did with Justice League. Why do you think fans are so forgiving about Venom despite its flaws?
TODD MCFARLANE: I think a lot of the reviews didn’t come from hardcore fans. At times, a 50-year-old movie reviewer forgets that he was once 15 years old. When we were young, a movie like Venom would be a great ride.
I think at times many movie reviewers get superhero movies a little bit wrong. People jump onboard these movies for the thrill of it; they are not looking necessarily for something that’s going to win an Academy award.
I completely get it why Venom succeeded because it did what it was supposed to do: it’s big, energetic and thrilling! It checked all the boxes.
Do you have a favourite part of Venom?
My favourite part is just the sheer scale and bigness of Venom. And for me, being the one who visually created him 30 years ago, he had a big physical presence. I think they didn’t quite do that in Spider-Man 3. But in this version, they made him burly and Hulk-y, which was how I drew him, which is cool.
There was a video online where you critiqued Venom's look in the movie. It sounded like you didn’t like how it was depicted…
No, no, no. Anytime anyone designs anything, you’ll going to have fun tweaking it. I’m sure my design for Spawn in the new movie will have a million critics going, Hey, why don’t you do this? It’s just fun. Because not everyone is going to have the same exact design. [In the video,] I wanted Venom’s teeth a little sharper, no big deal.
For the movie, [director] Ruben Fleischer] decided on what Venom looks like on screen, and my job is to support his vision. I don’t ever get offended by anything anybody has ever done to any of my characters. Sony, who spent $100 million making it, Ruben and all the actors, don’t have to, for one second, worry about whether Todd McFarlane likes it or not.
I found it interesting to watch the process and what different visuals people came up with, given that each one of us is creative in our own right. After the premiere, I specifically went over to Ruben and told him it was awesome. Good job on him, good job on Sony. Everybody did what they had to do.
Do you have a wish list for Venom 2? There is a writer attached to it, but no director just yet. Who do you think should direct it?
Yeah. Me! I’m kidding you, I’m kidding you! As much as I like me, I wouldn’t give a billion dollar baby to me to direct. They are plenty of super-skilled veteran directors out there. I don’t know if the studio would go back to Ruben, but Hollywood has plenty of directors who know how to handle this kind of material.
But I will tell you what will happen in the sequel: Whoever is writing and directing it, they don’t have to worry about spending half the movie telling an origin story. I’ve already seen the first Venom and when Venom 2 comes out, it can basically start from Second 1 and roll out Venom whenever they want. They don’t have to wait for an hour to do that. So there is way more Venom, more cool stuff in the sequel.
Many fans were disappointed that Venom was rated PG13, not R-rated. Were you?
I don’t think so. I’m going to completely make this up because I have no insight into [how the studio made the decisions]. At some point, we all want to see Spider-Man and Venom standing next to each other, right? That will be the highlight.
From a fan’s point of view, if that’s ever going to happen, Disney owns Marvel Comics and Disney is not going to want Spider-Man in an R-rated movie. I will find that near-impossible, anymore Warner Bros wants Batman in an R-rated movie.
So if I’m an executive at Sony, I’ll ask, What’s the fastest way to making a deal that will someday allow fans see a confrontation between Venom and Spider-Man? Both movies have to exist in the PG13 realm. All the Spider-Man movies are PG13 and if Venom is R-rated, you’re mixing the messages to the audience. I would have made the same decision [to make Venom PG13].
Speaking of Spider-Man, he’s now part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Sony also released Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse. I think that movie is brilliantly playful, but do you think there are one too many Spider-Man movies out there and that might dilute the brand.
No, no. Here’s why. Let’s look at another brand, Batman. You can have him in a video game, a TV show, a cartoon show, a comic book, and if you want, even a colouring book. If you like Batman or Spider-Man, what you do as a corporation is to present the property in as many different ways possible and let the consumers decide what they want, at what price they want them, and where they want to consume them.
Can you get too much of Hershey’s chocolate? No! Hershey’s comes in chocolate bars, kisses, Christmas-themed packs — they take the same chocolate and [package] it into 20 different shapes. If you like Spider-Man, the corporation has the right to put [Spider-Man out on different platforms] and see how many people will come and see it. Putting out Into the Spider-Verse means easier access for a six- or eight-year-old kids who will grow up [be fans]. These are opportunities to create new fans.
A Todd McFarlane interview isn’t a Todd McFarlane interview unless you're asked about the status of the new Spawn movie. How is that coming along?
We are going back to the studios hopefully next month. I got financing; it’s almost taking place but I’d like a studio to come onboard. We’ll get it going. It’s going to happen. I think it’ll be cool, if all things being equal, to sell Spawn to Sony because it has Venom. Then someday, we’ll do a Venom-Spawn crossover and I’ll direct that one. That’s my dream. I just woke up.
In a 1997 interview, you said Braveheart is one of your favourite movies. When was the last time you saw it?
I try to watch it at least once a year, just to inspire myself. [It’s one of the] movies that speak to me: A guy waging a war against people who are trying to take his freedom away. It’s a strong metaphor for what I have done in my career. I go up against some big companies, both in comic books and my toy business. You can’t take on the giants but [if you can], you can find your personal freedom to do your own crazy stuff.
I notice in your audio commentaries and the online videos that you make these sound effects when you’re drawing or describing something cool onscreen. There’s an infectious, childlike goofiness to it.
You know what? I don’t even know when I am making those sounds. I think we did a little disservice to ourselves as adults that sometimes we forget [what it’s like to a child again]. I had the good fortune of talking to James Cameron and Steven Spielberg.
They are geniuses and one thing that struck me in my meetings with them is that when nobody was really looking and listening and when they didn't have to be the adult, they'd revert to being eight-year-old boys.
I don’t say that in a bad way. That is why they are so creative. They haven’t given up their inner child. You can call that immature and that it drives my wife crazy but it has its value at times.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Venom is now on 4K, Blu-ray and digital. You can also catch it on HOOQ.
Photos: Sony Pictures Entertainment, TPG News/Click Photos, New Line Cinema, McFarlane.com