The world has enough Superheroes.
Venom is a strange cinematic beast. Set to kick-start the SUMC (Sony’s Universe of Marvel Characters), Venom feels like it’s coming to us from the late ’90s/ early 2000s (complete with a catchy Eminem rap song as its theme), making it very much dated in today’s ‘shared universe’ landscape — think 1997’s Spawn or 2003’s Daredevil. With the MCU setting the benchmark for contemporary superhero cinema — these big-budget entertainers now more layered and thought-out, interconnected through gripping storylines — Venom comes as a sizable step backward, Sony’s newest solo Marvel property ditching coherency and character-driven drama for silly action and absurdist humor, the film plagued with a plethora of pointless plot threads and careless inconsistencies.
For those in the dark, knowing very little about the vicious supervillain commonly associated with Marvel’s wall-crawler Spider-Man, Venom is a sentient alien symbiote with an amorphous, goo-like form, requiring a host, typically human, to merge with for its prolonged survival on earth. Given that the lumbering black-and-white baddie shares such a close connection with the friendly neighborhood web-slinger (being his arch nemesis and all), a Spider-Man spin-off in a world with no Spider-Man seemed like a pretty stupid idea. But here we are, talking about a standalone Spidey-less Venom film.
Originally referred to as ‘The Alien Costume,’ Venom was conceived as a dark reflection of Spider-Man, waiving responsibility in favor of feeding his thirst for man’s flesh, the grinning musclebound menace driven by chaos and carnage (excuse the pun). In Sony-Marvel’s Venom, however, the shape-shifting symbiote is treated more like a mischief-making vigilante à la Deadpool rather than an outright antagonist, this rubbing against the character’s essence/ nature, showing just how little filmmakers understand the edgy, near-unbeatable monstrosity, created by David Michelinie and Todd McFarlane, having officially appeared in Marvel comics in the latter part of the 1980s.
Venom tells the story of pushy investigative journalist Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy), living in San Francisco, whose life falls apart when he interrogates Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), the egotistical CEO of a bioengineering corporation named the Life Foundation, Brock accusing Drake of conducting illegal experiments on human subjects, resulting in numerous deaths. Obtaining this classified info from fiancée Anne Weying (a wasted Michelle Williams), who works as a DA for the Life Foundation, Brock loses both his job and girl in one foul swoop, hitting rock bottom in literally two scenes.
Six months later, Brock, failing to mend his shattered life, is approached by one of Drake’s workers, whitecoat-with-a-conscience Dora Skirth (Jenny Slate), who disapproves of her boss’ unethical methods, wanting to shut down and expose his practices. Yeah, he agrees to help her out, but only to clear his name, not because he’s got a moral compass or anything, Brock learning bupkis from his past errors and recklessness. Alas, when breaking into the high-tech research facility, hoping to obtain evidence of Drake’s immoral crimes, Brock comes into contact with the otherworldly ooze, bonding with the black barrel of slime and becoming an antihero, eventually using the altar-ego Venom to take vengeance on Drake and his dubious corporation.
11 years after actor Topher Grace’s slanderous portrayal of The Black Suit in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 (2007), Tom Hardy, The Dark Knight Rises (2012), dons the slimy dark getup, giving an odd and offbeat, slightly neurotic turn as Eddie Brock, who inhabits the same body as his deep-toned poison partner, Venom. Simply put, Hardy’s Brock is the best darn thing about this movie, and a lot more convincing than Grace’s version. Starting out as a bit of a weird loser, Eddie gets even weirder once the parasitic organism fuses with him, the committed Hardy getting stickier and sillier with each passing scene, shrieking and screaming, hurling himself around with mad manic energy. This performance is truly bonkers; a sequence that sees a hungered Hardy dive into a tank of restaurant lobsters may very well be the strangest thing you’ll see this year. To boot, the bizarre, frisky back-and-fourths between Brock and Venom are an outright hoot, whether intentional or not.
Less successful is the screenplay, penned by competing scribes Jeff Pinkner and Scott Rosenberg, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017), along with Kelly Marcel, Fifty Shades of Grey (2015), who seem to have opposing, often conflicting ideas, Venom biting off more than it can chew. For starters, it introduces far too many concepts — the Life Foundation’s space exploration program, for instance, Drake traversing the cosmos for new habitable worlds — without so much as developing these beyond a throwaway line (or two). Add in illogical character motivation (at one point, William’s Weying agrees to bind with Venom, despite obvious dangers) and a muddled, mismatched tone, seamlessly switching from goofy over-the-top comedy to grim action-horror. Moreover, the bursts of brutality, and Venom’s violent tendencies — biting off people’s heads, for example — grate against the kid-friendly rating, even though director Ruben Fleischer, Zombieland (2009), insists that the film was always intended to be PG-13 — wasn’t it rumored to be R-rated?
Bar Hardy’s screwy central act, the rest of the stars fail to leave a splotch, the script not giving them much of chance to breath. Oscar-nominated Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea (2016), is blasphemously bland, whereas Riz Ahmed, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016), is utterly one-note as scientist-with-a-god-complex Carlton Drake.
As for the titular toxin, Venom has been brought to life rather admirably, visually speaking anyway, the character much more comic accurate this second time around — even if his kooky ‘do-gooder’ persona is all wrong. By extension, the action scenes involving the big, bloodthirsty brute are well executed, possessing a cool comic book-y vibe, but the slapdash editing and lack of emotional weight dampen their impact, the film constantly undercutting itself. Equally vexing is Venom’s climax, which introduces slobbering rival symbiote Riot, these sequences (containing tons of inky black gloop and tendrils) speedily descending into CGI confusion, making it difficult to follow the fighting.
Said to have been in production limbo since as far back as 1997 — where David S. Goyer, Batman Begins (2005), was reportedly attached as writer — this venomous origin story harkens back to the first wave of noughties superhero movies, though simultaneously tries to fit into the existing MCU model — think obligatory Stan Lee cameo and mid-credit stinger. The result is a mess of a film, one that can be best enjoyed by those who are happy to walk in with zero expectations, having little to no prior knowledge of the bad guy or his beginnings. In short, Venom ain’t a total ‘turd in the wind,’ but it’s not that super either.
2.5 / 5 – Alright
Reviewed by S-Littner