Venom is a Spider-Man spinoff movie without a hint of Spider-Man. A cynic may see this as a studio finding ways to make money off the back of their most popular character’s success. Yet in some ways this spinoff movie is more faithful to how comic books work than how Marvel manages their films.
Comic books rely on serialized melodrama, where major plots carry on for months or even years. And part of the fun is knowing your favourite heroes and villains may show up in any random issue. Marvel excels at bringing these aspects of the medium to the big screen. But by doing so, Marvel isn’t tapping into a large chunk of the genre’s storytelling potential.
Tom Hardy plays Eddie Brock, an investigative reporter who is all about uncovering the truth. His boss assigns him an interview with Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), a Steve Jobs-like businessman whose work crosses ethical lines. Though his boss wants a puff piece, Eddie can’t resist sticking it to Drake, so he steals confidential information from his fiancé Anne (Michelle Williams) and uses it to expose the evil genius. The interview goes badly, and his betrayed fiancé dumps him, leaving Eddie a sad, broken, and lonely man.
Eddie’s life takes a turn when he encounters an evil alien life form brought to earth by Drake. It’s a gross little pile of black goop that looks like what would happen if a dozen coal miners sneezed into a jar. But looks are deceiving; this powerful alien came to earth with sinister motives. To unlock its full range of abilities it must join with a human in a symbiotic state, and as fate would have it, Eddie is a perfect biological fit. Together, the duo becomes Venom, a hulking nightmare creature that looks as though Tim Burton dreamed up Spider-Man. The alien wants to eat people and reign chaos, but Eddie’s influence “makes it want to be a better man (thing).” Despite their clashing personalities, they’re on the same page about two things: taking down Drake and preventing an alien invasion.
You won’t find a blockbuster movie as unusual as Venom anytime soon. It’s dark, violent, and has tone and pacing issues coming out its symbiotic wazoo. But at its heart, Venom is still an action movie. So, it’s disappointing that its action set pieces are a mixed bag. There’s a fun chase sequence midway through the picture where Eddie and Venom get familiar with each other. As men with guns chase them through the winding San Francisco streets, Eddie goes on autopilot while Venom takes over. Venom uses his powers (firing out long, gooey tendrils) in creative ways; ripping a car door off its hinge and using it as a shield; using a tendril as a grappling hook and making an impossible turn. While there’s an over-reliance on shoddy CGI, some impressive practical effects – explosions and flipped cars – help create a genuinely thrilling sequence. This all-too-brief chase is Venom at its best.
Much of the film, though, is straight-up bad and falls back on lazy comic book movie tropes. Its heavy reliance on CGI spectacle is the worst offence. The CGI action beats aren’t dynamically choreographed or well-shot, and they feel like watching a sardonic version of Loony Toons – I half-expected Venom to reshape a tendril into an anvil and drop it on some poor asshole’s head. The symbiote versus symbiote fights are real eye-sores. Between the shoddy effects and poorly lit scenes, you can’t make out what’s going on. It feels like watching the first couple Transformers films where Autobot versus Decepticon battles turned into metallic cyclones of metal, sparks, and tire treads. When the movie ended my memories mushed together into an indistinguishable hodgepodge.
The movie is so tonally and thematically inconsistent it’s hard to know for sure what he’s trying to do. Venom feels like several competing films – A Jekyll and Hyde story, an odd couple movie, a broad comedy – stitched together into one incoherent mess. Eddie Brock is one of the most passive protagonists you’ll find. He spends the movie running away or getting dragged along with no sense of agency until the final act when the film pivots and discovers its heroes’ purposes. Venom doesn’t show up until 40-minutes in, and it’s longer still before Fleischer hints at what this movie wants to say.
At its beating black heart, Venom is about Eddie and his “parasite” merging together and accepting each other. And at the end of the film, they figure out how to live in harmony. The problem here is that the story doesn’t provide examples of how this unlikely pairing reach their blissful bromance. Venom begins as a terrifying presence invading Eddie’s mind and remains so until he starts cracking wise – his wit and comedic timing are as sharp as his rows of jagged teeth. Not only does this alien menace have jokes, but he’s also hellbent on winning back Eddie’s former lady. Why you say? Who cares? It’s funny when his booming voice chimes in with snarky one-liners. This film never finds its groove until it goes all in on the duo’s batshit crazy repartee. Sadly, this doesn’t happen until the tail-end of the movie. Seeing them both on the same page is a blast, even though these moments don’t feel earned.
Venom features a cast so talented that a director would have to go out of their way to waste them, and yet that’s exactly what we have here. Hardy is the only standout, and it’s obvious why he signed on to the project. If you think he went too over-the-top with Bane, you ain’t seen nothing yet! At his most subtle, Eddie speaks like a New Jersey plumber with a coke habit. At other times you would swear he’s channelling Al Pacino circa Heat. I understand his intentions, but he feels out of step with most of a film featuring talking alien goop.
Talented actors like Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, and Jenny Slate have zilch to do. Williams plays the thankless concerned love-interest role, which is well below her pay grade. Slate still exudes charm as a lab nerd who stands out for her dope glasses and not her personality. And Ahmed plays the type of bland, non-threatening, and forgettable villain reserved for old white guys in Marvel movies.
I would rather watch a director go for a creative long shot and fail than sit through another by-the-numbers origin story. Venom feels like an artistic gamble but still comes across as generic nonsense. It’s dark but not too dark; weird but restrained; well-cast but lacks personality. Venom had the potential to invigorate the genre much like how its fellow anti-hero Deadpool did in 2016. Instead, we’re left with something closer to a train wreck. Although I didn’t enjoy Venom, I remain (perhaps masochistically) enthusiastic about what the series does next.