Written by: Jeff Pinkner & Scott Rosenberg and Kelly Marcel (screenplay), Jeff Pinker (screen story), Todd McFarlane & David Michelinie (character)
Directed by: Ruben Fleischer
Starring: Tom Hardy, Riz Ahmed, and Michelle Williams
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“We cannot just hurt people!"
"Look in my eyes, Eddie. The way I see it... we can do whatever we want. Do we have a deal?"
"Look in my eyes, Eddie. The way I see it... we can do whatever we want. Do we have a deal?"
I’ve always found the Venom character to be a conundrum. While this alien lifeform always felt like a bit of a one-note arch-nemesis for Peter Parker*, there’s certainly potential for a more interesting take, particularly as it relates to a film adaptation, and, with the recent success of “alternative” superhero films like Logan and Deadpool, it’s no surprise that Sony would enter that arena with Venom in a desperate attempt to cling to the remnants of their little corner of the Marvel Universe. As cynical as that sounds, it still wouldn’t preclude the studio from doing something a little bit daring with this property; hell, you’d think it would actually encourage them to do so since nobody has come close to beating Marvel at its own game. But, no, they’ve gone ahead and pretty much made a Marvel-lite offering that lands with a resounding thud: Venom is one of the most spectacularly misguided films in recent memory, one that squanders the potential of the ridiculously overqualified cast and crew Sony somehow assembled for it.
If nothing else, it is at least reasonably faithful to the original comics, as a symbiotic alien organism makes its way to earth. In this case, it’s the cargo of a crash-landed ship chartered by the Life Foundation, a conglomerate headed by billionaire Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed). When one of the organisms escapes the crash site, Drake pushes on nonetheless, instructing his lead researcher (Jenny Slate) to test the recovered samples on humans, typically vagrants from the streets of San Francisco who sign up for clinical trials without knowing what they’re getting into. Word of Drake’s shady operations reaches Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy), a video journalist who isn’t content to simply conduct a fluff interview with the billionaire, and—armed with knowledge sneakily gleaned from his prosecutor girlfriend’s (Michelle Williams) case against Life—presses him to answer for the whispers and rumors surrounding his foundation.
It’s disastrous: not only does Drake refuse to answer any hard questions, but his considerable clout gets Eddie fired. His girlfriend isn’t too pleased either since she also loses her job thanks to Eddie leaking information, causing her to break their engagement. For six months, Eddie is a sad sack of shit, barely stringing together an existence in a crummy apartment where the neighbor wails on his electric guitar at full volume. Eventually, the head researcher from Life reaches out with evidence of Drake’s crimes and eventually helps Eddie to infiltrate the facility, where he encounters an alien Symbiote that latches onto him. Eddie proves to be a fine host for Venom, a ravenous, violent being that wreaks havoc on his host but also provides him with superpowers to fend off Drake’s paramilitary outfit.
The latter half of that formula isn’t nearly as appealing to me, whereas the first part is ripe with obvious potential. Venom literally hijacks Eddie’s body, a premise that obviously begs for a body horror treatment that director Ruben Fleischer briefly indulges by having Hardy essentially put on a one-man show of wild, bug-eyed gesticulations and gross-out gags: in an effort to satiate the beast’s hunger, he rummages through the garbage for old, rotting meat before puking it up. He’s disgusted, terrified, and unable to cope with the parasite lurking within his body: it’s naturally horrific, and, for a fleeting moment, it looks like Fleischer will take Venom into the dark, ghastly direction it perhaps deserves. Granted, it’d be a monumental task to pull that off given how silly the character actually is—what, with his bug-eyes and absurd, cartoonish tongue—but the film provides glimpses of a genuinely disturbing tale of bodily infection and a man wrestling with wielding an immense, unearthly power.
Soon enough, though, Fleischer redirects most of the premise’s energy towards a more humorous slant. Venom’s voice rumbles in Eddie’s head, allowing him to develop a demented rapport with his host and creating the impression of a weird buddy action movie, where one of the buddies is an offbeat disembodied voice needling the “straight” man—if you can even consider Brock that at all considering how manic and ridiculous Hardy’s performance is. Even if this doesn’t quite grab me as much as the horror angle, it’s still somewhat appealing since Fleischer guides it with a snappy energy and unleashes Hardy to make strange faces and produce even stranger vocal inflections. Hardy’s turn is appropriately alien—at times, I had no idea what he was really going for, as he alternates between doing an overdone Brando or adopting a thick Brooklynese accent, all in the service of an insane narrative that eventually has him plopping down in a swanky restaurant’s lobster tank, much to the horror and disgust of befuddled patrons (and movie-going audiences to be fair). Imagine Bruce Campbell being subjected to Sam Raimi’s gleefully sadistic whims but with goddamn Tom Hardy doing his best to elevate complete nonsense that doesn’t quite know it’s nonsense.
And again, this is largely okay—as dumb and outlandish as it is, it still feels different from the usual Marvel fare. It’s not humorous in the typically spirited, quip-happy sense that those films thrive upon; instead, it’s at times just jaw-droppingly strange and feels sort of like someone chasing the edgelord Deadpool dragon, only they’re blindfolded and handcuffed. You can live with it, even if there’s a distinct sense that it’s only funny in the way a bad joke is: you half-heartedly chuckle along, all while rolling your eyes with the expectation that this thing’s eventually going to careen off the rails. Unfortunately, it even disappoints in that respect. Don’t get me wrong: there are moments of unintentional lunacy, but there’s not enough to compensate for the sinking realization that Sony’s cold feet sabotaged Fleischer’s attempt to produce a different sort of comic book take.
Once Venom turns its eye towards becoming an action movie, that sinking feeling slowly grinds into sheer dread when you realize this thing’s going to degenerate into another dutiful collection of chaotic, loud, but ultimately weightless comic book movie beats, guided by the safe, rail-like quality of pre-vis action sequences that create the impression of narrative tissue in a film that does, in fact, not have much of a coherent narrative. Obviously, you expect a movie like Venom to feature action, and, again, this is something you can live with, especially when it involves a damn space monster biting people’s heads off. A B-plot has the first escaped Symbiote from the opening crash site infecting random strangers to hitchhike its way to San Francisco, which opens the door for more schlocky (and possibly even deranged) thrills that never arrive since Venom is in a rush to gloss over any genuine nastiness. By the time you see Eddie devour a guy’s head without spilling even a drop of blood, the smell of bleach might as well waft through the theater along with it because Venom is sanitized as hell, effectively scrubbed clean of any splatter movie theatrics that might make it appeal on that admittedly base level.
But if you’re in need of yet another superhero movie that climaxes with the hero tussling with the villain in a big, overwrought effects sequence, Venom has you covered. Conveniently (and predictably), that other Symbiote (eventually identified as Riot) makes a beeline straight for Drake himself, allowing this weaselly Elon Musk wannabe to also wield superhuman powers for an ugly, shaggy, throw down set in the shadow of a rocket launch that expressly telegraphs its resolution. For the record “ugly” isn’t just my word to describe it: at one point, Venom insists that he and Brock will have to “fight ugly” to win, and Fleischer apparently took it to heart by staging such a messy fight scene featuring two characters dressed in black ping-ponging around the frame during a nighttime sequence. I’d bemoan the struggle to follow the nigh-incoherent action, but that would presume that I cared to do so in the first place. Truth be told, a vague sense of relief rolled over me upon the realization that the film had already breezed to its ending: this is one of the cases where a ramshackle plot is an unwitting blessing, and praise be to the Sony exec (or whoever) surveyed the carnage here and decided to wrap it up as quickly and mercifully as possible.
I know it sounds like I’m that asshole that’s taking Venom to task for simply embracing its status as a comic book movie and criticizing it for what it isn’t. After all, not shying away from its source material pulp roots has been a key to the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s success: those films are unafraid to be living, breathing Comic Books on the screen. However, they do so with a conviction that’s lacking here: at no point does Venom ever really figure itself out as it fidgets from one mode to the next in search of some semblance of identity. If it were even a solid take on such a conventional comic book movie, it’d be forgivable; instead, it’s bad, and not bad enough.
It’s just plain old, disappointingly bad, filled with wasted talent (poor Slate and Williams deserve much better than the thankless roles here) and a lack of compelling storytelling: just about the only character that can be said to have an arc is Venom itself, whose mid-movie face turn arrives out of nowhere, its motivations broadly-sketched with a line of dialogue that reads like a hastily-written studio note tossed in to ensure that audiences buy into Venom—the monster with large teeth that likes to eat people—becoming a hero…in a movie bearing the tagline “The World Has Enough Superheroes.”
Any impression Venom leaves is expressly tied to a handful of gonzo moments that threaten to inject a manic personality into an otherwise rote regurgitation: Hardy slumped in that lobster tank, a ludicrous kiss, a line of dialogue that features the words “like a turd floating in the wind,” and a ri-goddamn-diculous mid-credits tease that has already earned my commitment to the potential sequel. I shit you not: I spent at least the last 45 minutes of Venom wondering if I’d ever remember a damn thing about it, only to be taken in by a an absurd cameo (and an even more absurd wig) during this stinger that left me wondering something else: why didn’t they just go ahead and make this movie the first time out?
Then again, I’m not sure if Sony knew just what they wanted from this one from the start. With this array of talent and its repeated insistence on making something fresh, one gathers that the original vision was likely quite different from the finished project, and indeed, Hardy himself has already indicated that a lot of his favorite material was cut from the film. To be clear, no amount of gore would have fixed what we have here: it might have made it a bit easier to swallow, but all the gruesome effects work in the world couldn’t patch up a movie that feels like it’s been ruthlessly tinkered into a gangly, unwieldy Frankenstein monster, stitched together here from disparate, familiar parts that fit like misshapen puzzle pieces. That it eventually devolves into a hot mess of nonsense befitting a 90s comics storyline feels weirdly appropriate. All that’s missing is a gaudy holofoil poster variant.
Whatever happened to Venom is sure to be the subject of plenty of articles going forward, and they’ll probably be more interesting than what’s made it to the screen here. My (completely unfounded) speculation is that Sony has delusions of somehow connecting this to the Spidey universe of the MCU, so they couldn’t allow it to be too gritty or strange. And if that was delusional before the release of Venom, then it’s an outright pipe dream now since it’s hard to imagine Kevin Feige and company wanting to associate with such a toxic effort. Only one notion is more outrageous, and that’s the hubris of producing a Venom movie without Spider-Man involved in the first place. I’m still left grasping for the appeal of this character beyond his indelible—if not iconic—appearance, which is clearly not enough to carry a feature film, at least if this one is any indication.
*It’s my understanding that the character has become more complex over the years. Don’t @ me; instead, @ Sony for not taking more inspiration from those tales.
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