How does one go about making a Venom movie without even mentioning the name Spider-Man? This was the challenge Sony Pictures set for the three screenwriters that were tasked to salvage a character the studio had previously ruined in the third Raimi Spider-Man movie; and just to make it a little tougher, Venom’s first solo outing would also have to be a PG-13. This is like telling someone to enter the Daytona 500 but with a soapbox derby car that doesn’t even have wheels. Venom is a movie that was clearly the victim of committee decision making, with massive editing overhauls that seemed hell-bent on making the film into a nonsensical mess. Yet the end result wasn’t the flaming dumpster fire I’d expected — don’t get me wrong, it’s still a pretty bad movie — but it managed to be somewhat entertaining at times.
The film’s protagonist is edgy investigative journalist Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) – we know he’s edgy because he always has a five o’clock shadow and drives a motorcycle – and he is damn sure that billionaire CEO, and founder of Life Foundation, Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), is doing some evil shit in his super-secret lab – think Doctor Octopus meets Elon Musk – and of course, Eddie is right. An exploratory space mission has returned with four symbiotic lifeforms – though only three make it back to the lab as one decides to body-hop across Asia for some reason – and Drake immediately jumps to human trials, which seems to involve tossing homeless people into a sealed room with an alien symbiote. Unfortunately, the hosts keep dying so trips to Alpha Centauri will have to be put on hold. Now, why would Drake do such a thing, you ask? Well, to put it simply, it’s because he’s EVIL, and that is basically his sole character trait. Drake’s whole deal is about improving humanity so that we can survive in space, but this is nothing more than a screenwriter’s smokescreen to hide the fact that they are clearly making things up as they go, as we spend so much time with evil Elon Musk and yet learn nothing.
Eddie gets a little overzealous with his edgy journalism and he accuses Drake of things he has no evidence to support, while also abusing the trust of his fiancée Anne Weying (Michelle Williams), getting her fired from her law firm. This leads to Eddie also getting shit-canned and him eventually sneaking into Life Foundation, with the help of a scientist who suddenly developed a moral compass, and while stumbling around the lab, Eddie is infected with a symbiote. This results in Eddie being able to smash through doors, shoot out tentacles to fight off goons, and bite the heads off bad people. Not your typical hero stuff, but he seems to have fun with it, and Tom Hardy’s back-and-forth arguments with the symbiote is this film’s main saving grace.
Due to some atrocious editing, this film is heavily front-loaded with character development that we really don’t need; I mean, how much backstory does one need for a vigilante-alien symbiote anti-hero? Now when the film finally gets down to some decent Venom-fueled action, there is a lot of fun to be had, most of this stemming from the aforementioned verbal banter between Eddie Brock and Venom, with the film almost becoming a buddy picture of sorts (but one where half of the team likes to eat people’s heads).
The highlight of the film is Eddie/Venom’s first night out, which entails a high-speed chase through the streets of San Francisco, with tons of generic goons and exploding drones at every turn. Unfortunately, this is also Eddie/Venom’s last night out, as the movie then races to the big showdown with the Big Bad without bothering to work out what the plot is about, or actually having one for that matter. I’m not sure how much overall control Zombieland director Ruben Fleischer had with the end product — I’ll be generous and assume not much — but Venom is a structural mess with tonal shifts that give the viewer whiplash; one minute we get a goofy moment of Eddie taking a bath in a tank full of live lobsters, and the next he and the symbiote are murdering an entire SWAT team. Then when the film careens wildly towards its big climax, we are once again stuck watching two computer-generated creations fighting each other endlessly with the only danger being in my jaw locking up during one of my long yawns. Not only is it insanely boring to watch two computer cartoons punch each other over and over again — I’m looking at you Black Panther — but the whole thing is all shot in the dark with shaky-cam, so we don’t have a clue as to what exactly is happening.
I’ve been a huge fan of Tom Hardy since I saw him in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson, a true tour de force of acting, and by god he truly swings for the fences in this movie as well; not only is he incredibly entertaining as the “out-of-his-depths” Eddie Brock, but he’s also the film’s only redeeming quality. The CGI drifts between passable to lackluster, while plot and character motivations shift and change like the wind with no context whatsoever, and the supporting cast is given nothing to do but either spout or receive expository dialogue whenever the script is in danger of going off the rails. There is an especially egregious example of this in the scene where Eddie/Venom is in Anne’s car – as they race off to the hospital – and we get Venom explaining his weaknesses to the two of them, for no bloody reason.
Venom – “Sound harms us.”
Anne – “So it’s like your Kryptonite?”
Venom – “Fire also hurts us…and shellfish…we’re also lactose intolerant.” * I’m paraphrasing
This is akin to Venom stating, “Hi, I’m an alien parasite that eats people, but if you want to get rid of me you have two options, sound, and fire.” There is absolutely no purpose for Venom to volunteer such sensitive information, especially to the two people who are currently racing to the hospital to find a way to remove the symbiote, and that is just one of many clunky moments in the film suffers from this kind of thing. There could be a 180 minute cut of this film out there that makes some semblance of sense, but the 114-minute version that hit theaters is a garbled mess — to be fair, at times it was at least an entertaining garbled mess. If the film had been played as hard “R” dark comedy we could have had something special here – with Hardy giving us a blend of Jim Carrey’s The Mask and Bruce Campbell in Army of Darkness – but instead the script consistently kneecapped itself when it should have been going balls-to-the-wall crazy.
In conclusion, I’ll say that making this Venom movie without even mentioning Spider-Man was a pretty stupid idea, but making a PG-13 Venom standalone movie – where most of the action is muddled and dark – was an inexcusably moronic decision, and is also another example of Tom Hardy’s talents being greatly misused. So even though Venom was not the dumpster fire I was worried it would be, and as entertaining as Mr. Hardy was, it’s still another case of Sony Pictures dropping the ball big time, in what seems to be their ongoing mission to shit on the Marvel Universe.
If you go into a screening of Venom with expectations properly lowered you may find Tom Hardy’s energetic performance entertaining enough to sustain you, but if you go with hopes of seeing a cogent story with three dimensional characters you will be vastly disappointed.