Once upon a time, a major studio decided to make a superhero film. They based the film around a character who had been around for decades and had started as a villain but had since become an antihero. The character was part of another superhero’s universe and had already appeared in a film starring that hero, but the franchise was rebooted several times in the 10 or so years it took to get the character’s film made. Once the film was released, it was revealed that the character had almost no connection to the franchise that birthed it, took extreme liberties with its source material, and was a complete and total mess with lousy CGI, a confused plot, a clunky script, and one singular, over-the-top performance that made it worthwhile-bordering-on-essential.
That describes Venom, Sony’s latest attempt to create their own bargain-bin Marvel Cinematic Universe. It also describes Catwoman, the notorious bomb starring Halle Berry from 2004. I could probably end the review right here, but let’s continue.
Our…ahem…”hero” is Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy), a hipster journalist with his own muck-racking-style show on an undisclosed television network. When assigned to do a puff piece on possibly-evil-but-actually-really-evil billionaire Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), Eddie confronts Drake on camera about alleged crimes and lawsuits against him. Eddie gets fired and subsequently gets dumped by his lawyer girlfriend Anne (Michelle Williams), since Eddie broke into Anne’s laptop to discover incriminating information on Drake.
Six months later, Eddie’s contacted by a doctor at Drake’s foundation. They’re concerned with Drake’s most recent experiments, which involve fusing humans to alien lifeforms that Drake’s research team had discovered on a seemingly-routine manned space reconnaissance mission. (You know…as you do.) While snooping around Drake’s labs, Eddie encounters one of the lifeforms. Calling itself “Venom” (also Tom Hardy), it bonds to Eddie in a weird symbiosis, giving Eddie superpowers and sick upper body gainz but also putting his life in danger and making him a target for Drake’s schemes.
That’s a lot of plot set-up, and the film doesn’t hold back in dumping it all on us as quickly and unceremoniously as possible. One thing you might have noticed wasn’t in that summary is the name of a certain web-spinning, wall-crawling hero named Spider-Man. You know, the character that Venom originally served as an antagonist for and who gave Venom his start 30 years ago. That’s because this is a Venom film without any connection to Spider-Man or the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which makes about as much sense as a Catwoman film with no connection to Batman.
That doesn’t mean the film itself can’t be an interesting, exciting piece of superhero entertainment, of course. That also doesn’t mean that Venom is any of those things, either.
The biggest problem Venom has is a clear lack of identity and purpose. It’s a narrative reflection of Eddie’s confusion after he bonds with Venom, but it’s ultimately not a good look for the film. It begins as a serious drama with some mild, tepid attempts at light comedy, but once Venom himself shows up, it turns into a neutered black comedy, a PG-13 attempt to replicate the sarcastic, metatextual vibe of Deadpool that only occasionally works. It’s a film about an alien invader that eats brains and indiscriminately kills people that’s appropriate for the whole family!
And it takes forever for Venom to show up. We don’t get Eddie’s first full-on transformation into the big, black mother from outer space until nearly the half-way point of a film that isn’t even two hours long. Eddie doesn’t even get bonded to Venom until at least 30 minutes into the film’s runtime, and before that we’re treated to situations and plot lines so mundane and pointless that they threaten to bury the film before it even begins. Even after Venom starts his rampage and finally injects some semblance of life into the proceedings, the film feels ridiculously earth-bound and restrained.
That relative simplicity worked well for direct Ruben Fleischer in his previous film Zombieland, but he seems wildly out of his depth with a (barely) nine-digit-budget superhero tentpole. There’s none of the wit and clever action from Zombieland here. There is plenty of confusing choreography, blurry movement, poor framing, and dated, lackluster CGI work. Venom itself looks great, but the rest of the effects all look second-rate in comparison.
Fleischer isn’t solely to blame for the film’s schizophrenic and muddy tone, however. Between the three screenwriters, they’re responsible for The 5th Wave, The Dark Tower, Kangaroo Jack, and 50 Shades of Grey. So maybe we never stood a chance. Aside from the dialogue between Eddie and Venom, which provides the film with some of the only moments of intentional comedy and genuine chemistry, the script feels sloppy, inorganic, and automatic, as if it was generated by a computer program trying to make the hottest superhero film of 1998. Characters tend to be blunt and prone to exposition, and aside from Eddie, nobody’s dialogue has much color or flavor.
What makes the film worth watching, however, is Tom Hardy’s committed, off-the-wall performance as both Eddie and Venom. As Eddie, he’s fascinatingly bizarre, slurring and mumbling most of his dialogue and reacting even to the most extreme moments with a strange detachment. It’s like a Nicholas Cage performance if Cage was in it for love and not money. As Venom, Hardy is sinister and wickedly charismatic, and it’s here the we get the most fully-realized moments of the film. This is the Venom we want to see on screen, and this is the Venom that actually works as a main character (sorry, Topher Grace…still love ya, though).
The interplay between Eddie and Venom has more chemistry than anyone else in the film, especially between Eddie and Anne. Tom Hardy tries his best, but Michelle Williams seems completely uninterested in selling it or even being on screen. She’s a talented actress, but she’s clearly not checked in here, painfully smiling through her scenes in a discount Vicki Vale wig. There’s also no chemistry between Eddie and Riz Ahmed’s Carlton Drake. Again, a talented actor stuck in a thankless role that he isn’t investing with any of his own energy. Drake is so generic a villain that he barely makes an impact, fueled completely by negative space.
In many ways, Venom feels like a film that should have come out in the late 90s or early 00s, more along the lines of more mercenary films like Spawn and The Hulk as opposed to something like Spider-Man: Homecoming. It’s not interested in explicitly setting up its own franchise — even though that’s clearly what Sony has started doing — but it also doesn’t try to make itself anything more than a glossed-up ashcan copy, produced just to keep the character in-house. The “in association with Marvel” credit during the opening titles might as well have read “thanks to Marvel for not buying back the rights to characters we don’t know what to do with.”
If Sony does go ahead with their own cinematic universe, though, at least they have a great Venom in Tom Hardy. If only he had a better-equipped director, screenwriters, visual effects, and supporting cast. For my money, Halle Berry would have made a great Catwoman, too. You know, if only.
FBOTU SCORE: 4 out of 10 / C-