May 2024

Venom (2018)

DIRECTOR: Ruben Fleischer

CAST: Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, Jenny Slate


First things first: Venom is not a good movie.  Nor is it the mind-bogglingly horrendous epic trainwreck of “Plan 9 from Outer Space” proportions some have inflated it into.  What arrives onscreen doesn’t merit any such strong reactions, instead residing in that cluttered middle ground of “meh” occupied by other comic book movie titles like Green Lantern The concept was a questionable one to begin with: despite his origin story being inextricably linked to Spider-Man in the comics, Sony in its eternal infinite wisdom has decided to slap together a solo Venom movie which is not connected to the Marvel Cinematic Universe—or at least no connection is ever explicitly drawn—therefore existing in some netherworld of its own (though there’s still a Stan Lee cameo).  With its short length, dodgy CGI, and campy tone, it feels like some throwback to the ’90s or early 2000s (there’s even an Eminem song over the end credits), the kind of comic book movie that might have been adequate in the days when there wasn’t much competition but feels outdated nowadays.  And for the character of Eddie Brock/Venom, last seen on the big screen in 2007’s likewise misbegotten Spider-Man 3 (where he was played by Topher Grace), Sony’s second attempt at bringing him to the screen is no more successful than the first.  To the extent that Venom works, it’s in its dark comedy aspect, not its terminally pedestrian and generic superhero (or anti-hero) narrative.

The last version of Venom we saw was a straightforward villain and a foe of Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man, but this is his solo movie, so he’s been bumped up (and watered down) to an anti-hero.  Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) is a hotshot investigative reporter with an axe to grind about social justice, whose crusading runs him afoul of the Life Foundation and its CEO Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), who has gotten his hands on several parasitic alien “symbiotes”, writhing masses of goo which Drake is obsessed with bonding to human hosts (the kidnapped homeless people he’s using as lab rats have a bad habit of not surviving the process, but he’s not letting that discourage him).  When Eddie goes off-script and ambushes Drake with unwanted questions during an interview, Drake promptly pulls a few strings and ruins his life, leading to Eddie losing both his job and his lawyer girlfriend Anne Weying (Michelle Williams) when Eddie inadvertently gets her fired too.    Six months later, tipped off by a Life Foundation whistleblower (Jenny Slate), Eddie has a chance encounter with the symbiote Venom.  Soon, Eddie is sweaty, delirious, ravenously hungry, and hearing a sinister voice in his head, and Drake is dispatching a goon squad to get his symbiote back.  But Venom has other ideas, and Eddie is about to get dragged along for the ride.

Venom starts out feeling like a straightforward sci-fi horror movie, then morphs into a dark comedy once Venom “bonds” with Eddie, and ends up a generic and pedestrian superhero (or anti-hero) narrative.  Insofar as it “works”, it’s in its dark comedy quotient.  Some of the humor is effective, especially when an unusually loosened-up Tom Hardy is flailing all over the place wrestling with his inner demon like Jim Carrey in The Mask and Venom (also voiced by Tom Hardy, though unrecognizably so) is dropping one-liners and insults inside Eddie’s noggin.  How off-the-wall does this section of the movie get?  Wait for the scene when a ravenously hungry Eddie goes on a rampage through a restaurant manically devouring food off people’s plates and then dives into a lobster tank.

Alas, Venom isn’t really meant to be a comedy (though Tom Hardy’s wacky, spastic performance sometimes leaves one feeling he missed the memo about that), so the Eddie/Venom antics eventually take a backseat to the narrative and action sequences, both of which are terminally generic.  The weakest is the climax, which is so predictable anyone could see it coming from a hundred miles away when the bad guy dons his own symbiote just in time to become the Big Bad Opposite Number for a rushed and shoehorned smackdown with the (anti)hero, in what feels like an even weaker and more obligatory knock-off of the climax of Iron Man (which was also the weakest and most generic part of that movie).  Other plot elements, like Eddie’s abrupt career collapse, are equally rushed and contrived.  Eddie and Anne’s breakup takes place too lickety-split for us to even have time to give a damn (not that there’s much of a “click” between Tom Hardy and Michelle Williams to begin with), and Venom’s sudden turn-around in motivations comes at the drop of a hat.  Despite starring a dark anti-hero with a penchant for eating people, the movie is afraid to have any edge (reportedly it was originally intended to be rated R, before Sony chopped it down to a tame PG-13 that skirts around any graphic violence).  Likewise, Eddie Brock in the comics is an unsavory figure with or without Venom’s influence, but the movie waters him down into a nice guy with a monster inside him.  Somewhere in an alternate universe, there’s a darker and grittier Venom solo movie, but there’s precious little dark or gritty to be found here.  Nor does the budget show up onscreen; the CGI appears cheaply-done and overly cartoonish, and the climax is two interchangeable blobs of splashy special effects tearing each other apart until we can’t tell which is which.  The movie ends with a ho-hum whimper.

The acting is spotty.  At first glance, the involvement of Tom Hardy and Michelle Williams was cause to give some a measure of hope, but anyone hoping their presences will give a boost to the proceedings is in for disappointment; rather than rising above the material, they play down to it in the most outright bad performances either of them has given in recent memory, with Hardy going cartoonishly broad and over-the-top and an obviously bored and disengaged Williams phoning it in.  Even before getting infected by an alien consciousness, Hardy’s Eddie is weird, twitchy, and garbled-voiced enough that it’s a stretch to buy him as someone who was ever a hotshot reporter in the first place, and if Eddie is overplayed beforehand, after the “bonding” with Venom he’s practically a cartoon character, manically sweating, twitching, and flailing his way through the movie in a goofy, semi-comedic performance that leaves one wondering if Hardy got a different memo from his co-stars and is under the impression he’s in a remake of The Mask.  Does Tom Hardy seemingly doing his best Jim Carrey impression sabotage any hope the movie ever had of being taken seriously, or does it salvage some scrap of entertainment value?  I’m not sure, but Hardy hamming it up is at least more fun to watch than Michelle Williams, whose “performance” is as distractingly bad as her wig, but then her character is paper-thin anyway, just the perfunctory and obligatory “love interest” who basically exists to serve convenient plot purposes at opportune moments.  Considering Williams made little secret in promotional interviews of taking the part for the accompanying large paycheck which leaves her financially secure to continue making the lower-profile indie movies she prefers, it’s no surprise this isn’t one of Williams’ standout performances, though actors usually at least don’t make their boredom this obvious.  As our ho-hum villain, Riz Ahmed is relegated to the umpteenth rendition of the generic one-dimensional Evil CEO type (I guess Ben Mendelsohn was busy), and Jenny Slate is a “hi and bye” plot device.  For those who stick around to the mid-credits scene, there’s a cameo by Woody Harrelson as Cletus Kasady/Carnage, Venom’s nemesis in the comics, obviously being set-up for a sequel which may or may not ever see the light of day (though, in a movie not distinguished for its special effects, Harrelson’s wig is the worst of all).

Venom feels forgettable and insignificant, as unlikely to be a franchise-launcher as Martin Campbell and Ryan Reynolds’ forgotten Green Lantern.  It offers a few (intentional) laughs, but wastes an edgy character and intriguing Jekyll and Hyde premise.  It feels cheap and cheesy and like a rather superfluous cash grab which even the people involved didn’t care much about.  If this is the caliber of stand-alone comic book movie Sony churns out, it’s better off leaving things in the MCU’s more capable hands.

* * 1/2