Venom represents the final result of a long-standing attempt by Sony Pictures to
give the popular Spider-Man nemesis his own film. Influenced equally by the
comic books and the Deadpool movies, Venom falls considerably short of the high
bar set this year by the likes of
Black Panther and
Avengers: Infinity War. With its short length and jokey tone, the
movie feels more like a second-rate knock-off than a legitimate attempt to start
a franchise for the Jekyll and Hyde symbiotic title character. To the extent
that Venom works, it’s as a comedy not an action/adventure superhero film.
When last we saw Venom, he was getting lost in the macabre mess that was Sam
Spider-Man 3. It has taken eleven years for
this reboot to get off the ground, with Topher Grace being ably replaced by Tom
Hardy, whose comic book cred includes having played Bane in
The Dark Knight Rises. Hardy takes over the
role of investigative reporter Eddie Brock, who has relocated from New York City
to San Francisco. (Although the movie is light on Spider-Man references, there’s
a Superman call-out when Kryptonite is mentioned - probably the first time there
has been a DC reference in a movie featuring a Marvel character.) This is far
from Hardy’s most impressive performance but, since he took the role for his
son, the lack of depth and passion can be forgiven.
Director Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland) originally intended for Venom to be
R-rated and that seems to be the appropriate rating for a film about a dark
anti-hero who eats people’s heads. Keeping in mind a possible future cross-over
with the MCU, Sony opted for a PG-13 rating which required significant cutting
and re-aligning of shots to imply massive carnage without actually showing it
(at least not graphically). It feels more than a little dishonest but that’s not
the only problem with the film’s look and tone, both of which are “off.” The
movie appears tawdry with unconvincingly silly CGI (Venom resembles a clown more
than a horror monster). The short length, likely the result of overzealous
editing, not only opens up plot holes but dilutes any “epic” expectations. Venom
feels more like an afterthought – a promising idea gone wrong somewhere along
the way. Yes, it’s good for a few laughs – the alien creature’s thoughts, which
we hear, are replete with amusing one liners, and there are moments of slapstick
humor that are as unexpected as they are welcome.
The movie takes about a half-hour (nearly a third of its running length) to get
off the ground as it puts all the players in place. There’s Eddie, the intrepid
reporter who goes too far in pursuing one of his stories. Riz Ahmed’s ( 2016's
Star Wars: Rogue One) Carlton Drake is a
standard-order Lex Luthor wannabe with an ego to match his fortune and a desire
to ignore ethical considerations when doing scientific experimentation. Eddie
briefly has a fiancé, the devoted Anne Weying (Michelle Williams, 2013's
The Great and Powerful), who dumps him when he breaches her trust
and gets her fired. Finally, there’s the venom creature, an alien entity brought
to earth and trapped in Drake’s lab until one of the billionaire’s underlings
(Jenny Slate, 2016's
Zootopia) grows a conscience and sneaks Eddie in so he can do a
story. Things get out of hand, Eddie gets too close to the alien, symbiosis
occurs, and Venom is born.
To start with, there’s an intriguing Jekyll and Hyde interplay between straight
man Eddie and stand-up comedian Venom as the two trade barbs within the former’s
mind. Eventually, however, the filmmakers decide this isn’t interesting enough
so they give Venom a more tangible presence, evolving him from extensions of
Eddie to his own partially-independent entity. There are scenes in which he
completely takes over (providing a hulking “suit” for the smaller human),
causing one to wonder about things like where all the extra matter comes from.
Most of the action scenes are perfunctory and the Big Special Effects Battle At
The End (c’mon, you know it’s coming – you can’t call that a spoiler) is a bit
of an anti-climax, especially since it’s essentially animated.
Although Venom is forgettable and insignificant, it’s not really deserving of
scorn and derision. It’s over quickly enough that it doesn’t cross the “pain”
threshold of something that lingers for too long and it offers enough laughs
(all intentional, I might add) that it’s sometimes effective as a distraction.
It’s just not an especially good superhero movie and it wastes an intriguing
premise. Done right, Venom could have been a deliciously conflicted character.
Done wrong, we get what the movie provides – a cartoonish entity who can only
unleash its base instincts on “bad people.”
The mid-credits sequence contains a cameo that offers a glimpse of where a
potential Venom franchise could be headed. Will it get there? Hard to say (box
office performance will, as always, be the determining factor) but there’s
little in the first installment to get me excited about a return engagement.
There’s nothing wrong with superhero movies existing outside the MCU but one
hopes that future filmmakers considering such endeavors will opt for something
less cheap, cheesy, and generally unsatisfying as the one Fleisher and his
creative team have produced.