Whew, Venom is a dumb hot mess.
Spider-Man’s greatest nemesis – a parasitic alien that wreaks havoc on its host and the unsuspecting world – hasn’t translated well on screen. Venom’s only film appearance was in 2007’s Spider-Man 3, played by Topher Grace. The less said about it the better, aside from it being an unmitigated disaster that insisted a franchise reboot. The decision to revive Venom now is a curious one. For starters, theater schedules are overflowing with superhero films and the risk of audience malaise is high as it’s ever been. Most importantly, Venmo’s chief antagonist is currently web-slinging in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with the Avengers, while Venom rips off heads with Sony in an unconnected world. The lack of Spider-Man isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker, but it does require a re-imagining of Venom’s mythology, at least until the studios hammer out some box office-busting deal that bring the two bug boys together.
The holdover origin story is this: Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) is an investigative reporter with the kind of abrasive, take no prisoners approach that’s bound to piss everyone off at one point. The concept of a puff piece is foreign to Brock, but his editor (Ron Cephas Jones) assigns him to one anyway, of famed scientist Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed). Drake is an egomaniac, but even they need PR, especially when a rocket carrying secret parasitic organisms explodes on re-entry. Brock wants to bring Drake down, and steals files that detail secret human experiments from his fiancée Annie (Michelle Williams), a lawyer at the law firm representing his foundation, to do it. Brock confronts Drake with the files on camera and chaos ensues: his network fires him and his fiancée rightfully dumps him for his betrayal. Fast forward six months later and Brock is at rock bottom: drunk, jobless and generally pathetic. Still, he gets caught up in more Drake-related shenanigans when Drake’s colleague Dora (Jenny Slate) wants to expose his psychopathic tendencies. It’s during an excursion to Drake’s secret lab that Brock and the parasite known as “Venom” become one.
If that sounds like a slog to get through, it’s just as bad on screen. Venom’s first act is a waste, and the film doesn’t get anywhere close to interesting until Venom manifests as an insistent, gluttonous, deadpan voice in Brock’s head. From that point, the film finally kicks it up a few notches, barreling through the streets of San Francisco with reckless, surprisingly hilarious abandon. Director Ruben Fleischer attempts several tones with his film, and fails at all but one: superpowered buddy comedy. Brock alone is a largely useless character; neither likable enough to be a hero nor compelling enough to be a villain. With Venom, Brock is electrified with purpose and perspective (largely in response to the sheer absurdity of his circumstances, but perspective all the same). Brock and Venom’s bond feels genuine (if undercooked), and you yearn for more scenes of them building on it, instead of self-serious, derivative preening about humanity’s failings that ultimately devolves into another CGI slug match between two human-shaped blobs of goo. Venom could’ve also used more moments of self-awareness of its ridiculous plot that draw intentional laughs instead of embarrassed ones. What it certainly didn’t need was a lazy love triangle (maybe even two, as one third act scene suggests).
In other words, Venom is a dumb hot mess, but damn if it’s not fun to watch. The credit belongs to Tom Hardy, who pulls double duty as Eddie Brock and the voice of Venom (pitched down). He’s clearly having a blast, especially when Venom enters the frame. He sells the hell out of Eddie’s disbelief, excitement, and, despite the script’s deficiencies, loneliness that fuels the alien bromance. The rest of the cast doesn’t fair as well. Michelle Williams does what she can with the scraps of a character she’s given, but it’s enough to imbue the film with a semblance of female agency. Riz Ahmed’s performance is shambolic, a direct challenge to Jesse Eisenberg’s claim to the worst supervillain performance in recent memory. Like Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor, Ahmed’s Carlton Drake is an absurd scenery chewer that is more annoying than threatening. He is a much better actor than the role he was given, and he should frankly write this off as a loss and never reference it again.
Venom is nowhere near the quality of its cousins over at Marvel (it does have a slithery tongue up over Batman v. Superman). The plot is an overcomplicated slog, the tone is wildly inconsistent, and the characters are barely two-dimensional. However, if you ignore the basic mechanics of a good superhero film in 2018, you’ve got yourself a solid hour and a half of mindless, head-chomping fun. In the context of today’s world, that alone might be worth the price of admission.