Venom (2018)

Director: Ruben Fleischer
Screenplay: Jeff Pinkner & Scott Rosenberg and Kelly Marcel (screen story by Jeff Pinkner & Scott Rosenberg; based on characters created by Todd McFarlane and David Michelinie)
Stars: Tom Hardy (Eddie Brock / Venom), Michelle Williams (Anne Weying), Riz Ahmed (Carlton Drake / Riot), Scott Haze (Security Chief Roland Treece), Reid Scott (Dr. Dan Lewis), Jenny Slate (Dr. Dora Skirth), Melora Walters (Homeless Woman Maria), Woody Harrelson (Cletus Kasady), Peggy Lu (Mrs. Chen), Malcolm C. Murray (Lewis Donate), Sope Aluko (Dr. Collins), Wayne Pére (Dr. Emerson), Michelle Lee (Malaysia EMT / Riot Host)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Year of Release: 2018
Country: U.S.

Venom is not a bad movie, but it might have been a better one if it had been worse. It is mostly just competent, with a few moments of inspired fun and a lot of stuff that just coasts, rather than soars. It feels, at heart, deeply conflicted, forever torn between being a dark, violent sci-fi horrorshow and a looser, lighter piece of antiheroic pulp comedy. Parts of it are genuinely funny, although it’s not always clear if those parts are meant to be funny. Given that its director, Ruben Fleisher, is best known for helming the often hilarious apocalypse comedy Zombieland (2009), it is reasonable to assume that most of the comedy is intentional, but you can’t help but think that some of it is accidentally, rather than purposefully, goofy. This is particularly true of Tom Hardy’s central performance as Eddie Brock, a disgraced investigative reporter. Hardy, who specializes in stoic, mush-mouthed intensity, is playing something close to slapstick comedy here, with lengthy action sequences in which he is literally not in control of his own body.

A spin-off from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Venom’s titular protagonist is a sentient, shape-shifting black alien blob that must bond with a host in order to survive (it was originally introduced as part of the Spider-Man universe in the mid-1980s, but for contractual reasons the webslinger cannot appear here or even be mentioned). Venom first arrives on Earth in a spaceship owned by Life Foundation, a massive, San Francisco-based bioengineering corporation owned by Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), a young, wealthy genius with a serious aversion to even the most basic scientific ethics. Venom is actually one of four “symbiotes”—the globular alien lifeforms that must bond with a host—one of which escapes early on and remains unaccounted for until the film’s second act. Drake believes that the symbiotes are key to extending human life on other worlds, and he immediately starts running human subjects research, which results in the ghastly deaths of a lot of homeless people.

Brock, meanwhile, is riding high with a high-profile gig doing investigative journalism for a major network and an engagement to Anne Weying (Michelle Williams), a successful lawyer. That all falls apart when he crosses paths with Drake, who Brock, with his keen sense for sniffing out corruption, recognizes as a crook. Brock ends up bonding with Venom, who takes over his body, giving him both superpowers and a rasping, villainous voice in his head. The scenes in which Brock converses with Venom’s internal voice provide some of the film’s comic high points, with Hardy playing up the character’s confusion, bewilderment, and “I can’t believe this is happening” panic. It’s odd seeing Hardy, who typically plays such commanding characters, as someone who is literally at the mercy of an interstellar parasite.

Unfortunately, large stretches of the film don’t quite work or, at best, work in only the most rudimentary sense of the word. When Fleisher is able to cut loose, Venom comes close to feeling inspired, although it is regularly hampered by its shortcomings, whether it be Riz Ahmed’s complete lack of insidiousness as the primary villain or the generally lackluster chemistry between Hardy and Williams. Fleisher punches up the action scenes with energy that all too often simply becomes chaotic, especially when Brock goes full Venom with leering spider eyes and cavernous mouth of shark-like teeth, and when he slows things down to highlight graphic-novel-like compositions, it mostly feels forced. This doesn’t mean that Venom doesn’t have its pleasures, but they’re too few and far between.

Copyright © 2018 James Kendrick

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All images copyright © Sony Pictures / Marvel Studios

Overall Rating: (2.5)

James Kendrick

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