BY CORY WOODROOF
By the time Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) and his snarky symbiote Venom (also Tom Hardy) intertwine, director Ruben Fleischer’s excursion into the Spider-Man villain (er, antihero in this edition) finally starts to link with what it’s capable of.
Before that? This film and its audience are not compatible; not in the slightest.
The latest in “well, we want in on the Marvel money, too” studio excursions, Venom, a film about the big-teethed, gooey black space alien shapeshifter with a taste for tater tots and people, crawls around in confusion for about an hour before it really starts to figure out what it wants to be.
As many have noted, the film straps its audience back into a pre-Marvel Cinematic Universe mode where heroes and villains fought through angst, pulp, Danny Elfman scores, lager-than-life performances and alt-rock soundtracks to entertain audiences. The pinnacle example would be Sam Raimi’s first two Spider-Man movies, art-pop masterpieces of dazzling style and emotion. Venom feels like a dorky, fast food spinoff of the Raimi films, with mounds of Barry Sonnenfeld’s first Men in Black movie thrown in for good measure. How dated does this movie play? It should’ve ended in a Sum 41 theme song.
Hardy, one of or most prolific, gifted actors working, only gets so much to do before he nearly gets too much to do as the titular character. For about 30-45 minutes, he’s walking around with a weird TMZ reporter accent until a jaunt into sketchy Life Foundation (run by a sorely misused Riz Ahmed) to do some investigative reporting gets him in contact with the Venom Symbiote (which apparently is not a real word; go figure). The stretch where everything is established just struggles to take root. You’re practically begging an already-rushed into to go even faster to get to the reason we’re here.
From here on, the film gets weird, and chunky, and shamefully fun. Hardy goes into overdrive to play the body humor of being infected with a talking parasite that can transform him into a man-munching alien monster at the drop of a hat. It’s grand comedy to watch him power through Venom’s bizarre instincts (one moment sees a ghoulish Hardy hop into a lobster tank at a fancy restaurant and eat one live in front of flummoxed patrons).
Venom’s not really a bad Symbiote (trust us, those come later as the film’s obvious plot churns on), and his and Brock’s back-and-forth can be quite charming, in a fresh burger from McDonald’s sort of way. Their banter is corny and contrived, but Hardy’s skittish overacting and the creepy Venom CGI combine for one of 2018’s oddest cinema pleasures.
Everything outside of our antihero lacks bite. Ahmed’s Carlton Drake (a tech guru and business maven who tests the Symbiotes that come to Earth on unwitting humans) needed more pop to sizzle; as he is, he’s just a monologue in a suit-and-tie. Michelle Williams also gets the shaft as Brock’s ex-fiancé who he wrongs earlier in the film. She’s too talented an actress to make this role completely a stock role, but the script tries its darndest.
Fleischer (of Zombieland fame) uses need blue-tinted lighting in select action scenes, though only an assault in the lobby of a building really meets the typical bar for a superhero brouhaha. Everything else is just kind of static.
That’s where Venom lives and dies; in the margin between how goofy and trashy fun it is and how boring its structure stands. It’s too endearing to write off just as it’s too basic to really make a mark. It’s a film you’ll connect with just as you’ll withdraw from it. For a movie that was seemingly shot for a certain rating and edited down to meet another, that’s not a bad spot to be in.