There are two movies inside Venom, and they spend 100 minutes battling over a theoretical franchise-starter’s soul.
There’s a big, clunky comic-book movie, in which a reluctant hero embraces and wields newfound powers to save the world, and clutching that by-the-books blockbuster by the throat is a bloodthirsty, symbiote romp spearheaded by star Tom Hardy (The Dark Knight Rises), who sinks his teeth into the picture with tour-de-force comedic performance.
Venom renders the anti-hero’s mano a mano fights against obsidian snot monsters with the latest CG globule technology, but the movie’s highs come when Hardy treats the Spider-Man spinoff like a Little Shop of Horrors remake starring mid-’90s Jim Carrey. That may underwhelm comic readers of the ‘90s, promised a faithful standalone movie year after year after year, but it’s enough to leave this Venom skeptic wanting more. Which isn’t to say that the hilarious half of Venom wins out in the end.
[Ed. note: the rest of this story contains mild spoilers for Venom]
Loosely inspired by David Michelinie’s 1993 mini-series Venom: Lethal Protector, Venom finds bad boy Eddie Brock in San Francisco — and at the top of the world. He hosts his own Vice-like news show, he’s engaged to crackerjack lawyer Anne Weying (Michelle Williams, working some Billy Wilder-esque whip-smart magic) and he rides a motorcycle, shredding up The Golden City like a real bad boy. But after turning a puff piece on Elon Musk proxy Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed) into an interrogation over the human experimentation practices of Drake’s Life Foundation, Eddie is kicked to the curb by his ethically dubious media company. Then he’s dumped by Anne, whose laptop he hacked to get deets on the mad scientist. Don’t even get him started about the motorcycle.
Penniless and tarnished — he can’t even get a gig writing listacles! — the once roving reporter eventually springs back when one of Drake’s lab rats, Dr. Skirth (Jenny Slate), clues him into what’s really going on. Drake isn’t testing a medical miracle, but a fusion of symbiote and man, hoping to evolve our species in time to jump in a spaceship and abandon earth before global warming eradicates us all. (The twist makes Venom and The Predator the two major Hollywood releases dealing with climate change in 2018 ... cool.) Without any deadlines, and a building debt at his local bodega, Eddie dives in, and comes out of his infiltration of the Life Foundation covered in black goo.
The opening act of Venom returns viewers to the early 2000s era of grounded superhero origin stories and diabolical, comic-book-but-not-too-comic-book plots that spend way too much time in underground laboratory sets. There’s no graphic treatment or stylistic twist that gives it the cinematic oomph of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man or Ang Lee’s Hulk. And rated a cool PG-13, the movie foregoes pushing the gore buttons to even indulge the bloodthirstiest action fans.
Instead, director Ruben Fleischer points the camera and shoots — which is fine when you have Tom Hardy doing his best impression of Gwyneth Paltrow in Contagion. The cable-drama approach doesn’t work as well when breathing first life into a 35-year-old antihero known for biting off heads. Venom is dying for a splash of fantasy, a stretch of the imagination, a jolt to the senses, but the early scenes have the draining effect of a 20,000 word Wikipedia entry.
When the extraterrestrial kush hits, Venom morphs into scream-worthy, midnight-movie fodder. At first, symbiotic intrusion slaps Eddie like the bubonic plague. Hardy revels in the tailspin, and prolonged, cold-sweat yarfing look like an Al Pacino monologue. As Venom winds around his brain, the sickness turns into hunger, sending Eddie on a quest to find raw meat to satiate the beast within.
A scene in which the possessed reporter rampages through a fancy restaurant, grabbing steaks off plates and eventually diving into a lobster tank to suck the flesh out of unsuspecting crustaceans, summons the spirit of Chris Farley to make it work. Tom Hardy throws himself into Venom — often quite literally — and it’s all before he starts talking to himself.
Hardy’s beguiling turn also includes dropping a few registers to voice Venom, who razzes Eddie as they bond by brutalizing large portions of the San Francisco police force. An improvised quality to their banter, and Venom’s increasingly degrading commentary, that makes the Jekyll/Hyde relationship more believable and hilarious. “You’re a loser, Eddie,” Venom roars as his host slaps his head, hoping to shut the voice up. Later on, Venom slings a problematic insult that feels so quintessentially late-’90s that you half expect the action to careen into a nü metal music festival sponsored by Surge. While it’s cringe-worthy, it’s in line with the absurd, shot-from-the-waist instincts of Hardy’s performance.
The action in Venom — half the reason we all show up, I expect — isn’t as rambunctious as Hardy. Set pieces range from slapping SWAT teams with stretchy symbiote punches to throwing Drake’s goons around with the cartoon finesse of The Mask. It’s serviceable, and well-executed from the visual effects perspective.
Early in the film, Drake’s collections of symbiote flop around in containment units with a jerky, viscous motion that recalls old stop-motion effects. The singular Eddie Brock/Venom maintains that liquid palpability when it springs into action. It’s a treat for the eyes … whenever it’s detectable. Large chunks of Venom take place in shadowy San Fran streets or high above the nighttime skyline, where it’s almost impossible to make anything out.
Venom would be another anonymous notch on the superhero movie belt if not for Hardy, whose dedication to batshit nonsense is a saving grace — and reason enough to make a second movie. The pieces are in place for a Venom 2 in which Eddie spends 100% of his time wrapped up with the symbiote; in which Williams, who makes a thankless role so much more than it could have been, has a character whose life extends beyond tracking her animalistic ex’s path on Waze; in which any risks are taken.
But this first installment is a whiffed experiment in the blending of safety-net blockbustering and Tom Hardy’s personalities. There’s just no fighting the power of the latter. “WE are Venom” is a myth. Tom Hardy is Venom, and hopefully will be again.