Undoubtedly, Sony Pictures’ decision to produce a new film centered on Spider-Man’s icky alien nemesis Venom – sans the Web-Slinger – seemed like a clever idea at the time to the studio’s financially-minded executives. Although Sony essentially leased Peter Parker’s alter ego to Disney, where he’s presently employed for a crowd-pleasing (and heartbreaking) stint in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), the myriad Spidey-adjacent characters under the umbrella of Sony’s film rights remain ripe for exploitation. Of all the baddies in Spidey’s famously colorful rogue’s gallery, however, Venom is among the most conceptually baffling choices for a standalone film. An amorphous extraterrestrial “symbiote” of malevolent intelligence, Venom’s first host was Spider-Man himself. Like most supervillains conceived as dark reflections of their do-gooder counterparts, Venom doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense in the absence of Spidey – first and foremost because his visual design is explicitly based on the Web-Slinger’s distinctive costume. To make a Venom film without Spider-Man is akin to making a Bizarro film without Superman.
One likes to think there’s no high concept so ill-considered that it can’t be salvaged by solid filmmaking. Sadly, Venom doesn’t possess much of the latter, although the feature’s problems have less to do with director Ruben Fleischer’s journeyman efforts than with the sloppy writing, schizophrenic tone, and palpable confusion about Venom’s characterization. Some of the blame plainly rests with that dreaded hobgoblin of all blockbuster filmmaking-by-committee: studio meddling. In a presumed effort to attain the coveted PG-13 rating – and thereby maximize its opening weekend box office take – Venom has been discernibly bowdlerized from the more vicious, ghastly, and bonkers film it plainly could have been. This strategy is doubly nonsensical, given that Fox’s Deadpool films have already established the profitability of the crude, R-rated superhero flick, and the fact that Venom fans who were enamored with the character in his late-80s / early-90s comic heyday are now approaching (or well into) their 40s.
What the viewer is left with, then, is a film that’s been lethally disarrayed for reasons that are wholly illogical. This lends the entire endeavor a bitter aftertaste that frequently overwhelms the sensibility of mad spectacle that Fleischer and his performers strive to tease from the material. That, ultimately, is what’s so disappointing about Venom: Squint hard enough and one can discern the film that might have been, a darkly funny riff on superhero tentpoles, steeped in the visual vocabulary of mad science and body horror. That feature might not have been good, but it would be a damn sight more coherent and fascinating than the dreary Mad Libs blockbuster that’s resulted from Sony’s fiddling.
When a private spacecraft owned by the bioengineering and pharmaceutical corporation Life Foundation crashes in Malaysia, CEO Carlton Drake (Riz Amed) is more concerned with the integrity of the cargo than the survival of the crew. The ship, it turns out, was carrying four blobs of animate goo sealed inside containers, three of which remain intact and are quickly secreted back to Life Foundation’s San Francisco laboratory. These blobs – allegedly harvested from a passing comet – are Symbiotes, parasitic extraterrestrial organisms that need to bond with other life forms to survive in Earth’s atmosphere. A slick futurist whose neo-liberal concern for global ecological ills conceals a messianic sociopathy, Drake is convinced (for some reason) that these alien slimes are key to the practical colonization of space, and therefore to the long-term survival of the human species.
Neither Drake or anyone else at Life Foundation seems all that concerned with the missing fourth Symbiote, or, for that matter, with the sole surviving astronaut that is pointedly pulled from the wreckage of the company’s spaceship. This is just one of the early, dispiriting signs that the film’s gaggle of screenwriters can’t be bothered with a little thing like story logic. Wondering why a Big Pharma corporation is sending rockets into space in the first place? Or how Drake knows his critters are parasitic organisms before scientists like Dr. Dora Skirth (Jenny Slate) conduct even one experiment on them? Sorry, but no explanations are forthcoming on these points – or many, many others. Shortly after the crash, the xenomorph sludge that is hiding inside the surviving astronaut proceeds to body-jump through a succession of victims, slowly working its way to the United States based on little more than the Life Foundation logo.
This is all presented with the dull breathlessness of a sci-fi film that is plainly interested in hasty table-setting rather than plausibility or lucidity. It’s obvious that Venom wants to plow through its setup as quickly as possible to get to the Good Stuff (i.e., a monster made of black goo biting people’s heads off). What’s inexplicable, then, is why it spends so much time wallowing in the pre-monster life of its hard-luck protagonist, Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy), an investigative journalist with a laughably implausible gig covering Bay Area politics, business, and corruption for a national news network. Hardy, who can be a spellbinding performer, is horribly miscast here as a self-righteous, rule-bending muckraker. He rather bafflingly buries the hardboiled, “anything-for-a-story” characterization that seems to be the film’s intention for Eddie underneath a slathering of clammy slouching, wise-guy mumbling, and eccentric outbursts.
By all appearances, the viewer is supposed to identify and sympathize with Eddie. He wears hoodies and drinks Pabst Blue Ribbon, after all, and he’s chummy with a neighborhood homeless woman and the Chinese-American owner of the bodega around the corner, movie-reality signifiers that he’s One of the Good White Guys. However, the only “reporting” that Eddie does on-screen is profoundly stupid and unethical. His attorney fiancé, Anne Weying (Michelle Williams) just happens to work for a firm that is representing Life Foundation in a series of lawsuits, and when Eddie’s editor saddles him with a puff piece on Drake, he steals a document from Anne’s laptop as ammunition for the interview. Predictably, Eddie learns nothing substantive from Drake when he ambushes him about the corporation’s questionable human drug trials, and he’s then summarily fired by his editor for insubordination and dumped by Anne for his betrayal.
Six months later, the jobless Eddie is scraping rock-bottom – a situation that, it bears repeating, is entirely his own fault – when a conflicted Dr. Skirth approaches him and offers to show him first-hand evidence of Drake’s unethical experiments. She then sneaks him into the Life Foundation lab, where Eddie eventually witnesses imprisoned human subjects who have been exposed to the Symbiotes. One of the blobs abruptly escapes and possesses Eddie, and we’re finally (finally) off the races. The tarry slime inside Eddie’s body aids his flight from the Life Foundation security goons by bestowing him with superhuman strength, agility, and resilience, and by lashing out with its gooey tendrils at anything it perceives as threatening.
Now on the run from Drake’s thugs, Eddie suspects that he’s been infected by some sort of genetically engineered contagion, but the truly dire weirdness of his situation doesn’t become apparent until a guttural, monstrous voice in his head begins growling “FOOD” and “HUNGRY”. Soon Eddie is having entire conversations with his sinister parasite, which calls itself Venom, although these exchanges mostly consist of the Symbiote bullying him to consume more calories, mocking his sad-sack life, and musing impishly about whether to annihilate Earth or savor its amusements. Unluckily for both Eddie and Venom, there’s the little matter of the fourth Symbiote, a more powerful entity named Riot with much clearer ambitions of interplanetary conquest. (That said, Venom is overall a refreshingly small-bore superhero film, with nary an apocalyptic crisis in sight.)
So: Venom is a Jekyll-and-Hyde scenario of sorts, although it also borrows a bit from Darkman (1990) and Willem Dafoe’s spin on the Green Goblin in Spider-Man (2002), both directed by Sam Raimi. Not incidentally, Venom is at its most unselfconsciously entertaining when it aims for a Raimi-like sense of sweaty absurdity and gross-out nuttiness. The CGI is hardly cutting-edge, but there’s a cartoonishly magical quality to the way that Venom’s ropy black pseudopods emerge from Eddie’s body to mangle opponents, flip over cars, and scale sheer buildings. It’s not convincing, exactly, but it’s comic-book astonishing in the manner of now-dated but innovative digital effects such as Terminator 2’s (1991) liquid metal horrors. Fleischer fumbles the execution of the action sequences as often as he succeeds – there’s a centerpiece chase involving a motorcycle-riding Eddie/Venom and a swarm of flying drones that’s curiously lifeless – but, as with the Jurassic Park franchise's dinosaurs, there’s something giddily awesome about the film’s hulking, grinning goo-demons, such that the sight of them never grows tiresome.
Unfortunately, both the director and Hardy lack a firm sense for the film’s overall tone and for Venom’s motivation, which leads to clunky gear-changes between comedy, thrills, horror, and pathos. For an alien parasite without a central nervous system, Venom has a persona that’s (surprise!) suspiciously akin to a foul-mouthed, nihilistic villain from a 1990s comic book. (The tell: He chides Eddie as a “loser” and a “pussy”.) There’s some insinuation that Venom’s personality is derived from Eddie’s id as a side effect of their merger, but the film never develops or explores this notion, instead returning repeatedly to a clumsy buddy-comedy dynamic between man and flesh-eating parasite. Venom’s scene-to-scene mood swings between ravenous monster, juvenile wisecracker, gaslighting abuser, and soft-hearted accidental hero are jarring in the extreme, and a sure sign that the filmmakers had no idea what do with an iconic Spider-Man villain when Spider-Man is nowhere in sight.
Hardy’s performance is unabashedly twitchy and bug-eyed, which might have worked well in a feature that was similarly cranked up to 11, but here it just clashes with Venom’s humdrum familiarity: the earnest stupidity of the sci-fi gobbledygook; the tiresome, under-nourished anti-heroic arc; and the uninvolving relationship melodrama. Williams looks lost early on, mired in a stock ex-girlfriend role, but she sharpens over the course of the film, ultimately turning Anne into a strong, witty character. She alone has the insight and courage to unequivocally call Eddie out for his shitty, self-owning actions. Every other actor is shamefully wasted in substance-free roles, especially Amed and Slate, normally welcome additions to any cast. (To say nothing of Woody Harrelson, who appears in a mid-credits cameo that comprises one of the most idiotic and ungainly sequel teasers in memory.)
While Venom is not without its Bad Movie charms, the film as a whole just comes off as insultingly stupid and slipshod, an amateurish knock-off of the smoothly engineered assembly-line superhero product pumped out by Disney and Marvel Studios. (A knock-off that somehow cost $100 million to produce.) Whatever their individual flaws, the consistently good-not-great MCU features succeed admirably as works of pop entertainment and serialized storytelling. Also-rans like Venom throw into sharp relief that flinging mismatched genre ingredients haphazardly at the screen and hoping that something sticks is not a reliable recipe for good-not-great.