Some people will look at the premise of Venom and ask, “Why?” Others of us will look at it and ask, “Why not?” A sci-fi split-personality comedy featuring Tom Hardy doing psychic battle with a pissy, parasitic intergalactic symbiote? There is absolutely nothing wrong with this idea, which at least promises a welcome dose of what-the-fuck fun to a largely unnecessary comic-book movie enterprise. If only the makers of Venom believed in their own ideas.
Or in each other. Somebody has clearly tampered with this film; it looks like it has been edited to within an inch of its life. That’s evident from the rushed, choppy opening, which involves a spaceship loaded with experimental alien organisms crashing into Earth somewhere in Borneo, and one of the organisms taking over the body of a local emergency worker, who then tears her way through an ambulance and walks off into the night. I’m still not sure how this story thread, to which Venom cuts repeatedly, has any significant bearing on the rest of the story, but maybe I missed it amid all the incoherent cacophony.
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As for our protagonist, scrappy TV reporter Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy), he gets taken over by a similar alien parasite after infiltrating the super-secret laboratory of shady San Francisco bazillionaire Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed). Soon, Eddie finds himself having contentious arguments with a booming, threatening voice in his head, fighting for control of his body. “FOOD,” the voice roars, and Eddie jumps into a live lobster tank. Enrage the beast within, and Eddie suddenly starts shooting jet-black bolts of powerful space gunk out of his body. This alien being, which helpfully calls itself Venom, is a fairly terrifying creation: a many-fanged, slobbery, snake-tongued monster that loves to eat people’s heads. Sometimes Eddie turns into Venom, and sometimes Venom slithers out of Eddie’s chest and yells at him.
Not unlike the central character, the movie is also at war with itself. The choice of director Ruben Fleischer, whose breakthrough was the cleverly gruesome post-apocalyptic spoof Zombieland, suggests that a certain level of cheekiness was always in the cards. But the evidence on screen suggests otherwise. This looks like a serious film, and not a good one at that. There’s almost no physical comedy or clever framing. The symbiotes are vaguely gruesome and creepy, but also kind of boring; the action is fast and busy and mechanical; most of the characters dull and scream-y. Hardy also acts concerned and confused, but at least he seems to be having some fun talking to himself. And the movie occasionally works when we’re privy to Eddie and Venom’s internal bickering: “Think of yourself as my ride,” the alien growls at his human host. “I know everything about you. ... I am inside your head. ... You are a loser, Eddie.” Venom even gives Eddie dating advice at one point.
That’s actually funny stuff. I wish there were more of it. But the film feels like its makers either discovered its humorous potential — the inherent ridiculousness of this concept — belatedly or that they blinked and pulled the brakes on the comedy before things got too out of hand. A nighttime motorcycle chase through the streets of San Francisco should be a terrific chance for the movie to strut its stuff, with so many opportunities for slapstick and visual inventiveness; our hero is, after all, a guy whose body shoots out indestructible, warp-speed geysers of slick black super-goo. But the chase is profoundly unimaginative and forgettable. (As if to add insult to injury, there’s an end-credits teaser for the upcoming animated film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, involving a subway chase that demonstrates the kind of visual humor and dash that Venom should have been rolling in.) The less said about the incoherent climactic face-off, between Venom and a more powerful symbiote named Riot, the better.
The wasted opportunities are everywhere. Which is a shame, because comedy isn’t anathema to the superhero movie. The Deadpool films, whatever their shortcomings, have already proven that conceptual humor can be lucrative, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe was built on the supremacy of the lighthearted wisecrack. Venom could have brought a certain amount of sitcom silliness to a grimmer, grittier part of this world. But in the end, what might have been a bold and bracing new thing winds up being more of the same.