SYNOPSIS: Disgraced reporter Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) merges with an alien parasite Venom to keep an evil tech company head (Riz Ahmed) from destroying the world with other parasites.
Written by Jeff Pinker & Scott Rosenberg and Kelly Mercel; based on the character created by Todd MacFarlane and David Micheliene
Directed by Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland, 30 Minutes or Less)
I liked Venom when I watched it last week. Then it was called Upgrade, written and directed by Leigh Whannell of the Saw and Insidious movies. Upgrade was released back in June in theaters and left quickly so it has flown under many people’s radars. Check it out, seriously.
Upgrade and Venom both follow many of the same lines: ultimately a down-on-his-luck man gets a sentient addition to his body, which can often take control and make him do wild and wonderful things, and together they faced own a big corporation led by an Elon Musk type figure. Upgrade was allowed to go buck wild with this (and R-Rated), and Venom is restrained, leading to an underwhelming film.
Venom feels like it’s always being held back, in order to connect to a wide audience, perhaps one expecting a Spider-Man/MCU film. It’s not either – although nothing contradicts the MCU… just in case. That’s not just R vs PG-13 rating; the movie, as it is, wouldn’t be much different if it had more blood and gore. The property on the whole is held back. Venom and Eddie Brock, originally villains in the Spider-Man canon, is an anti-hero. That’s all in the advertisements for the film, and often the character focus; toeing a line of morality. That’s not here, outside of a few moments of the alien symbiote requesting to eat random people. Brock is a straight up good guy. Not an asshole, not a jerk with a heart of gold. He’s likeable, does good deeds, gives homeless women on the street 20 bucks. The worst things he does is defy his boss and break into his girlfriend’s computer. Venom just about instantly goes from “kill all humans” to “humans be cool, yo”. There is no menace in him. I laughed aloud when he claims “I was a loser on my planet.” Really? Filmmakers – lean into the anti-hero, don’t asterix it. Putting someone like Tom Hardy here is a waste, and wasted.
Hardy usually at least tries. He’s normally cast in serious roles with a lot of grunting and intense characters. The comic version of Brock would be a perfect fit, the film version not so much. It’s a welcome change to have a character that talks a great deal is allows him to act goofy when dealing with a voice in his head. I said wasted above: he seems like he’s drunk for the length of it. But having fun while drunk! (I note his best role ever was one where he talked the WHOLE TIME and was funny and charming – find Refn’s first film Bronson if you can). I believe he’s the voice for Venom as well, allowing some charm in his interactions with himself.
The rest of the cast is not alcohol wasted, but film wasted. Jenny Slate, normally a ball of manic energy, is without any; and exists just to give exposition. She has to explain what a symbiote is, I swear, a half-dozen times, along with other information given to the characters who already know the information she’s giving. After the film is done with her repeated exposition, she is removed from the story. Michelle Williams is a useless role in as Love Interest Lawyer. She is phoning it in, glazed eyes looking at the middle distance, there to get Brock to the next plot point. There is a brief moment of her as the host, making a very odd shot a boobed-Venom. Some 13 year olds will love it.
Those same 13-year olds will likely love the film. I tried to regress myself back to that mindset to enjoy the film, but was unable to. Perhaps if it allowed itself to get as wild as the concept should be, I could have. But in restraining itself, it doesn’t get even a large action sequence. The motorcycle jump in the trailer is the biggest action beat. That chase is done quickly to boot. Before that is a short sequence with ATVs. The climax is a overly-CG convoluted mess. It takes about 45 minutes before Venom and Brock meet. With the way the film is presented, this could have happened very early. Instead, the film jumps through hoops to get the plot together. When the ship with Venom and the other Symbotes crashes into earth, one is left loose. This one, Riot, becomes the villain when it makes it to the human’s villains lab and merges with him. Doesn’t it seem easier to have Brock find the loose symbiote instead of going to the lab? Yes, it does. Thus, a slog to get there, and a pain since an easier path is available.
After 20 years of attempting to create a film version of Venom (let’s go ahead an ignore the Spider-Man 3 version), it is such a disappointment this is what we get. It feels like it was pushed out to ride the coattails of the incredibly successful Tom Holland version of Spider-Man, but before the can’t-wait-for Enter the Spider-verse, and the undusted version of Spider-Man in Far from Home takes the spotlight away. It’s not all bad, Fleischer sets up scenes of Hardy getting used to Venom well; distorting and playing with the camera; and there is some fun interactions with Venom and people, but it’s ultimately just there. One hopes with the sequel promised in the mid-credits sequence – for those curious it’s the reveal you’d expect… with an awful wig – will go full bore and deliver the Venom we expect.