Film Review: Venom

An exasperated Tom Hardy argues with a head-chomping alien that’s infected him in this weakly funny anti-superhero mess that plays like 'Spider-Man' meets 'The Mask' via 'Deadpool 7.'
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There are plenty of characters from the Spider-Man universe who could manage having a movie all to themselves. Eddie Redmayne as the Green Goblin. Maybe Tilda Swinton as a gender-reversed Doctor Octopus; just imagine the goggles. In theory, Venom should be perfectly able to handle a story all on his own. Despite serving as a somewhat weak anti-Peter Parker in the mostly forgotten Spider-Man 3, the ravening parasitic alien being seems like a perfectly good villain to set loose on an unsuspecting world.

The tricky part with the new Tom Hardy Venom vehicle is that there’s no superhero for the baddie to go up against. Instead, following a hyperspeed intro about a space-exploration vessel crash-landing in Malaysia with one of its alien lifeform specimens missing, we meet Venom’s future host, Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy). A snarky muckraking journalist, Brock signals his rebellious intent by riding a motorcycle through San Francisco and squinting. What does all this have to do with an alien lifeform that looks like a boiling bubble of black spaghetti? While said entity, or symbiote in the movie’s nomenclature, is leaving a trail of dead human hosts in its wake as it tries to get across the Pacific, Brock is trying to blow the lid off a brewing scandal at the lab of the movie’s requisite sinister scientist, Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed).

By the time the storylines bang together, Brock has lost his job and his too-perfect girlfriend, played by Michelle Williams, who with the arguable exception of one playfully cute scene is here strictly for decoration. Infected by the alien after breaking into the lab with the help of a conscience-stricken scientist (Jenny Slate, handling an underwritten role with bashfully comedic grace), Brock then turns into a Marvel variation on Jim Carrey in The Mask. Previously content to simply zombiefy people and move on, the symbiote sees Brock as a good match. And so, he identifies himself as Venom and starts kibbitzing in Brock’s head like some supercharged id. Like in The Mask, when Brock loses control of Venom, he shifts form and gains phenomenal powers. Unlike in The Mask, this creature takes the form of a massively muscled monster with a curling tongue as long as an arm and a penchant for biting people’s heads off.  

This puts Brock in the position of wanting to still take down the ever more obviously psychotic Drake while still retaining control of the beast inside him. It doesn’t make for a compelling superhero story, lacking both the sleek ensemble work of the mainline Marvel movies and the sharper bite of the Deadpool or X-Men entries. The all-over-the-place screenplay by Scott Rosenberg, Jeff Pinkner, Kelly Marcel and Will Beall keeps trying to weave comedy into an action drama and fails on both counts.

The direction by Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland, Gangster Squad) is oddly slapdash, and hardly does justice to the skills of his cast or his own chops as a comedic filmmaker. Hardy squeezes some baffled comedy out of his schizoid shtick, but there just isn’t much here for him to work with. Dealt a simpler hand is Ahmed, whose serenely sinister villain nearly steals the movie even with being handed dialogue that appears to have been cut-and-pasted from a half-dozen other movies. (Watching his face as he beholds the symbiote for the first time, half the audience could predict he’s going to say with evil glee, “It’s beautiful.”)

In such comic-book-hungry times at the multiplex, it is possible that even a sloppy and uninspired effort like Venom could signal the start of yet another franchise. Eventually we might be seeing Hardy snapping insults at Robert Downey, Jr. while threatening to do an exposé on Stark Industries. But it’s just as possible that this is where it ends. In movies, as in nature, a little Venom goes a long way.