Directed by Ruben Fleischer
Written by Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg, Kelly Marcel, and Will Beall
Starring Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, and Riz Ahmed
Reber’s Rating – C+
When my first thought walking out of Venom is thinking of downloading the credits track provided by Eminem, I knew that there was a major problem with Sony’s attempt in launching a new standalone universe.
No, okay, maybe that’s not fair. I actually knew from the moment the words “in association with Marvel” scrolled across in the screen within the first minute of the film, as well as the list of Sony-dedicated producers who put this fiasco together. Oh hi, Avi Arad. Amy Pascal. Yeah, you two, the folk who drove Sony to cooperate with Marvel Studios over the Spider-Man rights. They trusted you to do another comic book adaptation again?
Venom should have much more punch than the 109-minute runtime allows. After all, anything is better than the painful moments we fans endured when Topher Grace brought Eddie Brock to life in 2007’s Spider-Man 3. (It’s okay, Sam Raimi. That’s not your fault Sony crammed the character into your plans.) The news alone that Tom Hardy was going to both produce and star in this standalone threw many folk into a frenzy. Hardy’s clout is undisputed. The man’s the only person on Earth who could take the Mad Max character from Mel Gibson and breathe new life into a long-dormant franchise. Hardy’s also Bane for cryin’ out loud in The Dark Knight Rises, a blockbuster that many a genre film have tried to replicate without much success.
Unfortunately, Hardy’s charm nor director Ruben Fleischer’s flashy visuals can save a script with many a hand in the honey pot. Sure, there’s an excellent chemistry between Tom Hardy and Michelle Williams. Actually, Tom Hardy and Tom Hardy too. (Hardy provides the voice of the symbiote as well.) The film creaks slowly to start but contains enough ostentatious thrills to keep you interested. There’s just some elements in this mix that don’t work so well, a movie that struggles to find its tone amidst clashing ideas from too many voices offering their creative input.
Like the obvious unnecessary watering down of the rating to reel in the teenage crowd. Or breaking the rules of modern superhero blockbusters and making your audience feel like we’re trapped in the late-90’s all over again. Not all is bad about Venom, though. I swear.
If anything, Tom Hardy is an absolute treat as Eddie Brock. We’ve had many interpretations of the character grace both the big-and-small screens across the last 24 years. Some have worked amazingly well, like Fox Kids’ Spider-Man: The Animated Series. Others, like Topher Grace’s chattering monkey of an imbecile, were forgettable. Brock’s characteristics from Todd McFarlane’s creation are very much intact, though a bit more refined. Eddie’s committed to his gal and overjoyed for a wedding, but remains stubborn and arrogant as a reporter. He’s been embarrassed back in New York over a journalistic flap (at the Daily Globe – what, we can’t say Bugle?) that left his reputation tattered. Of course, as Brock’s attitude gets the best of him, he’s back in the gutter, a total loser who sips whiskey and eats Ore-Ida tater tots like a broke college student.
I do also greatly appreciate the care given to the original treatment, provided by both Scott Rosenberg and Jeff Pinkner. (Along the way Kelly Marcel polished the script and Will Beall, still active on dirtying DC’s latest films, completed an uncredited pass.) We learn the Symbiotes are discovered by sheer accident on a comet in our solar system by an expeditionary force led by Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed truly relishing playing a malevolent yet egotistic slime). The Life Foundation seeks to improve quality of life, yet Drake wants to discover a sustainable planet outside of Earth to transplant mankind to once Earth’s resources are depleted. Now, The Life Foundation was indeed a huge factor in 1995’s Marvel Comics mini-series Venom: Lethal Protector. This film shares much of the same structure of that five-issue run, with Venom off in San Francisco tangling with Drake and The Life Foundation.
However, Spider-Man was very much a big factor in that mini-series 23 years ago. This is Sony, and Sony wants to make a controllable universe occupied by Spidey’s friends and foes. Perhaps you see where I’m going here. Venom is rooted in archaic ideas that may have worked for 1998’s Blade or 2002’s Spider-Man. Hell, I’ll give credit to 2005’s Fantastic Four. Rather than looking at the bigger picture Sony instead went into a time warp back before the likes of the MCU and DCEU, creating a movie that just seems so small in comparison to its brethren. The stakes may be high, the fate of the world in question, but you never feel like Venom’s going to lose. At all. Venom is too neat and following a mold that may have worked twenty years ago, but no longer. You’ll easily forget the plot as you’re consumed in watching Tom Hardy do his best Jim Carrey impression, talking to himself manically ala 1994’s The Mask, the same sort of anti-hero with the same watered-down rating.
If anything, I’ll admit that Venom is much more gratifying once Eddie and Venom bond with each other. The film starts off down, slogging through thin character development and trying establish an identity. There’s times the tone feels quite dark and borderline crossing over into the horror genre. Then Venom starts to monologue and that tone is chucked aside for a fun fluffy ride, the violent hungry Venom clashing with the naive dizzied Eddie. If he can eat it – trashed leftovers, raw lobster, even frozen tater tots- Venom wants it. Hearing the voice is a bit jarring at first, but the Jekyll/Hyde relationship offers more laughs to lighten an otherwise moody film. Tom Hardy talking to himself in an effort to follow the moral code? Some of the laughs work well but others just feel like Venom is trying to balance being a horror comedy. Honestly, Venom leans more comedic. When the film is focused on Eddie Brock/Venom’s exploits, there’s some real fun to be had. Quote “some.”
If Venom wanted to skewer darker, that notion is thrown out the window like a gum wrapper. Instead, the back half drums up the comedy with some fantastic set pieces to bring the story on home. Maybe if Sony hadn’t gone and opted to play for younger audiences, Venom wouldn’t feel like there’s pieces of the puzzle missing. I say this with conviction because Tom Hardy himself, in an interview with ComicsExplained, admitted his “favorite 40 minutes” were cut from the film. As much as producer Matt Tolmach and director Fleischer can attest they never aimed for a R rating, the film sure seems to tell another tale. The violence is indeed there. Venom does eat a couple of heads off faceless baddies, even engulfing one guy fully whole. Is there any inclination of blood? None. However, even in the more twisted scenes of carnage, one can’t help but feel that the tame theatrics feel cheapened. Fleischer is known for his mayhem in Zombieland – and some of the action sequences echo his former film. Something just feels ultimately missing, leaving you wanting more but never feeling satisfied.
Did we not learn from Deadpool nor Logan? Tom Hardy signed on for a dark comic and violent tale. Sony went another direction. The studio’s traveled down this road before, both with saddling Sam Raimi with unnecessary characters for Spider-Man 3 (forcing the director to abandon a fourth film due to frustration) and making The Amazing Spider-Man 2 feel more of a farce than an actioneer.
The biggest offender is the sudden emergence of the denouement, our kind-of-hero and villain tangled in fight-or-flight, yet the scenes whiz by at a dizzying pace. You can never tell who is fighting whom, a whirlwind bareknuckle brawl that looks like two inkblots feuding with each other. Much like other parts of Venom, the wave of frustration will tide over you here too. I really wanted to like Venom. I grew up with the character in the 1990’s as a kid, indulging with the origins of the character and his rise to prominence in subsequent mini-series events. Hardy’s the best choice for the title character, but Sony’s the wrong choice to be the producing partner. There could still be a way that Sony ties all of this into the MCU, though by that point the damage will be done. The sequel is inevitable, I deduced the stinger from miles away, and I just wanted more…well…more of Venom. There’s no need to go big and bold for this kind of movie. Keep the story small. Focus on Brock and his relationship with his ex-fiance. Instead, we get a glimpse of what could be but just isn’t ready quite yet. Methinks we’ll get a big fat Blu-ray loaded with what we’re looking for in Venom. Too bad we couldn’t get that in the theaters instead.