It’s hard to know what to make of Venom, Sony’s latest mismanaged, perpetually misguided and mesmerizingly maniacal attempt to latch onto their share of the Spider-Man rights with iron-handled claws — practically as if the livelihood of their nose-diving studio depended upon it (which it very well might). A bizarre, bewildering mess of a blockbuster, with no sense of self and no real idea what type of anti-superhero movie it wishes to be, once-promising director Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland, Gangster Squad) creates a tangled, disjointed little web of a film, the likes of which you sorta need to see in order to believe.
Even without everyone’s friendly neighborhood teen superhero swinging around to save the day, Sony produces an odd, unkempt and overall mishandled feature film devoted to Todd McFarlane and David Michelinie’s comic book creation, one that ties into a knotted ball of confused tones, awkward story beats, ludicrous creative decisions and peculiar stabs at comedy throughout — some of which, admittedly, are effective, though it’s hard to know what’s supposed to be funny here and what’s not supposed to be giggle-worthy.
There’s no denying that Venom is a bad film; what’s left unclear, however, is just how bad it is. By that, I mean, just how self-aware are Fleischer and his team of the pic’s overwhelming camp factor, despite the well-ballooned budget the project undoubtedly carries? Are the filmmakers aware of just how silly this movie is, despite how exhaustingly straightforward it can be at times?
Honestly, it’s hard to know. Venom is the type of bad comic book adaptation that, much like Fantastic Four (2015), Suicide Squad and Green Lantern before it, comic book lovers will dissect for years to come — much like the science experiments and extra-terrestrial monsters seen throughout this bloated and bonkers Hollywood production. It’s difficult to comprehend how in-tune Venom is to its own nonsense. Whether it knows how demented it is or not, though, there’s no denying this Marvel co-production is not at all comfortable in its PG-13 skin — or, rather, goo. But like a turd in the wind, you can’t take your eyes off this shit.
Similar to the comic book source material, Venom is centered around Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy), a dedicated, if bullishly persistent, reporter who tries to report on the corruption and dirty politics of his fair city of San Francisco. But when he attempts to do a story on the misdeeds of the Life Foundation, the bioengineering corporation on the verge of breakthrough innovations in science and technology (if often through fairly unethical practices), specifically on the nefarious CEO Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), Eddie’s whole life goes right through the drain. His career is toast, his engagement to Anne Weying (Michelle Williams) goes kaput and he loses his apartment as well. Poor, aimless and without clear determination or purpose in his now-wayward life, Eddie’s lost. But not for long.
Once the Life Foundation begins to perform experiments with some extraterrestrial symbiotic lifeforms, each with life-altering dramatic effects on humans, Dora Skirth (Jenny Slate), one of Carlton Drake’s most loyal, dependent scientists, begins to see that her boss isn’t merely searching for the cure to cancer, as she once believed. His intentions, rather, are far more demented, and she knows that only Brock can bring justice to his injustices. But Eddie’s out of the game and he doesn’t have any interest in returning to the story that cost him his life and his career. Through some convincing, though, Brock agrees to head to the high-towered lab and explore the space creatures.
But, it’s in that fateful moment, that Eddie Brock is infected by the quote-on-quote “parasite” and he becomes one with Venom, a nasty, black-gooed menace that serves as the Devil on his shoulder. And arms. And neck. You get the picture.
Soon, Eddie and Venom aren’t merely the host of the same body; they become one in the same. Or, at least, that’s how the narrative is supposed to play out. But it’s so jumbled that it’s hard to keep up with its ongoing stream of steady silliness. And once it’s clear that Venom doesn’t care about making sense, then you, the viewer, don’t find yourself getting too invested — both narratively and emotionally — in the debauchery.
Much like the trailers suggested, Venom feels like the sort of cheesy, over-the-top poorly CG-ed superhero and/or anti-hero origin story that we would’ve seen between 1998-2003. Hell, it even closes on a new Eminem song. From the woefully bad dialogue to the boilerplate storytelling approach, Venom plays like a film from a bygone era of comic book adaptations, a time beyond the sophistication, careful consideration and the genre-playing exercises of The Dark Knight, Logan or even Infinity War. If done right, there’s a charm to be had in such a lighthearted approach. But it’s evident throughout nearly every frame of Venom that the filmmakers are shrugging their shoulders and simply hoping that this black, animated goo sticks to audiences.
If not, then it’s back to the drawing board when it comes to the Spider-Man characters they can pull from. The approach is haphazard and haggard, not sure what it wants to be and seemingly giving up after a certain point. The violence is clearly tamed from its original R-rated intentions. The storytelling doesn’t have the winking wit or playful tone-bending skills of either Deadpool films. And it doesn’t have the heart to make it charming. It’s a sweaty, discombobulated blockbuster effort that’s equally trying much too hard and not nearly hard enough.
At this point, even the actors don’t seem to know what movie they’ve made. And that confusion’s read on all their faces on-screen. It’s rarely fun when you see a bunch of proven talents scramble to turn this turd into a respectable piece of entertainment. And goodness knows, Hardy, Williams, Ahmed, and Slate are flogging around, trying their damnedest to make any sort of sense out of this poorly-conceived misfire of a film.
The wretched and poorly conceived writing — likely the victim of several rewrites of indecisive Sony executives — does nobody any favors. Poor Slate, Ahmed and Williams get some of the worst dialogue of their careers, and they seem to be physically struggling to bring life to their most wooden lines. But it’s all for naught because it can’t work. How anyone thought a Venom movie without Spidey would ever be a success is a mystery that can’t be solved at this time. But even beyond its general misguided approach, there’s quite a bit that simply doesn’t work on the basic levels here.
The film’s sense of geographic is lacking, to say the least. Venom‘s San Francisco often looks like a mix of San Fran, Atlanta and New York City, which makes sense since it was shot in all three locations. The CG, meanwhile, is only periodically well-captured. Most of it’s too frantic and under-rendered, looking cheaper than it should be. In fact, it often looks like the filmmakers shot most of the scenes at night to try to cover up how unconvincing it is. And the score’s the most generic I’ve seen from any film in quite a long time. Let alone a goofy, lighthearted anti-superhero movie that, let’s be honest, is mostly aimed at 13-year-old boys. There’s no shame in that, though. The movie was brought down to a PG-13 rating for a very purposeful reason, and they might find a good bit to enjoy.
If Venom needed to be turned into a film, as Sony was so convinced it did, there are certainly ways to make it work. You either gotta focus on the body horror, making an unsettling, demented David Cronenberg-esque look at a man driven by pure evil by his side (literally). Or you need to make it quippy and silly and spunky, like The Mask with a bit of a dour underbelly. Venom tries to have it both ways though, and that doesn’t work out.
But then there’s Tom Hardy, who’s certainly giving a performance here. Is it a good one? Is it a bad one? Well, it’s certainly a watchable one. After a sluggish first 30 minutes, Venom‘s given life by a rambunctious, loose-limbed Tom Hardy who feels like he’s possessed by the spirit of ’90s Jim Carrey on a junkie binge. It’s a ludicrously un-self-conscious role that only Tom Hardy could provide on such a major scale these days. If your performance in a $100 million-plus blockbuster reminds me a bit of Klaus Kinski, you must be doing something right or something very wrong. I don’t know what it is this time, but my eyes were magnetized by his wild presence.
Will Venom result in a new franchise for Sony? It’s too early to tell. Will Hardy soon be making his way into the MCU through his interpretation of Eddie Brock’s evil alter ego? It’s something that’s certainly in the works, I have to imagine. For those looking to see the character brought to justice on-screen, notably after Topher Grace’s underwhelming take on him in Spider-Man 3, you’ll be out of luck. But for those who want to see an unbridled, unwaveringly maniacal blockbuster that flies off the handles in an instant, then you might want to let the devil in when he comes a-knockin’.
Venom is a big, gooey mess, but it’s sometimes a fun one. And if you’re going to make a disastrous bad comic book adaptation, then that’s really the most you can hope for.
Despite a commendably committed performance from Tom Hardy (whether it's a good or bad one will still need further evaluation), Venom's a big, stinking gooey mess of a film from Sony Pictures.