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I’m going to put this out there right away: I never got the appeal of Venom as a character. Sure, it’s a gnarly character design, and that’s about it to me. Over the years he’s gone from one of Spider-Man’s greatest foes to basically The Punisher with Spidey powers, and he’s taken his legions of fans with him through the journey, Tom Hardy’s son apparently one of them. Spurred by his offsprings enjoyment of the character, Hardy dove into getting the film made, providing Sony with a legitimate A-list talent to push their spinoff forward. His passion for the project is clear, but there are so many weird, not-good things going on in Venom that the movie itself feels like it’s own central character: divided, chaotic, and kinda fun when not being totally insane.
Venom jettisons the character’s Spidey-centric origin, streamlining it into an alien symbiote that makes its way to Earth and finds itself bonded with a down-on-his-luck newsman, Eddie Brock. From there, things take a wild left turn as Venom/Eddie find a common enemy in billionaire Carlton Drake, who wants to bring more symbiotes to Earth to create a super species that can carry on humanity.
It is, in a word, nonsense.
In the age of galactic epics like Infinity War, western parables like Logan, or social commentary-driven pics like Black Panther, the plot of Venom feels straight out of 2003, right in stride with the likes of Ghost Rider and Daredevil near the bottom of superhero film stories. It’s a film that is dark and edgy but never too much to keep out that all important teen audience, unattached and uninterested in any larger stories or themes. It’s content to basically focus on Venom being weird and violent and saving the world, and it’s seemingly both better and worse because of it.
What really pushes Venom above being merely ‘bleh’ and moving it into something altogether different is the lead performance by Tom Hardy. Hardy is going at 110% here, offering up a fully committed performance that is impressively physical, both in action and in comedy. His relationship with the Venom symbiote (which he also voices), is the core attraction of the movie, and probably the one thing that Venom absolutely nails. Eddie Brock and Venom have always had a super weird bond in the comic books, a dual-nature that is played to full extent here. Hardy has full blown conversations with himself and it surprisingly works. To top it off, Venom gives us an idea of just how gifted of a comedic performer Hardy can be, with many scenes played for actual laughs that connected with the audience.
The rest of the cast varies in success from merely ‘okay’ to ‘forgettable’. Michelle Williams has a few scenes where she rises above mere love interest, actually getting some things to do as a character. Riz Ahmed brings a lot of his wide-eyed, innocent enthusiasm to the villain of the piece, but it’s a pretty one-note character regardless. Both Jenny Slate and Reid Scott show up in smaller supporting roles that they play well, even if they don’t have much going on by way of characters.
If nothing else, Venom gives us a cast of typically super-serious actors playing in a large, goofy sandbox of a comic book film, and it’s nothing if not refreshing. It’s genuinely exciting to see Tom Hardy play a straight up leading man who’s dialogue you can finally understand a majority of the time. It’s great to see Williams playing a character who has a little fun instead of one in a dreary, Oscar-bait piece of emotional terrorism. Even Ahmed, he of The Night Of and Nightcrawler fame, gets to do some fun villainous scenery chewing. You can tell a lot of these folks are having a good time playing things faster and looser than usual, and frankly it’s infectious.
When I say that Venom belongs with other pre-MCU superhero adventures, I’m mostly referring to many of the action scenes and settings. We get creepy futuristic labs, gloomy forest running, and more than a handful of Venom-on-mercenary scenes that come off as cluttered and choppy. Nothing quite says ‘alien superhero antihero movie’ like a superpower assisted motorcycle chase through the streets of San Francisco.
Director Ruben Fleischer displayed a knack for the weird with his debut feature Zombieland, and some of that weird is on display here. Less so is his ability to handle action, as the sequences, including a predictable symbiote vs. symbiote finale, are often plastered with barely-discernible CGI. Yet, even though everything feels lesser compared to other recent superhero fare, it still manages to feel fun. There is an oddball energy to everything, from Venom using a human as a whacking stick to symbiotic monsters goo-ily pulling themselves off their respective hosts to Venom literally biting the heads off of several bad guys.
The soundtrack, with tracks from Eminem, and score, from Black Panther composure Ludwig Goransson, sound like something out of an earlier, less refined age of this type of storytelling. The music feels old-fashioned in the way it’s applied in the film, and hearing Eminem rap over the closing credits is a weird throwback. Oddly enough, much like the other components before, it hard not to have fun with it, even if it is without a doubt not something one might call ‘good’.
While no one will accuse Venom of having a great, or even good, story, it still nails the relationship between Eddie and Venom. It’s a classic Jekyll and Hyde story, the two characters constantly bickering with one another as Hardy flails around with gusto. A scene in a restaurant where he takes a bath with lobsters is particularly fun, and their conversations on morality and killing bring several laughs. It feels like everyone knew what they were doing, even if what they were doing is really goofy and weird. No one will care about the “save the world” plot, but they’ll be talking about the way Eddie and Venom work together. It might even be my main motivation to want a sequel for this film.
Venom is such a weird movie to exist at this point in history. It’s a film using Spider-Man character that refuses to be a part of the current, popular Spider-Man film universe. It’s a film that features it’s main character rummaging through garbage, eating raw food and biting the heads off of mercenaries. It’s got one of the more interesting, all-in performances in comic book movie history. It does all this while falling back on old tropes of superhero movies past, instead of pushing forward, including the action, the lack of subtext, and the soundtrack.
But for all the things that it seemingly does very, very wrong, I walked out of Venom not only liking it, but wanting to see more of Hardy and the Eddie/Venom relationship. Logically speaking, from a review standpoint, Venom should get a poor review from me. But I can’t do it. I was shocked at the fun I had, the ways I found myself laughing along with what was going on, and the way Tom Hardy throws everything into this role. I was happy to see such high-caliber actors having a blast with goofy material, and I’m ready to see the further adventures of Venom. Maybe I’m the one who’s been taken over by an alien creature.
The Final Pop
Venom is objectively not a very good film. It’s saddled with an old, boring story, flimsy characters, weird music and design choices, and choppy editing. However, with a committed performance from Tom Hardy, a cast that is clearly having fun, and an oddly entertaining central relationship, Venom finds itself being way more fun than it has any right being.
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