Venom kicks off what Sony no doubt hopes will be the first in a new wave of Spidey-universe films after their win with Marvel, Spider-Man: Homecoming. Well, if this is the direction they’re going, perhaps they should return to the drawing board.
Since Marvel’s moving fast with their Spider-Man entries (solo and Avengers films), it means that a Sony picture focusing on Spidey villain/anti-hero Venom is brought to the screen without the explicit inclusion of the webslinger. A great idea? Highly arguable. But, it ultimately shouldn’t matter, really, since a good film is a good film regardless of the changes made to the source material. There’s an inherent freedom in adaptations that lends creatives free reign on tweaks to ensure a story is translated well for the screen medium. Look at Marvel, for example, taking elements from various comic book lines, comics often holding very different plots and tones, and gelling them together into cohesive narratives. Who knows what happened here. Just to be clear: this isn’t horrible, it’s frustratingly meh, poor decisions at every turn resulting in forgettable mediocrity.
The iteration of Venom we get in this film is journalist Eddie Brock, played by Tom Hardy. He’s… basically Hardy, with journalist credentials. A spacecraft belonging to bioengineering corporation Life Foundation crash lands back to earth, the result of a symbiotic life form escaping. Life Foundation CEO Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed) is soon experimenting on people, trying to find a human that the symbiote will not reject. Brock stumbles upon incriminating files against Drake on the laptop belonging to his fiancÃ©e,Â attorney Anne Weying (Michelle Williams), and proceeds to confront Drake. Naturally, Drake isn’t too happy with the ambush, and ensures Brock – and in turn Weying – is out of a job. Brock is then dumped, and it’s suddenly 6 months later… etc, etc. Brock is eventually a host for this life form.
The titular symbiote is, at first, a killing machine with one thing in mind: consumption. Yes, people are eaten, and yes, some of the early scenes with Hardy coming to learn of this thing inside him does offer a few entertaining moments. It doesn’t help that recent small-budget sci-fi flick Upgrade tackled the whole ‘man vs. internal intelligence’ thing with more finesse though. Early on, the Venom symbiote is a dark, menacing creation, and some of its “victims” (don’t worry, these people aren’t exactly good) do meet grizzly ends, but there’s an obvious lack of gore to get that crowd-easy rating that doesn’t do some of those sequences any favours. This film needs way more bite. And, in a key stumble, Venom’s transition from villain to anti-hero, from maniacal, hungry creature to ‘dude who just wants to be liked’, is downright laughable.
Hardy proves that he can still be a magnetic screen presence even when the material isn’t working. He puts in a quirky, highly physical turn, although it feels as though scenes had a number of more ‘out there’ takes that could have made this more memorable. Could crazier Hardy antics have made the overall film even loonier? Perhaps, but risk that, instead of settling on a tone too afraid to lean any which way. Four-time Oscar nominee Williams can’t really do anything with her simplistic character, although Ahmed gets a bit more to work with, having some fun delivering a few scenery-chewing scenes as the increasingly insane Drake.
There are a few action sequences that manage to provide some much-needed bouts of energy, particularly a chase sequence leading from an apartment onto the streets. The visual effects are also mostly adequate, although things get a little too cartoony during the CG-orgy that is the climax, which looks to have taken a page out of the Michael Bay Transformers book of How to Craft Chaotic Action. The direction by Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland, Gangster Squad) lacks personality and gusto, a big shame when crafting the type of film that really needs both. Fleischer ticks off the studio-flick boxes, without providing much originality, which just shouldn’t be the case when this is being pushed as a film that’s removed from run-of-the-mill superhero fare.
While it’s not a complete loss, and there is some fun to be had, Venom is ultimately an awkward film – one that really shouldn’t be. The film plays out like an odd mash-up of typical superhero film, horror sci-fi, and screwball comedy. It’s a combo that could have worked, were it not for the disregard of gargantuan plot holes, silly narrative turns and embarrassing dialogue that pepper this almost two-hour film. The window is, of course, left wide open for a continuing franchise. One can only hope the follow-up fares better.