Venom isn’t really cinematic poison, but it is a mess of disparate tone, humour and concept attached to a frankly awkward lead performance from Tom Hardy. Director Ruben Fleischer’s take on the eponymous super-villain might attempt an unsettling inversion of Disney-Marvel’s Spiderman: Homecoming, yet its an uneven symbiosis of the off-beat and the bland.
A maverick investigative blogger at the top of his game, Eddie Brock (Hardy) spends his time between exposing corporate crooks on ‘The Brock Report’ and with his successful attorney fiancee Annie (Michelle Williams). Yet his enlarged ego and relationship are taken down a peg or two when an interview goes awry with genius pharmaceutical (and space explorer) multimillionaire Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed as a sociopathic cross between Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg). Six months later, Brock is chasing pot-washing jobs and Annie has a new doctor boyfriend (Reid Scott). Pulled out of his self-pitying by an interesting lead that happens to involve infiltrating Drake’s cliff-top headquarters, Brock discovers that the nefarious entrepreneur has been experimenting with a new alien race called the ‘symbiotes’. Infected during this night-time trespass, Brock gets intimately acquainted with the maniacal and monstrously hungry ‘Venom’ (also voiced by Hardy). “You’re my ride” he tells a terrified Brock and he has big plans for this unfortunate partnership.
Yet what a strange ride it turns out to be. It becomes clear that Venom’s notoriety among the critic’s reviews has drawn audiences to see how bad it is. But within about half-an-hour you realise it isn’t that bad- just competent enough to be boring. Then there are the loose strands of action-thriller, body-horror, dark comedy, mild political commentary that never weave together thematically or tonally- jumping jarringly from one scene to the next in almost thoughtless fashion. Even the obligatory action sequences, such as a motorcycle chase through the rolling urban hills of San Francisco with Hardy morphing erratically from humanoid to a sticky, black, stringy mess, feel extremely uninspired. It doesn’t possess the thrill nor humour of a similar chase sequence in Coogler’s Black Panther earlier this year. The computer-animation has an unnatural sheen that shows its limitations, despite perhaps trying to emulate John Carpenter’s The Thing or Cronenberg’s The Fly. Even the promise of brutal violence of this anti-hero flick (‘The World Has Enough Superheroes’ the poster tag-line reminds us along with Venom’s continual predatory threats of dismemberment) remains subdued and off-screen to perhaps keep its age-rating open to younger teens (unlike Sony and James Mangold’s Logan last year). The climatic sequence, a tedious brawl of computer-generated symbiotic explosions (hitting the slow-mo button much as the Wachowski’s did fifteen years ago) is the final lazy straw. Any sense of the ‘off-beat’ emerges from the haphazard plotting: such as a rogue symbiote who inexplicably decides to exchange bodies several times before (somehow?) returning to Ahmed’s lab as a creepy, innocent-looking child. It’s appropriately and amusingly mind-boggling, but I don’t believe quite what Fleischer and the writers were going for.
The best moments are the darkly comic exchanges between the symbiote and Brock about who is taking charge at any given moment. Venom’s foray into Brock’s repressed domestic and social life do create some amusing encounters, though these are almost sketch-like. Hardy’s lead performance, however, is even stranger and more ‘affected’ than his melodramatic brooding turn in BBC’s 2017 Taboo. His accent wanders into the indistinguishable and, albeit while under the influence of a pathological contagion, his Eddie is increasingly whiney, strained and unsympathetic. There is a distinct feeling that Fleischer couldn’t keep control of what seems like Hardy’s ‘improvisations’, as the actor dives into histrionics (and, infamously now, into a restaurant lobster-tank). Meanwhile, Michelle Williams and Riz Ahmed are lumbered with stock genre stereotypes- an ex-lover not quite out of admiration for her former beau and a mad CEO with the required disregard for ethics. Ahmed gets to be slightly disarming with his otherwise boyishly-friendly face hiding a total lack of empathy, but we’re not really sure what the gain is from his maniacal plan.
What could have been a disturbing take on the iconic anti-hero in the age of do-gooder Marvel avengers and guardians (especially considering the subversive satire of the Deadpool entries from Sony) ends up a rather retrograde feature that wouldn’t be out of place with Sony’s later super-hero lacklustre entries in the mid-to-late 2000s. Ironically, Venom’s significant flaw its is lack of experimentation, of pushing the superhero genre beyond its ethical boundaries. So, don’t listen to that nasty little voice telling you to go see it.