WatchingVenom felt like stepping back in time to a bygone era of superhero cinema before the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy existed, and the genre was still finding its feet. We’ve already seen Venom grace the big screen in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 as he was shoehorned in by a studio who desperately wanted the fan-favourite character to enter the successful franchise. Sony have been trying to get a standalone Venom film off the ground for years, and it has finally arrived.
We follow Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy), an investigative journalist with a successful TV show who’s in a committed relationship with his attorney-girlfriend Anne (Michelle Williams). When he finds incriminating evidence against the Life Foundation—led by wunderkind scientist Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed)—he decides to confront them, only to get himself and Anne (who’s supposed to be defending the organisation) fired. With their lives and relationship in tatters, Brock eventually finds himself bonded with a controlling entity who takes over his body and mind, as he attempts to find a way to stay sane and halt the nefarious Life Foundation in the process.
I wasn’t expecting much from Venom, but I was extremely hopeful—based on the marketing materials alone—it would have the trashy, so-bad-it’s-good quality. I can happily say this film does seep into this area enough to get some good laughs. As Brock realises he’s been infected with this parasite, he can’t help but get a chronic case of the munchies, devouring whatever he lays his eyes on. I have no idea whether it was constructed to be intentionally funny or not, but this sequence was hilarious regardless. I may have laughed at the film more than I did with it, but Venom was certainly best when it embraced this quality.
What will determine your guilty enjoyment of the film hinges on how much you’re embracing Tom Hardy’s unarguably committed lead performance. Hardy has repeatedly proven himself to be a fantastic actor; so, when he was cast in this role, interest in the film definitely increased.
At San Diego Comic-Con earlier this year, director Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland) said Brock would be a “gritty, grounded and complicated character.” With Hardy in the lead role, this made sense; however, this absolutely is not what we get. Instead, Hardy is doing something hilariously bizarre and over-the-top, in a performance which often felt like he was channeling eccentric energy in a similar vein to Nic Cage and Jim Carrey. Again, I’m not sure if it was intentional, but it was certainly not boring to watch!
Unfortunately, I just didn’t get enough of these crazily comedic scenes because Fleischer never committing fully to this over-the-top comedic tone. Hardy stated in the lead up to the film’s release that many of his favourite scenes—which apparently included a lot of dark comedy—were cut. After seeing the film, this is disappointing because if these scenes leaned into that quasi-unintentional comedic tone, it would’ve delivered more of what I was enjoying. Instead, the film has no idea what it wants to be. Fleischer creates something which is tonally inconsistent that never fully commits to one identity.
Riz Ahmed plays Carlton Drake and, while I’m a fan of Ahmed’s work, he gives an undercooked performance which doesn’t deliver enough scene-chewing menace for such an uninteresting character. It’s hard to blame this solely on Ahmed considering Fleischer really struggled to meld tone throughout, but this film was crying out for a villainous performance on the same heightened wavelength as Hardy. Michelle Williams is a four-time Academy Award nominee and deserves a role far better than what she received. She’s relegated to a standard girlfriend prototype who gets little to do. Fortunately, she doesn’t become a damsel-in-distress.
I thought the Venom character was an interesting metaphor for drug addiction, similar to how the X-Men are metaphors for the marginalised and Superman represents refugees. Venom’s thematic angle isn’t explored at all; the narrative was relatively threadbare in terms of complex themes and in-depth plotting.
Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg and Kelly Marcel’s screenplay takes around ten minutes too long to get to Brock and Venom’s interactions; but when it does, that’s when a lot of the film’s enjoyment is to be had. Fleischer’s action is mostly watchable yet unremarkable, with the best set piece being an extended motorcycle chase through San Francisco. At worst, the action is completely incompetent, with the third act divulging into incoherently staged, CGI-laden visual noise. The usually dependable Ludwig Göransson also delivers a loud and overbearing score which was a letdown considering his Black Panther score from earlier this year is one of the genre’s best.
I think Venom could become a fantastic guilty pleasure … as long as everyone is slightly intoxicated. There are moments of (maybe unintentional) comedy which makes this a blast to watch, but I just wanted a little bit more of it to create that perfect so-bad-it’s-good experience. Tom Hardy is having a great time in the lead role and if you’re on board with his weirdness, you should get moments of satisfaction in between a lot of blandness. Whether this film will start a franchise or not, I’m not sure; however, if they can add some interesting thematic relevance and execute the more subversive comedy-horror tone, then there’s potential in this concept. As for now, we’ve got a film which almost hits that sweet spot of trashy throwback craziness, but never has the tonal focus to hit it.
Venom is in cinemas now.