The tagline for Sony’s Venom is, “The world has enough superheroes.” It’s a bold declaration that this isn’t going to be like all those other superhero movies. And they’re right. Venom isn’t at all like the superhero movies clogging up today’s cineplexes. Venom is a transplant from an earlier time, when superhero movies weren’t considered for Academy Awards or sought for their deep social commentary but were mostly just cheesy fun. Venom is also weird as hell and had it embraced that weirdness only a little more, it could have been something really unique among today’s usual superhero fare.
It begins with a space expedition returning to Earth with several specimens of an alien symbiotic lifeform. The CEO of the company behind the expedition, Life Foundation’s Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed) is obsessed with bonding the symbiotes with humans through the process of symbiosis, but his conducting of these illegal and deadly experiments draws the attention of investigative reporter, Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy). This eventually leads to Brock following up on a tip and sneaking into Life Foundation’s laboratory where, unsurprisingly, he himself bonds with one of the symbiotes – the one called Venom.
The setup here is fairly ordinary, and nothing about where this particular plot goes should be shocking to anyone at all familiar with superhero (or even anti-hero) origin stories. However, where Venom bucks the trend is how its presents its protagonist and his powers, focusing more on the horror of being infected with an alien parasite and how unsettling it can be when that parasite has a mind – and appetite – all its own.
By far, the best and possibly only good thing there is to say about Venom is that the film completely nails the strange dynamic between Eddie and Venom. Their rapport is weird but also kind of charming. It isn’t quite a Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde scenario as it is for The Hulk, but rather Venom exists within Eddie, speaking to him, sometimes encouragingly but often times not. And then when things get ugly – they get ugly, with Venom taking over and consuming Eddie in his tar black and bulky visage. It’s this friendship that slowly develops between the two that forms the twisted, gooey black heart of the movie, and without it, Venom would be entirely forgettable.
Hardy is also relishing this role and the movie and character are all the better for it. He throws himself fully in to playing a man who is frightened and confused and even disgusted by what’s happening to him. Hardy’s performance is engaging, hilarious, and a little sympathetic, but mostly it is an entirely committed performance and it’s why Venom even works at all. The passion that Hardy has for playing Eddie/Venom is undeniable and it would pretty awesome if he got the chance to do it again. (Though, admittedly, those odds aren’t looking too great.)
The only other thing Venom really has going for it is the film never tries to take itself too seriously. This is a movie that knows what it is – a silly movie in where a man transforms into a giant, shape-shifting black mass with a huge tongue who enjoys eating people. (Or animals, the symbiotes aren’t too picky, as long as it’s meat.) The premise is truly bizarre and when Venom embraces just how bizarre of a concept it is, the movie soars. There are so, so many moments that are literally laugh out loud funny, either intentionally or not, and it makes for a really enjoyably viewing experience. Venom is almost certainly on its way towards schlocky midnight movie infamy, where devoted fans will yell out their favorite lines and toss disgusting props at the screen.
What hurts Venom the most is that someone involved clearly still wanted to make a superhero movie. One where the protagonist learns a lesson, is redeemed, and in the end saves the day. Venom really didn’t need any of that, and anything too closely tied to those story beats suffers. Michelle Williams as Eddie’s ex-girlfriend/love interest is utterly wasted. Ahmed’s Drake never develops beyond greedy businessman/mad scientist – even when he, too, bonds with a symbiote and Venom and he duke it out as alien monsters. And actually, though the special effects for Venom and his abilities look pretty good for most of the movie, this final fight is an indiscernible mish-mash of goo and tongues. Oh! And then the movie continues for another 15 minutes or so as if no one was really sure if that was the end or not.
Venom is weird. It’s almost as if the lessons we imagine studios have learned in the almost 20 years of superhero movies being a thing never stuck. Instead of being like Deadpool and embracing what makes its character unique, Venom tries too hard to follow the established superhero origin template. And instead of allowing itself to be weirder, to be gorier and really embrace the body-horror elements of the character, it plays it safe with a PG-13 rating. There is certainly a lot to enjoy about Venom and it makes for a fun evening at the cinema, but it’s disappointing to see a movie waste its potential when it could have been something truly special… like a turd… in the wind.