A turd in the wind.
This is a spoiler-free review of Ruben Fleischer’s Venom, starring Tom Hardy.
The best description of Venom as a movie is provided by a quote from the titular antihero itself: “An armless, legless, faceless thing… rolling down the street like a turd in the wind.”
In this Ruben Fleischer-directed monstrosity that rewrites the character’s origin to omit its foundational relationship to Spider-Man (who Sony has rented out to Marvel for the moment) slimy alien Symbiotes are brought to Earth and must merge with a perfectly matched human host in order to survive, otherwise the body rejects them, killing the host and potentially the Symbiote as well.
Sadly, Venom suffers from the same lack of cohesion and rejects everything that might’ve turned it into a badass joyride in the vein of Deadpool or Guardians of the Galaxy. The result is a muddled hodgepodge that isn’t sure whether it wants to be comedic or take its troubled antihero way too seriously. (When your main character is threatening to eat someone’s pancreas as a tasty snack, you probably want to lean into the absurdity.)
This is a shortcoming of both the script – a lumbering mutant that’s credited to Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg, and Kelly Marcel – and Fleischer’s direction, both of which yank the actors from overwrought exposition to overproduced action scenes with no sense of pacing or tone. That’s a surprising misstep, considering Fleischer’s balance of both in the horror-comedy Zombieland.
The plot, such as it is, involves disgraced reporter Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) investigating the sinister machinations of a SpaceX-style corporation called The Life Foundation, which ends up getting him exposed to an oozing creature that, naturally, turns out to be his extraterrestrial soulmate. This merging imbues Eddie with enhanced strength and resilience, but also sticks him with a chatty copilot with bad teeth, an insatiable appetite for live prey (and/or tater tots), and a surreal desire to fix Eddie’s love life.
On paper, Hardy is the ideal Eddie Brock, effortlessly embodying the fluid physicality and jittery paranoia of a man being consumed by sentient space goo. Although he’s saddled with some of the clunkiest comic book movie dialogue since Halle Berry’s Catwoman in both his human and Symbiote forms, Hardy at least manages to deliver the movie’s few intentional moments of humor as Eddie grapples with his talkative bodysnatcher. But Venom does little to justify the bond between Eddie and the Symbiote beyond a couple of cursory lines of dialogue.
Is the match based on genetics? Personality? Dependent on Venom’s mood? The script is completely uninterested in exploring the logistics of a Symbiote’s transfer between bodies, making some of the third-act contrivances even more baffling.
Without the benefit of a snarky alien companion, the rest of the cast is adrift. Riz Ahmed does his best as the Life Foundation’s generic corporate overlord Carlton Drake, but even the Marvel Cinematic Universe has proven how rare it is to produce a compelling villain, and they’re generally working with much stronger scripts than this. As a result, Ahmed is reduced to scheming and mustache-twirling until the time comes for a messy Symbiote battle, where it’s often impossible to tell which monster we’re supposed to be rooting for, between the murky lighting and sloppy CGI.
Michelle Williams is given more to do as Eddie’s ex-girlfriend Anne than your typical superhero movie love interest, but since there’s zero chemistry between her and Hardy, there’s not much reason to root for Eddie and Anne after his mood swings take a turn for the cannibalistic. Meanwhile, Jenny Slate and Reid Scott manage to add some emotional grounding to their characters, but both roles are so underdeveloped, they can’t contribute much to the melee.
The first act is a total snooze until Venom makes an appearance, but things liven up once Eddie begins exhibiting some very strange symptoms. This gives Hardy a chance to prove himself as an underused talent when it comes to physical comedy, and his vocal performance as Venom is an effective blend of menace and obsessive affection for his host. The film’s few bright spots are largely due to Hardy’s interplay with himself – this is the second time he’s played dual roles, following 2015’s underwritten but ambitious Legend. It’s frustrating to imagine how much better the movie might’ve been if the creative direction had matched Hardy’s obvious passion for the character.
There’s something distinctly ‘90s about the tone of Venom, which relies on adolescent humor and gross-out gags in a way that doesn’t gel with the intensity of Hardy’s performance. At the same time, it shares a lot of DNA with the superhero duds of the early aughts, like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or Elektra, where the storytelling approach is distinctly by-the-numbers and the visual effects have a noticeable green screen vibe. And while some of the early fight scenes have a frenetic, well-choreographed rhythm, as time wears on, everything devolves into a typical CGI slugfest.
You can tell that Fleischer is straining against the confines of the PG-13 rating with the desire for more bloody, brain-chomping action, but it’s clear that a teen audience is more likely to be susceptible to the film’s awkward, schlocky tendencies than the more cerebral Logan crowd, leaving Venom stranded between two warring instincts.
Perhaps the most disappointing part of Venom is all of its untapped potential; it’s easy to imagine an actor of Hardy’s caliber seamlessly sliding into the MCU, and at the very least, he has enough fun with the role that you can’t help but want to see him face off with Tom Holland’s wide-eyed Spider-Man. If he gets the chance, here’s hoping the wind will have blown away the lingering whiff of this stinker by then.