Tom Hardy gives one of the best turns in a thankless role you’ll ever see. Known behind the scenes as Sony’s attempt to cash in on a “Spider-Man” character it has under its creative control, “Venom” (2018) is about a journalist, Eddie Brock, who gets possessed by an alien Symbiote. When Eddie is in the throes of possession, the sweat-drenched Hardy is sympathetic and funny; when Venom takes over, the performance is lost in a black CGI blob with white eyes and teeth.
I was entertained for a good chunk of this film that ultimately falls flat – despite being set in hilly San Francisco. It even has a few smart things to say in the early going. Eddie is a sloppily dressed truth-telling journo who has a loyal cult following in print and on TV; he’s the type of reporter who can befriend homeless people because they “get” each other, man. But when Eddie goes after a corporate bigwig, Riz Ahmed’s Carlton Drake, his media company dumps him. And so does his lawyer wife, Anne (Michelle Williams, proving the adage that “a paycheck is a paycheck”).
Meanwhile, a scientist at Drake’s pharma corporation, Jenny Slate’s Dora, can’t deny her moral impulse and tells Eddie about her boss’s deadly experiments on the hapless homeless. “Venom” could’ve used more of Dora, and more interaction between Eddie and Dora. These two people are grounded and decent. Eddie’s relationship with Annie, on the other hand, strikes me as contrived.
The screenplay by three writers (what a shock that this isn’t a singular vision, right?) and the direction by Ruben Fleischer (“Zombieland”) are awkwardly caught between intentional and unintentional humor – but it doesn’t stand out in either of those categories. However, Hardy (Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises”) gives it his all; I was rooting for the actor as much as for Eddie. With Venom – who has a slavering voice like Kang and Kodos – shouting that he’s “Hungry!” in Eddie’s mind, Eddie chows down on tater tots right out of the freezer bag and later goes nuts in a restaurant, chomping on a lobster fresh out of the tank.
When Eddie fights the emergence of Venom (they have an uneasy relationship), Hardy has to do that “fighting with yourself” thing like in the superior “Upgrade,” also from 2018, and he sells it. For a lot of the runtime (slightly more than 90 minutes, not counting an honest-to-god 20 minutes of credits), “Venom” is a goofy brand of fun.
It lost me in the end though. The special effects of multiple Symbiotes fighting are the latest case of CGI blobs fighting in a final act of a superhero movie. It looks like a screen full of black silly string at one point. In the cases where Eddie talks to Venom, who briefly separates from his body, the eye lines don’t always match up.
It’s partially my fault for letting my mind wander, but I lost track of the four different Symbiotes. One is in Eddie, one is in Drake, one is in Anne (briefly, at least), and I think the fourth one dies in the lab – for some reason. I could’ve rewound and checked, but I didn’t care enough.
Drake’s Symbiote, known as Riot, has a clearly stated goal of moving his species to Earth where it can feast on humans, so I’m not sure why this puts him at odds with Eddie’s Venom, who wants the same thing. Maybe it’s because Eddie partially controls Venom. It’s hard to tell when Venom is in CGI blob form, and it’s hard to care.
“Venom” also struggles to justify its creative existence. The importance of independent journalism is flirted with as a central theme. There might be something buried in here about limited natural resources on Earth vis-a-vis an alien race that comes along to suck the Earth dry. But that doesn’t come to the surface.
Meanwhile, hanging over this enterprise is the fact that Venom (who debuted in comics in 1984 and in movies with 2007’s “Spider-Man 3”) is a “Spider-Man” villain and Spidey isn’t in this movie; a similar issue crops up in the Batman-less “Birds of Prey” (2020). The in-universe explanation is that this is San Francisco, not Spidey’s stomping grounds of New York City.
The behind-the-scenes explanation is that Sony rented out Spidey to the MCU. But now there’s buzz that Tom Holland’s Spidey could also appear in Sony’s films with Spider-Man comics characters. If that happens, then “Venom” could retroactively be in a shared universe with the MCU. But don’t think about it too much for now; you’ll get a headache.
For a casual viewer who doesn’t have that knowledge/baggage, it’s not too distracting, although “Venom” has a hole in it that could’ve been filled by more good guys; I’d nominate Dora for more screen time. Granted, this story is about Eddie fighting the monster inside him in order to become a hero – and to perhaps convince the monster to be a hero, too … or something like that. The screenplay doesn’t sell it, but Hardy darn near does.