Released: October 2018
Director: Ruben Fleischer
Distributor: Sony Pictures Releasing
Budget: $100 million
Stars: Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, and Riz Ahmed
Disgraced reporter Eddie Brock (Hardy) is bonded with a psychotic symbiotic alien lifeform and becomes a superhuman anti-hero forced to choose between protecting the innocent and enacting revenge.
A Venom spin-off has been in the works since Spider-Man 3 (Raimi, 2007), if you can believe that. Sony, once a studio capable of making good decisions and responsible for kicking off the modern superhero crazy with Sami Raimi’s first two Spider-Man movies (2002; 2004), have been determined to produce a Venom movie, even after the character was unceremoniously killed off in Spider-Man 3, and when the Amazing Spider-Man (Webb, 2012; 2014) series was ended prematurely, and now, when the rights to Spider-Man are shared with Marvel Studios. This means that, while Sony can produce spin-offs of Spider-Man characters like Venom, it doesn’t look like they can actually include Tom Holland’s version of the web-head. This has created some confusion, even amongst the two studios, with some at Sony stating that Venom exists adjacent to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and others proclaiming that it is a standalone story, and still others claiming that it’s both! Seemingly inspired by the success of R-rated, violent superheroes like Wade Wilson/Deadpool and Logan/Wolverine, Sony fast-tracked Venom and brought the production back to life, even managing to snag Tom Hardy in the process. Unfortunately, it seems that, at the last minute, someone at Sony lost their balls and, rather than a violent R-rated affair, Venom is more a watered down, studio-friendly version of the character in order to sell more tickets.
Venom takes inspiration from three prominent arcs of the character’s self-titled series: Lethal Protector (Michelinie, 1993), Separation Anxiety (Mackie, 1994-1995), and Planet of the Symbiotes (Michelinie, 1995), whilst also taking some inspiration from the character’s origins and portrayal in the Ultimate Spider-Man (Bendis, 2000). This means that Venom is quite a talkative, violent character who isn’t necessarily interested in saving lives but is also driven to punishing only those who do wrong by others, which should result in an interesting and layered character and, instead, produces a fun, if kind of dumb, action movies that could have been really violent but was hampered by studio interference.
Therefore, Venom is an interesting beast; the film lives and dies by the strength and versatility of its star and Tom Hardy is brilliant as a likeable, downtrodden underdog who is trying to do what’s right but is tempted by the power offered by the symbiote to strike back at those who have wronged him. Hardy pulls double duty in this film, playing both Eddie Brock and voicing the alien symbiote, and is portrayed as a loser who screws up his life and blames others for it.
Unfortunately, the same praise can’t really be said for some of Hardy’s co-stars. Carlton Drake (Ahmed) is every wacky evil corporate villain you’ve seen on film before and, while I didn’t exactly hate him or dislike his performance, I am personally just tired of seeing guys in suits being evil for no real reason. Rounding things out are Anne Weying (Williams), Eddie’s former fiancée who is serviceable enough but sure drops Eddie’s ass pretty quickly after he screws up an important interview.
One person who did stand out for me was Dr. Dora Skirth (Jenny Slate), who was super cute and spunky and had a nice little character arc going on. I almost wish that Eddie had started the film with nothing and developed a romance with her rather than trying to find ways to repair his relationship with Anne as Dora had a lot more potential in her.
Effects wise…well, Venom by its very nature requires substantial special effects and CGI to create the brain-eating anti-hero and it definitely seems like the studio put all of the money into making Venom look as good as possible and, honestly, Venom does look fantastic when he’s on screen. The problem is he’s just not on screen enough; a lot of the runtime is focused more on Eddie as a character and slowly developing his rapport with the symbiote and discovering what it can do, which is great as we really didn’t get to spend enough time with Brock (Topher Grace) in Spider-Man 3 but, as a massive fan of the character, I just wanted to see more Venom in my Venom movie. Other effects, though, are a bit hit and miss; in its non-bonded form, the symbiote is little more than writhing, liquid-like goo that honestly looked a bit dodgy. The effects used in Spider-Man 3 actually looked better and made the symbiote appear more vicious and dangerous; similarly, I wasn’t a fan of how the symbiote formed tentacles and appendages from seemingly nowhere with no ill effect on people’s clothes or skin. In the comics, the symbiote’s mimic clothing and cling and tug at skin like sticky webbing (an effect also nailed in Spider-Man 3) but none of that happens here; it’s seemingly just generated without any noticeable issues.
Instead, Venom focuses on the duality between Brock and Venom, with the symbiote constantly talking and expressing itself to Eddie and threatening to devour his organs or takeover his body completely. This is a smart move, as it means we get a much more accurate version of Venom than anything seen before, but the symbiote’s motivations and behaviour is questionable at times, almost as much as those of Drake, and no amount of character work or amazing effects can change that some of those aspects are jarring and glaring flaws.
The Life Foundation obtains the symbiotes and hopes to use them to save humanity from extinction (which is kind of daft but okay, I guess); Eddie stumbles upon their plot and becomes bonded with the symbiote, which helpfully doesn’t kill him in the same way that others were killed from exposure. In an odd addition, the symbiote refers to itself as “Venom” right from the start, which is normally a name the two create to describe their union, and it is driven by hunger for living flesh and the desire to destroy humanity. However, it has a complete change of heart after being bonded to Eddie and decides to protect humankind instead because it randomly decides that it likes life on Earth…
Drake, meanwhile, also bonds with another symbiote to become Riot, who wants to bring the rest of their kind to Earth to take the whole show over. A lot of fans will probably be annoyed at the decision to include Riot, who is a forgettable footnote in Venom’s character history compared to someone like Carnage, and is simply a return to the tired old formula of a villain who is exactly like the hero but eeeeevil! Riot even looks almost exactly like Venom in the right (or wrong, I guess) lighting, though he is separated by a distinct colour scheme and the ability to form different weapons.
Carnage would have been a better choice by far but the neutered rating means that Sony would never have done the character justice. Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson) appears in a mid-credits scene, promising to unleash “carnage” when he escapes from prison, which is great as it might mean that the studio finds their balls and does a really violent sequel but it’s weird because the scene is so random and out of nowhere and so obviously put in for fan service. I would have preferred to see Brock chasing Kasady for an interview throughout the movie as his big break and stumble upon the Life Foundation’s plot that way, maybe have Cletus be a captive of theirs. But, still, if they get a sequel and if they go full on with the violence, I look forward to seeing Carnage unleashed in full the next go around.
Venom is loud and fun and full of potential but doesn’t exactly do anything new or even that exciting. Tom Hardy is great and Venom looks amazing, but the rest of the film kind of crumbles around them and the inclusion of Spider-Man would not have helped to stop that from happening, I love Venom and I wanted this movie to be great but, in the end, it only turned out to be just okay. Here’s hoping for an extended, bloodier cut on DVD and a more violent sequel if it makes enough green.