Venom is an admirably strange superhero tale derailed by studio interference
Let’s get this out of the way fast: Venom, Tom Hardy's (Mad Max: Fury Road) first foray into the world of superhero fare, is hot garbage. Expensive, ugly, and often incoherent garbage. It feels like a film plucked straight out of the mid-2000s, the early days of the comics adaptation boom, complete with with oodles of corny exposition and an abhorrent Eminem original song. But it’s also somewhat admirable in its strange existence, a film marketed as an edgy alternative to the colorful grandeur of Disney’s Marvel offerings but in reality is an exceedingly baffling buddy comedy about two losers who realize they’re better off together than they’ve ever been. The twist is that one of these weirdos is a twitchy, greasy journalist who would fly like gangbusters in a Vice documentary and the other is a slimy, bloodthirsty, and weirdly cordial alien.
The film follows Eddie Brock (Hardy), the aforementioned reporter, as he mumbles his way through the darkest time of his life. After he rejects his network bosses’ request to do a puff piece on shady, Elon Musk-lite inventor Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed, The Sisters Brothers), instead opting to steal his lawyer fiancee Anne’s (Michelle Williams, Manchester By the Sea) files on him and try to expose his dark business practices, Brock is stripped of both his career and engagement and is left a penniless alcoholic. Little does Brock know, however, that Drake is attempting to pair human subjects with symbiotes, gooey little creatures he discovered through space exploration and the key to his plan to send humans deeper into the galaxy. Opportunity arises for Brock when Drake’s lab assistant Dr. Skirth (Jenny Slate, Obvious Child) takes issue with Drake’s careless methods and brings Brock to the lab to expose the experiments. Things go predictably awry when Brock is inadvertently molded with one of the symbiotes, a hungry killing machine that calls itself Venom (also voiced by Hardy). Needing Brock to survive, and Brock queasily getting a kick out of his newfound abilities, Venom agrees to stay bonded with Brock in order to take down Drake.
This premise, which could zip along like a big-budget Cronenberg film on acid, is hampered by an obvious over-involvement on Sony’s part. Clearly perplexed by the source material and desperate for a digestible PG-13 rating, the film is so chopped up by the studio and utterly sapped of inspiration that it sometimes barely feels like a movie at all. They forget that the titular character became so popular because he was so gleefully violent. When Marvel introduced this head-chomping slimeball, he was the first Spider-Man villain whose depravity finally felt like a match for that hero’s unabashed optimism. There’s flashes of the nasty elements that made the character a classic, such as his taste for cannibalism, but the lack of any bite in these scenes makes them feel more like a joke than something truly terrifying. Here the character is so sanitized, so trapped by the focus group mentality that he feels inconsequential on screen.
Despite the disaster of a script, it’s obvious why Hardy would take the role, as it gives him an outlet to express his more intense, weird proclivities as an actor. Brock is a comically bad stock character, a macho clown bad boy who rides a motorcycle and forgets to feed the cat. But there are some gems to be found in his dual performance with Venom. Hardy revels in the absurdity of this partnership, particularly in its more subversive elements. He plays the two as if they are in a dominant-submissive relationship, with Venom taking on the role of the powerful, insulting monster with a heart and Brock the needy, quick-to-obey manservant. It’s a partnership with an almost Freudian sexual subtext that’s difficult to dismiss, one which culminates in moments such as when Brock describes Venom as “living up his ass” or when the two share a grotesque kiss (to be clear, Venom is at this point in a woman’s body, but the implication is obvious). The weirdness is made fun by the banter between the two, which doesn’t always land but is admittedly the one part of the film that feels fresh. This is sort of the weird role better suited for a more unhinged, more tongue-in-cheek body horror tale, which is what this film easily could have been. Instead, it feels like a solid if poorly directed performance (Hardy’s accent is real bad, and it’s hard to believe it was his choice) mired in the sticky goo of studio interference.
The elements Sony really wanted to get you in seats for, the action and special effects, are not nearly enough to distract you from the messiness that plagues the film. Ruben Fleischer is a perfectly adequate action director, setting up some serviceable set-pieces, but the editing and pacing is so jarring that that it’s often difficult to really appreciate Venom’s character design amidst the chaos. The quick, underdeveloped nature of much of the film makes it obvious that there are more inspired pieces missing from the final cut, probably left on the cutting room floor due to fear on the part of the studio. These cut sequences aren’t replaced, just erased, so everything here feels like it’s moving at a lightning pace with no consideration of what’s actually going on behind the lights show on screen. As a result, the character development is non-existent, the plot is borderline asinine, and the action isn’t given enough of a chance to save the film from itself.
Venom is a film in dire need of an antidote, and not just one in the form of re-writes or faith from its studio. What it really needs is a good lawyer. Venom, like Batman’s Joker, is a character made interesting by his dynamic with Spider-Man, and the lack of that character here due to problems with ownership rights off-screen is a serious issue. Perhaps Venom can one day carry his own film, but only if he finds a studio willing to get its hands dirty. Until then, if this wacky, buddy comedy version of the character wants to survive, it needs its friendly neighborhood nemesis to make the tone consistent. Without him, all we have is Venom, a film that feels more like an amateurish body horror skit for bros than a film willing to go all in on one of Marvel’s most beloved villains.