The time has come for us to review Venom.
IT’S A MASTERPIECE.
Can you just … wait a second?
OK, BUT MAKE IT QUICK. I’M HUNGRY.
Fine. Venom is the story of Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy), a journalist who bonds with an alien parasite.
… right, sorry, symbiote, and gains superpowers while losing hold of his sanity. The character was originally conceived as an evil analogue to Spider-Man, which is the role he played in the comics and 2007’s Spider-Man 3, where bonding with the creature caused Peter Parker to wear eyeliner and brush his bangs over his forehead. But with Spidey on loan to Marvel, Sony Pictures finds itself in (costly) possession of a Spider-Man world with no Spider-Man in it, and so Eddie and his dark passenger find themselves center stage, as pro- rather than antagonist.
THIS IS BORING. I’M GONNA GO BITE SOMEONE’S HEAD OFF AND SLURP OUT THEIR LUNGS.
Patience. Venom’s Eddie is a principled crusader rather than the ambitious corner-cutter we’ve seen before, a digital muckraker bent on taking down the powerful who oversteps when he goes after Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), an Elon Musk–y tech mogul with an ethically flexible approach to human trials. Eddie loses his job and his fiancée, Anne (Michelle Williams), whose trust he betrayed to get incriminating evidence on Drake, in short order, and is at his lowest when a rogue employee (Jenny Slate) calls him offering a chance to expose Drake for good. Eddie sneaks into Drake’s lab, and one act of misplaced compassion later, he’s fused with an alien being in both body and mind.
FINALLY THIS IS GETTING GOOD.
Venom itself is less a molecular fusion than a wobbly playhouse built of mismatched blocks, solid in places and nearly collapsing in others. (Given that there’s no evidence of any Spider-Man in the movie’s world, it’s never explained why he looks like a two-tone version of the crime-fighting webslinger, but that’s the least of its problems.) As directed by Ruben Fleischer (best known for Zombieland) and written by Scott Rosenberg, Jeff Pinkner, Kelly Marcel, and Will Beall, it’s a movie appropriately at odds with itself, although the tension is less between good and evil or good and bad than (anti)heroic fable and something … other than that. In addition to being a ravenous monster who needs a constant influx of fresh meat to survive—and will consume its host if it can’t get sustenance from somewhere else—Venom is, well, kind of a wiseass. It dawns on the movie slowly at first, perhaps because it’s hard to see the twinkle in the symbiote’s eye for the rows of jagged, slavering teeth beside it, but Hardy seems to catch on first, playing Eddie as a jittery schmo whose cracked voice makes him sound like he’s perpetually going through puberty.
FEED ME, SEYMOUR, FEED ME NOW.
Ha, good one. In fact, the dynamic is reminiscent of the one between Little Shop of Horrors’ hapless shop clerk and his bloodthirsty plant, if Seymour Krelborn spent all his free time doing bicep curls. While Venom is prone to biting the head off the occasional bad guy—a symbiote’s gotta eat—merging with Eddie gives Venom a soft heart to go with his fearsome fangs and long, obscenely prehensile tongue. He mocks Eddie for his fear of heights in the language of a grade-school bully, but when there’s a tender romantic moment late in the movie, he can’t resist a subwoofer-rattling “Awww.”
SO, LIKE I SAID: MASTERPIECE. WHAT’S THE PROBLEM?
I’ll try to put this delicately so as not to offend you. It’s not clear how much of the comedy is … intentional? At the very least, Venom feels as if Fleischer was shooting two radically different movies at once, and even in the final edit it’s not clear which he chose. It’s a movie in which the villain, after being called out for being an inhuman monster with designs on ending the human race, coolly responds, “That hurts—long journal entry tonight.” But it’s also a chaotic, deafeningly loud superhero movie with incoherent, visually repulsive action sequences that kill the momentum instead of increasing it, building up to a battle between Venom and another, less soft-hearted symbiote that looks like a wrestling match between two oily blobs of snot. Burying Hardy under layers of computer-generated goo both literally and figuratively muffles his performance, and the steroidal hulk that replaces him is difficult to differentiate from cinematographer Matthew Libatique’s Stygian backgrounds—the color palette is tweaked so far that explosions flare blue instead of orange.
JESUS, DID YOU JUST COMPLAIN ABOUT THE COLOR PALETTE? WHAT KIND OF WEAK-KNEED LOSER ARE YOU? YOU HAVEN’T EVEN MENTIONED THE LOBSTERS YET.
OK, fine. Your turn.
THERE’S A SCENE IN WHICH EDDIE BROCK CLIMBS INTO A LOBSTER TANK AND STARTS EATING THEM ALIVE, BITING RIGHT THROUGH THEIR SHELLS. THERE’S A HOT LADY VENOM AS WELL AS A MUSCLY DUDE ONE. THERE ARE SPACESHIPS AND TERMINATOR REFERENCES AND BOTH AN EVIL LITTLE GIRL AND AN EVIL LITTLE DOG. YOU’RE ALWAYS SAYING YOU WANT SUPERHERO MOVIES TO BE DIFFERENT. THIS ONE IS DIFFERENT.
Fair point. (For an alien oil slick, you make a pretty good movie critic.) If there’s an upside to the profusion of movies about comic-book superheroes, it ought to be that the movies can be as varied as the comics themselves—which is why it’s such an ongoing disappointment when they present as paranoid thrillers or buddy comedies or period pieces only to climax in the same battles against misguided megalomaniacs and glowing garbage monsters. Venom wants to be something different, an off-kilter dark comedy whose protagonist doesn’t need to be cleaned up so he can fight alongside Iron Man someday. But it’s also terrified to step out of line, and the stench of fear overwhelms whatever wisps of fresh air have sneaked through the cracks in the doorway.
DID YOU SAY “STENCH”? NOW I’M HUNGRY AGAIN.
[Sigh.] Burgers again?
SURE. ORDER MINE RARE.