“Good” and “bad” are certainly relative terms when it comes to Ruben Fleischer’s Marvel-based film, which focuses on an evil alien life form known as a “symbiote” that was originally conceived back in 1984 as an adversary for Spider-Man. Manhattan’s friendly neighborhood web-slinger is nowhere to be found here, presumably because he’s still “dead” courtesy of finger-snapping Thanos, as seen in this April’s Avengers: Infinity War. Lucky him, as that’s probably, in the final tally, a preferable fate to being involved in this helter-skelter origin story about Venom, an oily black blob of goo who winds up on Earth with three fellow symbiote comrades. His arrival comes courtesy of Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), a mogul intent on discovering a way to bond the extraterrestrials to people and, in doing so, to help mankind live on distant worlds once our planet inevitably succumbs to overpopulation and climate change. Instead of Drake’s test subjects, however, Venom finds his one and only host in Eddie Brock, a San Francisco journalist embodied by Tom Hardy with a cartoonish insanity that transforms the proceedings into a crazed carnival of unintentional humor.
A reporter with his own guerrilla-journalism video show, Brock resembles an unwashed blogger—scruffy beard, dirty zip-up hoodie, perpetual booze-haze exhaustion in his eyes—but has a boss (Ron Cephas Jones) in a high-rise building, which makes about as much sense as the idea that classy district attorney Anne Weying (Michelle Williams) is engaged to him. Brock’s world falls apart when he steals Anne’s confidential lawsuit files about Drake’s homicidal experiments on the homeless, and then confronts the bigwig about it on camera—a decision that costs him his job and his bride-to-be. This makes Brock sad, although it’s difficult to tell precisely how sad, because Hardy vacillates on a dime between acting sluggish and manic, all while traversing dingy city streets where he gets to chat with pals such as bag-lady Maria (Melora Waters) and bodega owner Mrs. Chen (Peggy Lu), the latter of whom is being shaken down by a local thug.
Hardy constantly seems like he’s skyrocketing, and then crashing, from a mescaline high, and that’s before he sneaks into Drake’s facility with the aid of turncoat Dr. Dora Skirth (Jenny Slate) and winds up unknowingly merging with Venom. This causes Brock to ferociously binge and purge scraps from his garbage can, as well as to spike a fever that worries Anne, who’s now dating doofus Dr. Dan (Reid Scott). Medical tests reveal a parasite yet can’t properly explain the deep voice Brock begins hearing in his head, demanding “FOOD.” When Drake’s minions arrive to nab Brock, Venom materializes in full: a giant veiny beast with enormous runny-egg-white eyes, a mouth stuffed with sharp teeth and a gargantuan tongue, and the ability to shapeshift in bonkers ways, including shooting tendrils from Brock’s body and creating limb-like shields and bladed weapons.
Venom has a taste for human heads, but in his full-on supernatural form, he’s a rather goofy-looking monster prone to roaring at the heavens above. Far more entertainingly off-the-wall is Hardy, who appears to be channeling Nicolas Cage in Ghost Rider via Jim Carrey in The Mask. Flip-flopping between a hyper high-pitched voice and a frantic whisper, Hardy is determined to go as gonzo as director Fleischer will allow. As it turns out, that’s quite far, highlighted by a sequence in which Brock crashes Anne and Dr. Dan’s lunch at a swanky restaurant and, after scavenging for snacks on patrons’ plates, blissfully cools off in the establishment’s lobster tank—where he promptly bites into a live crustacean. Brock is a ragdoll puppet manipulated by a malevolent master, as well as mercilessly mocked by him. While the film intends for some of Venom’s barbs to be comedic, the hodgepodge script (by Scott Rosenberg, Jeff Pinkner, Kelly Marcel and Will Beall) is an inadvertent laugh riot whenever he speaks, be it calling Brock a “pussy” for opting to take an elevator downstairs rather than leaping out a window, or informing his companion that the reason they’re a perfect pair is because “I’m a loser like you, Eddie!”
Despite Hardy’s over-the-top tour de force, Venom can’t keep from embarrassing itself at every turn. Until the third act, Williams plays things straight, seemingly unaware of the material’s ludicrousness; and the same holds true for Ahmed, whose titan eventually merges with an even more formidable symbiote to become Riot—thus allowing the film to position Venom as an antihero who the audience can root for. Mostly, however, any thrill one might derive from seeing the fiend take out police officers, leapfrog between speeding cars, or help Brock race through the Bay Area on a motorcycle are neutered by shoddy CGI work that turns wannabe-amazing sights into dark and murky messes. I know I saw Venom and Riot go toe-to-toe in the effects-heavy finale, but the precise things they did to each other were just about impossible to decipher.
Nitpicking the plot particulars of a film like this is, admittedly, a fool’s game—moviegoers aren’t lining up for these sorts of things for nuanced drama and soulful performances, but for outsized spectacle. Still, even on those limited terms, Venom is a slapdash affair that asks one to not meaningfully think about anything that’s happening at any given moment, and then fails to deliver even the “awesomeness” that might compensate for its lack of basic logic or lucidity. At least there’s Hardy, though, fidgeting like a schizophrenic loony bin escapee and talking to himself about refraining from cannibalism. He’s an inspired whirling dervish, doing his damndest, with every gleeful exaggeration, to hijack this retread of clichéd computerized mayhem.
When, in a late scene, Brock finds himself on death’s door, only to receive loving resuscitation from Venom—a moment scored, hilariously, to romantic music—the film comes close to getting on the same wacko wavelength as its magnetic leading man. The rest of the time, alas, it’s just a frenzied fiasco that’s funny for all the wrong reasons.
The whole movie just disappoints, actually, including the mid-credits tease for a sequel that I would like to see happen given the character they’re introducing here and the actor playing him , but it just won't ever happen. This was supposed to be a launch pad for stories in this Spider-Man universe that could essentially keep the lights on in parts of the wallcrawler's world until Marvel and Sony figured out credible ways to bring Peter Parker back into this fold. If Venom worked, stories built around Morbius the Living Vampire, Silver Sable, Black Cat and Kraven the Hunter could advance, fleshing out this universe and showing that Spider-Man would be a welcome, but non-essential, inclusion.
Instead, Venom convinced me of what I initially feared. It doesn't make sense to create stories around Spider-Man characters if you can't use Spider-Man in them.