First things first, yes, Venom, the new Sony-Marvel superhero film, which exists outside of the established Marvel Studios cinematic universe, which began in 2008 with Iron Man, has a lot of problems.
Tonally, the film, directed by Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland), is all over the place. At times, it’s nearly impossible to discern if you’re watching a horror movie, some weird body-dysmorphic-buddy-comedy or a documentary about how not to be an investigative journalist.
Still, Venom is superior to a smattering of pre-MCU films released in 2003-2004, such as The Punisher, Daredevil and Hulk, if only because the film does work in sporadic stretches, and thankfully, it is light years better than Catwoman.
For neophytes, Venom is an alien symbiote that bonds with a human host (sometimes Spider-Man, sometimes reporter Eddie Brock) to create a nearly indestructible monster that has a penchant for biting off heads. The character first appeared in 1984 in The Amazing Spider-Man no. 252, but the creature wasn’t called Venom until The Amazing Spider-Man no. 300. Venom also made a brief appearance in Spider-Man 3 in 2007, but the less said about that, the better.
In Fleischer’s film, Tom Hardy plays Brock, a brash, motorcycle-riding, millennial version of an investigative journalist, whose career is built upon exposing the bad seeds of Silicon Valley from his home base in San Francisco.
Brock is engaged to corporate attorney Anne Weying (Michelle Williams, who keeps appearing in odd roles in mainstream films like this and I Feel Pretty). And, as the film opens, following a fairly pedestrian space shuttle explosion and crash over Malaysia, where an alien symbiote escapes and infects a female paramedic, Brock nabs a one-on-one interview with the billionaire designer of the doomed rocket, Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed).
Unbeknownst to Brock, but spelled out a little too clearly for viewers, Drake is like the evil Elon Musk. He created a fleet of space shuttles to explore the outer-reaches of the galaxy for alien life with the hopes of using symbiotes to bond with select humans to allow them to live on an alien world since Earth is dying.
So far, not too bad.
But then things get muddy. Brock blows the interview. Drake lays his career and relationship with Anne to waste, leaving him unemployed and homeless and a drunk. And we time-jump six months to find Drake pushing his scientific team to launch human trials with the one symbiote that was recovered from the shuttle crash.
Meanwhile, the film makes a few jarring transitions back to Malaysia to show the progress of the second symbiote that escaped, as it switches hosts repeatedly in an effort to reach the U.S.
Eventually, one of Drake’s scientists contacts Brock and says Drake is killing innocent test subjects. She sneaks him into Drake’s fortified compound overlooking the Bay, and Brock immediately comes in contact with the symbiote, which he absorbs but doesn’t die, making him the first verified host.
A lot of time has passed since anything truly interesting has happened, but Hardy makes a game effort to keep viewers invested by launching into an almost-farcical relationship with the symbiote, who speaks aloud to viewers but inside Brock’s head.
This kind of dual persona in one body schtick can work (see Army of Darkness), but here, it definitely tests the patience of fans who have now been waiting more than 40 minutes to just see fucking Venom in action.
When that moment comes, though, it’s pretty spectacular, as Brock lays waste to a bunch of Drake’s henchmen with Venom’s help.
Outstanding, Venom says, now let’s bite all their heads off and pile them up in the corner!
That sequence is followed by another strong set piece where Brock is pursued through San Francisco by a cadre of bad guys in black SUV’s (Question – do bad guys drive any other vehicle than a black SUV?)
It’s frustrating that the film can’t capitalize on such moments without careening off-course first into bland, paint-by-numbers comic book mayhem.
And, once again, the Achille’s heel of superhero movies takes center stage for the final fight between Brock/Venom and Drake, who has by that point bonded with his own symbiote, the one from Malaysia, which turns him into Riot. Their explosive battle turns into an orgy of unnecessary CGI where it’s nearly impossible to tell what’s actually happening.
Venom once again course-corrects for its final scene, a nicely staged moment of anti-hero vengeance inside a Korean bodega.
And, of course, this being a Marvel movie, there’s not one, but two, mid-and-post-credits scenes, the first of which introduces yet ANOTHER fan favorite from the Spider-Man universe, and sets up a possibly epic through-line for the inevitable sequel.
So, is Venom worth your hard-earned cash?
If you’re a fan, yes, absolutely. Despite its plentiful flaws, there’s much to enjoy here.
If you have no idea what or who Venom is, then it’s probably best to wait and pay a lesser rental fee.
3 out of 5 stars.
Run Time: 112 minutes
Directed by Ruben Fleischer
Starring Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, Jenny Slate and Reid Scott
Opens Friday, October 5