“How on earth did this movie get made?” my movie going companion kept asking after viewing Venom. Thinking about this question, I conjured two different, fateful meetings in my imagination.
In one we see Sony executives anxiously wondering how to replicate the MCU’s success. “We’ve got a whole universe to play with! Spider-Man! 900 characters! That’s good, right?”
“Yeah yeah! Carnage the movie!”
“What about that Venom guy?”
“I don’t know – he was a flop in Spider-Man 3.”
“No, no Avi says the kids love Venom. It’s gotta be Venom!”
“I smell a hit!”
In my second scene, Tom Hardy and Ryan Reynolds are sitting in a coffee shop.
‘Listen man, it’s true,” Reynolds says, earnestly. “If you want to have some fun with accents, play some wacky superhero character and just go to town.”
Hardy is dubious. “But what about the fans, man? Don’t they get upset with that?”
“Everyone is done with serious. Comedy is the way to go.”
“But can I mumble?” Hardy asks. “Can I do weird accents? That’s really what I love about acting, doing funny accents.”
Reynolds sets down his half caf oat milk foam cold brew. “Oh they’ll love the mumbling and the accents.”
At my Venom screening, everyone was eagerly anticipating a laugh riot. The trailers were so weird, the early word so dire that Venom was looking like a classic of bad filmmaking. Sadly, in even this goal, the filmmakers fell short. Venom is a mish mosh of styles that starts out as a horror movie (the excellent Ludwig Göransson’s ominous, campy score is the first clue.) And then Hardy starts rolling his eyes like a symbiotic mix of Travis Bickie and Rupert Pupkin, and a whole new movie emerges. It feels like halfway through editing, it was decided that this was a comedy after all and a few slapstick scenes are thrown in. But these organisms just never mesh.
The story such as it is: Tom Hardy is Eddie Brock, a justice loving lunkhead of a journalist whose viral videos excel at investigative reporting. Just go with me here, okay? When he’s not zooming around San Francisco on his bike, he’s romancing his lawyer fiancée, Annie Weyring (Michelle Williams, in a very gloomy hairdo.)
Meanwhile, a space shuttle owned by an Elon Musk manke named Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed) is returning from space with some “samples” aboard. Crash landing in Malaysia, three of the “samples” are recovered in their protective cases…the fourth is set loose in the local farmer’s market and we get our first look at how symbiotes take over their hosts – with white eyes! So scary.
When Eddie goes to interview Drake, bad things begin to unfold. These include Eddie snooping on Annie’s computer and finding secret dirt on medical lawsuits against Drake which he unwisely brings up during the interview. This results in his being fired, Annie losing her job and Drake getting a mad on. Do not snoop on your partner’s computer! No good will come of it! Drake is really into his “samples” and orders a series of gruesome and fatal experiments with the alien symbiotes and hosts ranging from cute bunnies to homeless people. The symbiotes must find the perfect match in their host, don’t you know.
Well, you can see where this is going. A scientist who questions Drake’s ruthless plans (Jenny Slate) gets Eddie reinvolved in the symbiote lab and next thing you know Tom Hardy is eating rotten meat from his trash as the Venom persona begins to take over.
This movie is profoundly stupid, and it seems to have known that from the beginning. Hardy’s gonzo tour de force is eminently watchable and when he begins to have conversations with Venom (in his Venom voice) we get a slightly Deadpool-esque comedy with Venom providing the meta commentary that Wade Wilson gives himself.
Still, the marvelously messy, puffy and sweaty Hardy seems to have been making a movie no one else was. He’s playing it as a comedy and Williams is playing it as a tragedy (honestly, I felt so bad for her being in this movie, although she perks up towards the end as she gets involved in the fighting.) Whatever is in between is a leaden clunker. Director Ruben Fleischer hit just the right tone with Zombieland, which had flesh chewing antics and black comedy in equal and satisfying measure. But maybe the weight of a whole new cinematic universe was just too much to deal with here.
One thing that doesn’t help is the awful VFX. “This movie looks dated already and it doesn’t open until Friday,” quipped my baffled movie going companion. (I wanted to steal the line but honestly compels me.) The space shuttle footage is horrific, and Venom stays visually true to his Todd McFarlane origins, making the creature look wildly out of place in the rest of the movie. Most of the symbiote animation seems mocapped from those peel off charcoal masks that everyone is using. (They are great but they sting!) And the final fight (can you possibly guess who is taken over by one of the other symbiotes?) is boring as heck.
In the few moments that Venom surrenders to Hardy’s quirky scenery chewing, it does approach orbit. There’s a scene involving lobsters that’s an instant classic and had everyone shrieking with laughter. But these quickly give way to the tropes of the superhero movie.
As a general note, it’s usually in the middle of bad superhero movies that the most interesting stuff happens – think of Thor’s charming fish out of water stuff in the first Thor film – but alas, the crash bang CGI finale must come barreling down the highway, and no time for weird. Only the peerless and perfect Thor Ragnarok had its laughs and its thunder too, and let the comedic middle section roll to a satisfying length.
Elsewhere, the filmmakers show they just don’t know how to replicate the MCU formula, a touching cameo from Stan Lee aside. The San Francisco setting is ripe for satire of its techbro culture, but the Musk figure aside, that’s ignored Also, in one scene Eddie is sitting in the back of Annie’s car and notes that his shirt is wet and asks to put on a dry one. It’s the perfect excuse for the kind of Shirtless Chris scene the MCU has nailed but inexplicably, the camera cuts away completely! Was this just a parody of a Shirtless Chris scene, or are Sony’s personal trainers just that much worse than Marvels? Tom Hardy has no qualms taking even his pants off, so really a missed opportunity there.
And the end credits scene…let’s just say that the surprise cameo actor also knew this was a comedy, and has a wig to prove it.
A couple of things that I did like about Venom: at least the SF setting was a very welcome break from the New York of all too many superhero movies. That said, the addition of a rocket launching pad in the middle of San Franciso Bay is a thoughtful touch. And the diversity of humans on screen is unforced and wide.
But still, although the tag line says “The world has too many superheroes” Venom ends up being just that, a set up for another good guy who battles his literal inner demon.
That’s really the problem. You can’t have a savage terrifying Venom and a cuddly wuddly Eddie Brock get all palsy walsy. I hate it when critics throw in their ideas for a movie, but here’s how I would have done it. Get a couple of Spider-verse bit characters with a future – say Sara Ehret and Razorback – and have them investigating this Drake character and try to defeat a rampaging Venom. At the end Venom could turn okay and you’d have the set up for a new movie with Jackpot and Razorback teaming up with Venom to fight ******* from the end credit scene! It could be a trio, like Pirates of the Caribbean! Like Jack Sparrow, Venom would work better not being the central character – the shifts in tone between eating people’s heads and not eating people’s heads would be more relatable.
But anyway, Avi Arad. It’s Arad – Ike Perlmutter’s onetime partner and the pioneer of Marvel’s new movie adventures – who insisted Venom be put in Spider-Man 3, so demoralizing Sam Raimi that he made an awful movie with Topher Grace’s Venom an unnecessary, bolted on complication. Arad is quite involved in many of the Sony Marvel Character Universe developments, it’s said, and…well, that is a scary story for Halloween.
Sony has everything riding on Venom for their new universe – Morbius, Kraven the Hunter and even Jackpot are in development – but if Venom flops it should bury this whole “Spider-Verse” idea for all times, so for the sake of the future, you should probably wait for the video. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it a million times more: there is only one Kevin Feige.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.