It’s difficult (but not impossible) for me to believe that even those who flat out loathe the latest superhero outing, Venom, won’t find something about it to enjoy, if only for one or two fleeting moments. I suppose one could say that about just about any bad movie, but Venom’s energy and a couple of its performances elevate it above the worst of the worst. Which is faint praise, but I do believe there are things here to like.
It’s also a very bad movie, make no mistake.
Extracting itself fully from the Spider-Man universe (which includes moving the action from New York to San Francisco), Venom tells the story of an alien life form (several, actually) that is collected by a space laboratory that crashes on earth, allowing one of the gooey, formless creatures to escape and move freely by switching host bodies (not unlike one of my favorite sci-fi films, The Hidden). But that’s not the creature known as Venom. No, Venom is actually brought to the headquarters of the Life Foundation, run by billionaire Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed, finally answering the question “What does a subpar Riz Ahmed performance look like?”), who wants to control these symbiotic entities and use them as a means to allow humans to travel to space for much longer periods than previously possible. But to do that, he needs to conduct tests on human subjects, which is both illegal and deadly for the subjects in most cases.
Tom Hardy plays Eddie Brock, an investigative reporter with a sizable online following, a lovely wife-to-be, Anne (Michelle Williams), and the biggest interview of his life lined up with Drake. The interview goes sideways, and Drake’s revenge on him is so complete that Eddie loses his job and fiancée in a matter of hours. Six months later, Dr. Dora Skirth (Jenny Slate), a researcher working on the symbiote project, reaches out to Eddie to tell him that not only were his hunches about what a danger Drake was are correct, but she manages to sneak him into the lab to see just how bad things really are. And this is where the legend is born and Eddie meets the creature eventually known as Venom—not only meets but bonds, literally.
Up to this point in the film, plot points, characters and special effects are hurled at us at an unrelenting pace. This doesn’t feel like a series of well-drawn characters being put through the paces of a cool story; this feels like simply a collection of scenes, many of which are disconnected and far fetched, even for a comic book movie. When Eddie is taken over by Venom, he still maintains a certain amount of control over the creature, keeping it from bitting people’s heads off for food/fuel, for example. The struggle between Eddie and Venom is actually one of the more interesting elements of Venom, with Hardy truly getting a chance give us his version of Jekyll & Hyde. In a deep, monstrous voice, Venom taunts Eddie when he forces the alien to hold back. It talks to Eddie, mocking him while asking him for sustenance.
Another thing Venom has going for it are its action sequences, including a high-point sequence involving Eddie on a motorcycle with Venom keeping him upright during some impossible maneuvers. Director Ruben Fleicher (30 Minutes or Less, Zombieland) keeps things moving, even if that means sacrificing logic, characters, science or sense. I wasn’t as bothered as some by the radical tonal shifts in the movie, from comic to horrific to even a bit of romance and human drama. Still, in the moments when Eddie and Venom are figuring each other out and how to work as a unit, the film works to a degree. But most of the time, the villains are too self aware of how evil they are, and that’s essentially the kiss of death to a film that’s already operating on too broad a spectrum.
There are moments when the special effects in Venom are quite impressive, especially when the symbiote envelopes or retracts from Eddie’s body. But in a sequence that pits Venom against another symbiote named Riot, the effects look like a late-90s video game. The end result feels choppy, sloppy, rushed and generic, which might be the film’s greatest sin.
A mid-credits scene gives us a hint at a sequel that will likely never come, and instead of an end credits moment, the last 10 minutes of the film are devoted to an extended sequence from the end-of-year animated film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. This seems like the ultimate desperation move, since that movie looks exponentially better than Venom, which may not be a complete disaster but it’s still mostly awful.