Movies like Venom are good reminders of how the comic book genre on film has its limits. Though we’ve gotten plenty of good from it, some characters and properties can’t and probably shouldn’t be translated. It’s also a sure sign of just how out-of-touch the people making movies like this are, given how their blatant attempt to cater to both the sharp wit and endearing levity of Marvel’s ilk as well as the dark and disturbing grittiness the recent DC films have tried to pull off results in a baffling inconsistency of tone that goes along with a heap of other problems that plague Venom.
The story concerns investigative journalist Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy), who loses his job after grilling Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), the CEO of a prominent Bioengineering company called the Life Foundation. Having exposed classified secrets from his girlfriend Annie (Michelle Williams), it results in the dissolution of their relationship too. As it happens, Drake is callously using human test subjects on alien symbiotic lifeforms the company recovered from a probe, and when Brock is lured back to document it, one of them infects him. Unable to control the sinister creature called Venom, Brock attempts to seek help while also evading Drakes’ pursuers and the authorities.
As badly written and bizarre as its trailer promised, Venom is full of ill-fitting dialogue and poor characterization; the actors struggle with awkward lines and confusing actions. It’s terribly paced too, and the story is notably incomplete. There are large chunks of the middle of this movie that seem to be missing, crucial character developments absent in place of sudden new relationships and motivations. It’s as jarring as the movie’s tone problem, where hideous imagery, exorbitant destruction, and elements of body horror exist in the same capacity as buoyant comic relief and banter between Brock and Venom.
But what really keeps you from being invested in anything is the staleness, if not contemptibility of the characters on screen. Eddie Brock is not a very likeable protagonist -he’s arrogant, deceitful, slovenly, dispassionate, and idiotic, but without any charm or heart to make such characteristics bearable. Part of this comes down to the writing, but is also due to Tom Hardy’s lacklustre acting, which is at times overblown, and at other times phoned in. He’s a good actor though, director Ruben Fleischer simply doesn’t seem to know what he wants from him. The result is Hardy just kind of meandering through the movie without much focus, occasionally with a frantic moment or dull reaction to something. Hardy also provides the voice of Venom, though you’d hardly know it, which I suppose makes the chaotic symbiote the better performance he’s giving. This character has more personality, but he’s the most harmed by the movies’ structural deficiencies. Michelle Williams is the unfailingly insipid supporting love interest, which is insulting both because of how tired that character type is and because Michelle Williams is one of the best actresses working today. Actors like Jenny Slate and Melora Walters are wasted as mere plot conveniences, and Riz Ahmed’s villain is pretty thin in his indifference and insanity. And it seems a little strange for there to be a villain in this Venom movie who’s not Venom.
What’s most baffling is how the movie tries to make Venom an antihero despite how monstrous his very nature is. That’s where it’s difficult to make a movie like this work. Venom is an alien parasite, virtually indestructible, who’s only driven to consume or control. He’s a supervillain, and a pretty cleverly crafted one at that, and there’s no way to effectively translate his story into a conventional good vs. evil superhero narrative. It’s hard to root for the success of a character who’s proven he’s morally reprehensible, and has killed dozens of innocent people before a change of heart allows him to combat a greater evil. It would be like making a movie about the Joker (which is in fact happening) and contriving a way for him to save the world. What really doesn’t help endearing Venom is that he and the other symbiotes make the film more violent than most R-rated movies I’ve seen. It’s a textbook example of everything wrong with the PG-13 rating, allowing for an immensely high body count, both in characters directly killed by Venom and in the devastation left behind by the aliens’ actions, but getting away with it because of an absence of blood and gore. And the violence in this movie is all just a reckless and lazy attempt to be taken seriously.
If Venom really leaned into the sinister horror aspect of its premise and relied less on conventional superhero movie markers and (of course) building a cinematic universe, this might have been something brilliant. But in going for the latter approach it fails to compromise battling tones. and left so much on the cutting room floor that it seriously damages the movies’ structure. It’s just a dumb, condescendingly excessive comic book flick, like a ravenous soulless symbiote without a human host.
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