The benefit of adapting any pre-existing intellectual property for the silver screen is that studios always know an audience is waiting. Whether the source material is a book, a video game, or even a line of toys, the logic is straightforward: if somebody liked a story in its original medium, they’ll probably be curious enough about the movie version to buy a ticket. That’s particularly true for comic books, where decades of readers’ emotional investment can help serve as a filmmaking shortcut. Screenwriters just need to bake a reference to a beloved storyline into their script or add a post-credits scene with a fan-favorite villain, and more often than not, people who love the original property will respond passionately to the adaptation.
But for a big-budget movie to succeed, it also has to work for everyone else. And that’s where Ruben Fleischer’s Venom has real problems. It’s a train wreck of a movie, mixing and matching wildly dissonant tones, bizarre plot contrivances, and a truly unique lead performance. It’s full of odd slapstick moments and computer-generated effects that look like they were pulled straight from the 1990s. Hardcore fans may just be pleased that the titular character has his own movie. But for everyone else, Venom is a mess.
Tom Hardy plays Eddie Brock, an investigative journalist with his own TV show dedicated to taking down evil corporate powers. (The audience knows Eddie is good at his job because he always reads from a reporter’s notebook while on camera, and he is really earnest.) One day, Eddie is assigned to do a puff piece on the head of The Life Foundation, Dr. Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), a megalomaniacal tech tycoon who is basically just Elon Musk without a Twitter problem. But Eddie can’t respect boundaries, even in his own personal relationships. His fiancée Anne Weying (Michelle Williams) works at a law firm that represents Drake’s foundation, and he breaks into her computer to find incriminating evidence then pulls a gotcha at his interview with Drake.
As a result, Eddie’s life falls apart: Anne leaves him, he loses his job, and six months later, he’s reduced to looking for dishwashing gigs. (That last one goes counter to everything we know about online publishing, but okay.) That’s when Dr. Dora Skirth (Jenny Slate) approaches him to explain that she works for Drake who’s been trying to mix humans with a number of alien life forms called “symbiotes.” Desperate, Eddie investigates and is infected by a symbiote that eventually introduces itself to him as Venom.
Tom Hardy is the best thing about the movie, for better and worse
Venom gives Eddie superhuman strength, healing powers, and conveniently takes over Eddie’s hands and legs to help him in fights. Other times, Venom just takes over completely, turning Eddie into a hulking, black-and-white monster with gnashing teeth and a penchant for eating people’s heads. Venom is also, unfortunately, eating Eddie from the inside out, like the parasite he is. With Drake’s henchman Roland Treece (Scott Haze) out to capture the symbiote, Eddie teams up with Anne and her new boyfriend to figure out what’s going on, learn whether he can separate himself from Venom, and try to stop Drake from setting off a plan that would permanently alter humanity.
The most important thing about Venom is that Tom Hardy does an incredible job. His character doesn’t necessarily work or even make sense within the context of the film, but he undeniably gives a capital-P performance. Hardy’s Brock is composed of weird facial tics, squeaky vocal inflections, and hunched body language. He actually does a decent job of making Brock seem like a self-doubting nerd — except for the scenes where he’s shown as a daring on-camera reporter or when the camera lingers on his smoldering gaze. Hardy is always watchable, no matter the role, but there’s so much to take in here that it almost feels like he’s putting on a one-man show. He builds his character almost entirely out of idiosyncrasies, and if the audience isn’t entertained by Brock’s odd mannerisms in one scene, odds are they’ll find Hardy employing an entirely new set of tricks in the next.
That kind of everything-and-the-kitchen-sink performance can actually work if a movie is disciplined enough to serve as a counterweight. (The first Pirates of the Caribbean film comes to mind, in the way it dialed in a very specific tone that allowed for Johnny Depp’s freeform performance as Jack Sparrow.) But in Venom, it seems like the entire movie is fighting against itself. The cinematography by Matthew Libatique (Black Swan) is moody and sinister, a beautiful foundation for the body horror that emerges once Eddie is infected. But rather than embracing that scarier aspect of Venom the character, the movie shies away from it.
When Sony Pictures first announced the film, fans expected an R-rated feature. The studio is launching its own series of Spider-Man films that are disconnected from the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, and an R-rated Venom would have been a clever way to differentiate Sony’s projects from Marvel’s more family-friendly offerings. (The second Sony film, the animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, arrives this December.) But in its finished form, Venom is PG-13, more devoted to humor than the more disturbing aspects of the lead character. As Eddie grapples with the symbiote infection, he parades through jokey sequences filled with physical comedy. Eddie can’t stop eating tater tots! Eddie Venoms-out at his electric guitar-playing neighbor! Eddie sits in a lobster tank in a fancy restaurant — before eating a lobster live!
Recalls the weird ‘90s camp of ‘Batman & Robin’ at times
The film is utterly dissonant, recalling the weird camp of Batman & Robin, which illustrates a fundamental conflict between the presentation of what the Venom symbiote is and does and the filmmakers’ efforts to turn his story into a Deadpool-esque laugh riot. Director Ruben Fleischer has successfully walked the horror-humor tightrope before in films like Zombieland, but Venom never strikes the note of ironic self-awareness that made that film work. Eddie hears Venom talking even when the creature hasn’t taken over — Hardy voices both roles — and it gives their entire relationship an Odd Couple dynamic that is jarring at first and only grows more absurd as the movie goes on.
It also steals the tension from many of the film’s action scenes. When Eddie is being chased by Drake’s henchman, Venom takes over, causing cars to crash with his sinewy, symbiotic tentacles, and even serving as a bulletproof shield when necessary. It makes Eddie a ride-along passenger in his own chase scene, with nothing to do but watch and make the occasional wisecrack. And because Venom is presented as more or less indestructible, there are no stakes to the action, for either the creature or his passenger.
The rapport between Eddie and Venom is ultimately the film’s most effective emotional element. Williams and Hardy have no chemistry — though, in everyone’s defense, it’s hard to root for the relationship after Eddie breaks into her computer. Ahmed might as well just sit back and twirl an imaginary mustache, given how many Evil Villain Speeches he’s forced to make. Over time, Eddie and Venom work out a begrudging respect, which of course neatly sets up a possible sequel where audiences might be able to enjoy Venom’s antics without having to feel bad about rooting for an evil parasitic space monster.
But it’s truly hard to see anyone clamoring for that movie after watching Venom. It feels like a movie from the era of sloppy, inconsistent hero films that predominated before The Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan and Marvel Cinematic Universe honcho Kevin Feige demonstrated how dramatic and effective superhero movies can be. It’s more useful as a counterpoint or an example of what not to do, showing that even with fan-favorite characters, things like tone, focus, and story do matter. “The world has enough superheroes,” the posters for Venom proclaim. It feels more like the world has enough Venom movies.