Director: Ruben Fleischer
Starring: Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, Jenny Slate, Reid Scott, Scott Haze
The tagline that adorns the marketing materials for Ruben Fleischer’s Venom reads: “The world has enough superheroes.” This is because Sony’s latest comic book blockbuster is built around… a villain (gasp). Venom has been a fan-favourite since the mid-1980s when he was introduced into the Spider-Man comics (making him one of the collection of Marvel characters that Sony retains the screen rights to thanks to their Spider-Man deal). However, by telling the story of a villain without their corresponding hero, Venom has little narrative choice but to try and transform this villain into a hero, albeit one of the anti- variety.
When investigative reporter Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) is ordered by his network to do a puff piece interview with tech billionaire Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed) about his recent venture into space exploration, he can’t help but take the opportunity to confront Drake about persistent rumours that his empire was built on unethical human research. It is a reckless, self-destructive move which costs Eddie not only his job, but his fiancee, Anne (Michelle Williams). Six months down the track, Eddie, now a broken man, is contacted by a researcher at Drake’s facility, Dr. Skirth (Jenny Slate), informing him that these unethical experiments are happening right now. One of Drake’s space shuttles that recently crashed in Malaysia was carrying precious cargo: amorphous alien lifeforms called symbiotes which fuse with a host in order to survive in a new environment. Drake’s facility has been attempting to successfully fuse a symbiote with a human, but as yet no human host has survived. When Eddie breaks into the facility to try and secure proof, a symbiote who we will discover is named Venom fuses with him and together they escape into San Francisco.
This most generic and unimaginative of origin stories commits the cardinal sin of any superhero movie, or action blockbuster more generally: it is dull. The screenplay, by Jeff Pinker, Scott Rosenberg and Kelly Marcel, is entirely lacking in momentum. It is driven by nothing other than the promise of Brock transforming into Venom. When that transformation eventually takes place, a threat which was not up to that point looming is quickly introduced and a doppleganger antagonist plucked from nowhere to allow for the requisite CGI smash-fest final battle.
The first real action sequence isn’t until about an hour into the movie, which isn’t in itself a problem, except that this lead in time is not well used. One of the things which Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy did which made it stand out from he superhero movies of the time was made viewers care as much about Bruce Wayne as they did about Batman. The Marvel Cinematic Universe films have since continued this trend: we care as much about the people as the powers. Venom is unsuccessful in getting us to invest in Eddie Brock largely because his character is muddled. Is he supposed to be a brilliantly intelligent journalist or a hopeless, self-destructive loser?
But nor are we interested in Venom. While he is one of Spider-man’s most iconic and visually striking nemeses (though grotesquely rendered here), without the friendly, neighbourhood web-slinger appearing or even being referenced here, Venom becomes a character lacking context. Is he supposed to be a villain or a hero? Again, inconsistent motives make this hard to tell. For much of the first two acts of the film the symbiote’s intentions appear malicious, until suddenly, for no apparent reason, it decides that it wants to help Eddie and save the day.
Credit must go to Tom Hardy, though, because he is really trying. Hardy is acting his heart out, probably too hard, straining to make a character out of Eddie with his mumbly Californian accent and energetic collection of ticks and inflections. This goes to the next level when he fuses with Venom, who doesn’t take over his mind so much as take up co-residence, manifesting as a voice in his head with which he initially argues – largely about Venom’s desire to eat people – and slowly develops a strange buddy-movie dynamic with. But while Hardy is left trying to do altogether too much, none of his supporting cast are given anything of substance to do. Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed and Jenny Slate are all given uninteresting, one-note parts which engage only a fraction of their talents. It has been suggested that there were some serious cuts made to the film, which would make sense because one can only assume there must have been something more to this project to attract this level of talent.
Ruben Fleischer, a director who brought so much personality and fun to a film like Zombieland, here seems to lack energy and purpose leaving the film feeling rote. Venom feels like a throwback to the superhero movies of the late 1990s – and not a good one – completely ignoring the rapid evolution of the genre over the last two decades. It even has its own tie-in rap single with the same title as the film, Eminem’s ‘Venom’. It doesn’t get more 1990s than that.
Review by Duncan McLean
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