The Marvel Comics movie-rights juggle has lingered for years, thanks to Sony and Fox having a stake in a few major properties. This probably should have been a nightmare for quality control among all the films and superheroes in question—especially as Marvel Studios tries to unify its heroes beneath a Thanos-shaped umbrella—but something interesting has arisen over the past couple of years.
Namely, the outsider studios have figured out their own winning formula: focusing on Marvel’s anti-heroes (the ones that Disney probably can’t make theme-park rides out of). 2016’s Deadpool kicked the trend off; 2017’s incredible mutant-western Logan followed; and now, well, wouldn’t you know it! This week’s Venom actually turned out decent, too.
Make no mistake; we’re not talking about the likes of Spider-Man: Homecoming, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1, or Thor Ragnarok. Venom heaves and lurches with questionable logic, writing, special effects, and acting. But its worst attributes all feel tongue-in-cheek—and strike an appropriate tone for a monstrous suit that consumes its hosts and calls people “pussies” before biting their heads off.
Questionable hotline bling
Modern-day San Francisco apparently has a new tech magnate running things: Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed, Rogue One), a genetic scientist who has graduated from revolutionary cancer cures to an ambitious space-travel rocket company. (Somehow, Tony Stark hasn’t shown up to buy this guy’s operation out—and, just to be clear, this film has little interest in either tying the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s bows or attaching tightly to existing Spider-Man or Venom canon, beyond a few significant character name-checks.) We come to find that he wants to marry these two career tracks—interstellar rocket travel and genetic therapy—with a plan that will help humans live in outer space.
Only, you know, it requires sacrificing human patients in ridiculous genetic-therapy trials. These combine the DNA of unwitting subjects with some sort of goo that his space-travel research company unearthed, and the sequences in which Drake hand-waves classic clinical-trial practices are among the film’s worst logic gaps. We get one successful test on a rabbit before dozens of Bay Area homeless people are subjected to kill-and-try-again trials, and this is all explained away by Drake’s fear that Earthbound humanity is “one generation away” from a catastrophe. We agree that the polar ice caps are melting, doc, but the film’s “science gone wrong” angle could’ve still worked after testing on even one rat or monkey.
(Even weirder is how Drake explains his experiments, complete with heady Biblical references, through a pane of reinforced glass. If that’s not a giant red flag to someone who signed up for a clinical trial, I don’t know what is.)
Of course, all of this cheese is in the service of setting up Eddie Brock (played by Tom Hardy, Mad Max: Fury Road). This mild-mannered vlogger endeavors to uncover corruption and speak truth to power regarding income inequality in the Bay Area. After an opening, goo-filled terror sequence, we see Brock receive an assignment from an apparent benefactor (in a silly, “don’t screw this up for me” way lifted from a ’70s cop movie) to conduct a softball interview with Drake. The Brock b-roll that precedes this request clearly demonstrates that he’s a troublemaker, and when he blows this interview up with confrontations about Drake’s rumored human experiments, everyone seems surprised for some reason.
The result: Brock’s life falls apart. This includes his fiancee Anne Weying (played by Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine) dumping him on the spot for violating her privacy in a disgusting, password-stealing manner—one that doesn’t match the couple’s romantic montage. (By the way, she’s a high-powered attorney, while he is an apparent slob who may or may not depend on her income to support his vlogging career.) Venom goes so far as to briefly paint Brock as a helpless victim of circumstance, as opposed to a really unlikeable jerk who shirks his personal and professional responsibilities to get ahead.
Roughly half of the film is eaten up by Drake’s cheeseball villainy and Brock’s tater-tot-chomping, woman-hating descent into loserdom—and Venom spends too much time setting these characters up without giving us a logical hook to hang them on. Thankfully, Weying gets a chance to call Brock out on his BS: “You did this [i.e., lost your job and relationship]. Not Carlton Drake, not the network.” At this moment, the movie shifts gears and follows Brock’s path to redemption—which coincides with his chance encounter with one of Drake’s blobs of space goo.
Venom is best with Venom
You probably won’t be shocked to learn that the titular beast is Venom’s catalyst. This all-black, fangs-and-muscle creature is the comic relief, the surprise factor, and the beat-the-odds hero all rolled into one. Once he has invaded Brock’s body, Venom starts shouting hilarious interruptions that only Brock can hear (particularly when he asks permission to eat passersby, since Venom apparently subsists on live body parts). Then he starts shooting out punches, goo-throws, and sticky grappling hooks in ways that catch Brock off-guard.
Eventually, the duo’s conflict resolves with a unified mission, and this sees Brock join in the battling fun, whether by embracing Venom’s superpowers or by tossing in his own maneuvers and resolve. Really, the film’s most intriguing relationship is that between Brock and Venom—because it’s the one that the film bothers tying a logical bow around. We see Venom, an all-powerful alien entity, tear through fight sequences in a silly manner that proves more bombastic than it does effective. He could outright kill all of the goons that set upon him in both a motorcycle-chase sequence and an indoor gun fight, but he instead takes his time with last-second attacks, shields, dodges, and one-at-a-time takedowns.
Within two beats of me asking, “Why doesn’t he just outright kill everything if he’s this apparently evil creature?” the movie offers an answer—and it’s equal parts believable, funny, and (I’m not kidding) heartwarming.
There’s a cheapness to some of the CGI applied to Venom’s gooey abilities, but even this is made up for by the clever, aggressive moves that show Venom flaunting his stuff. The motorcycle chase, in particular, includes some incredible jumps, turns, and spins enabled solely by Venom’s suite of powers, while a final battle sees Venom shapeshifting in ways that reveal his human counterpart in a visually striking way.
A good Razzie candidate within a good film
So much of Venom falls somewhere between middling and outright bad. Ahmed is fed some of the most atrocious generic-bad-guy dialogue I’ve seen in years. His primary opponent within his lab is played by comedian Jenny Slate (Parks & Recreation), one of the funniest women on modern TV, but she’s reduced to panicked expressions and generic, worrisome groans. And Hardy’s “American” accent is so bad that it deserves its own Razzie. It lands somewhere between a drunken Benicio Del Toro and that Taco Bell chihuahua mascot from the ’90s.
And yet! Williams portrays a likably cheesy ex-fiancee, who is given leeway to be equal parts supportive, skeptical, and badass while dealing with her split-personality ex. (She earned her superhero-movie paycheck and then some.) And Hardy honestly plays this film like a living cartoon character, which means his exaggerated dialogue behavior and action-scene bravado make up for whatever the heck is coming out of his mouth. (Plus, his hilarious growls as Venom make up for how he talks as Brock.)
Importantly, the film won’t dissuade your bias about the character, and that’s good or bad news depending on where you come from. If you love the late-’80s comic concept of an aggressive, sarcastic foil to other heroes’ goodie-teen antics, Venom has you covered. If you look at the character’s snarling face and over-the-top attitude and roll your eyes, this anti-hero might be anti-you.
Having seen a lot of superhero films lately, I’m in the former camp, and I found Venom succeeded, both in quality and in cheese, where Suicide Squad failed. By the time Venom hits its stride, it’s over, but not before two ending-credits spikes put a smile on my face as I left the theater. These brief scenes hint at more Venom-in-films to come and genuinely got me excited about where the film series goes next (especially if a future installment doesn’t set up its characters in slow, unsatisfying ways). Until then, Venom teeters on the edge of being worth a weekend theater trip or, at least, a guaranteed “catch up with this on Netflix” blast on your couch in a few months.
More Info: arstechnica.com