Venom is the story of Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy), an investigative journalist who thrives on the big takedown—using his research and sources to expose wrongdoing in the middle of his video interviews. Riding strong on his celebrity status, Brock has the opportunity to converse with Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), the CEO of a scientific conglomerate that Eddie believes has skeletons in its closets. Brock’s suspicions are accurate, but when confronting Drake about the corporation’s wrongful death allegations, he uses confidential information essentially stolen from his fiancée Annie (Michelle Williams), who was serving as legal counsel. The result is Brock losing his career and his relationship, sending him on a rather negative trajectory.
Meanwhile, Drake continues to dabble in questionable science. His goal is to confirm a hypothesis that humans can evolve and protect themselves from ailments such as cancer by successfully bonding with recently discovered symbiotes originating off-planet. After a series of lethal human trials, one internal scientist turns whistleblower and offers Brock the opportunity to prove Drake’s crimes. When Brock revisits the lab, one of the symbiotes (calling itself Venom) escapes and chooses Eddie as its host, putting both of them on an uneasy path to find stability and redemption together.
What works in Venom is Tom Hardy and the majority of the title character’s portrayal. Hardy has the unenviable task of taking the truly unlikeable character of Eddie Brock from the Spider-Man comic book franchise and making him relatable and at least somewhat sympathetic. He mostly succeeds at this, but where Hardy shines the most is how he deals with what is essentially schizophrenia—hearing the voice of Venom in his head and conversing with the alien inside him (at least that’s the Hollywood portrayal of schizophrenia). The constant negotiating over bodily control is fascinating and often quite funny, thus validating the choice to put an accomplished talent like Hardy into the role and allowing him to give two unique and engaging performances simultaneously as Brock and Venom.
Fans of the Venom character from the Marvel comics will find a lot to appreciate in this film. Like his hand-drawn counterpart, Venom is a hulking beast with a humorous outlook on our world. He is constantly making not-so-subtle suggestions to Brock to maintain preservation, whether that includes fleeing a cadre of villains in the most destructive way possible or snacking on humans to keep up their strength. Director Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland) has clearly researched and executed upon Venom’s mannerisms, characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses. Those familiar will enjoy elements such as the nod to the exact sound frequency that is harmful to Venom, and the various shapes and forms the symbiote uses to dispatch foes.
While Hardy turns in a fine performance with the first good representation of the antihero, Venom suffers from pacing issues and short-sightedness. The arcs and motivations of the characters—protagonist to antagonist and everyone in between—are muddled at best. For example: Venom has a radical goal shift that audiences are merely alerted to with one line of dialogue and zero narrative support; Drake spends the film reading from The Ultimate Villain’s Guide on Being One-Dimensional and Obvious; and Michelle Williams could be cut from the entire movie and no one notice.
With several comic book adaptions, long have critics lambasted the dichotomy of hero and villain portrayed as opposing people with identical superpowers. Venom commits this cinematic sin of laziness, and without any good rationale or purpose. We also get another doppelganger villain, which fans have been over for some time. This results in action and a story that is somewhat entertaining, but not entirely novel since there are basically two copies of the same character on the screen, both of whom are going through well-telegraphed stereotypical arcs. What’s further puzzling is that Venom is looking to set up a larger universe with the tease of the next villain who could best be described as…“another more-evil Venom.” The fact that Venom plays everything so safe and by-the-numbers truly hinders it—a frustrating result considering that Hardy is clearly trying to put his all into the character.
Venom is a summer popcorn film that happened to debut in the fall. Hardy shoulders as much as he can to keep the film engaging, but ultimately Venom fails to be memorable due to formulaic trappings.
Recommended if you liked: Legend, Justice League, The Amazing Spider-Man 2
Final Grade: B-
This review is dedicated to the memory of Nelson Diaz, the man who taught me to appreciate and love comics, especially the complex character of Venom.