The most surprising thing about Venom (opening worldwide this week) is that it‚Äôs relatively unassuming. The long-in-development solo flick for one of the more popular Spider-Man baddies is clearly a picture born of compromise, one that is torn between the desire to be taken seriously as a respectable comic book superhero movie and a competing desire to openly make fun of itself. Warts and all, it stands on its own two-feet and tells a self-contained story that doesn‚Äôt make you wait for the sequel and doesn‚Äôt operate as a backdoor pilot for Sony‚Äôs alleged Spider-Verse spin-offs. As both a shameless cash-in and a knowing ode to some of the lesser post-Blade and pre-Iron Man comic book flicks, it‚Äôs at its best when it embraces its own inherent stupidity.
The Ruben Fleischer-directed body horror comedy is A) often quite funny, intentionally or otherwise and B) centered around not a special effect but a true-blue movie star performance. Yes, Tom Hardy is‚Ä¶ well, he‚Äôs something that‚Äôs for certain. I‚Äôm still not sure if he‚Äôs giving a performance akin to Johnny Depp‚Äôs turn in Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl or Chris Klein‚Äôs epic portrayal in Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-LI. His Eddie Brock is full of random ticks, specific syntax and often rubbery physical movements. I’d like to presume that the producers told Hardy that he‚Äôd get some effects enhancement in post-production but then let him drift like a turd in the wind. I’d like to think that naming the evil company Life Corp. is a giant in-joke.
Penned by Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg and Kelly Marcel (who helped make the first Fifty Shades of Grey watchable, so she‚Äôs clearly a wizard), the screenplay follows an ‚Äúoutcast gets violent superpowers and uses them to save the day while occasionally indulging in their dark side‚ÄĚ template. Yes, there are similarities to Halle Berry‚Äôs Catwoman as well as Jim Carrey‚Äôs The Mask. Catwoman is one that I‚Äôve come to‚Ä¶ appreciate for its unapologetic insanity, so when I say that Venom is about as good as Catwoman that‚Äôs not necessarily an insult. All of these movies are riffs on The Wolfman, although Venom makes no effort to be scary or excessively violent. Despite protests to the contrary, this feels like a PG-13 movie.
The first half is tough, both because it takes a while to get to the good stuff and because Eddie Brock (Hardy) is introduced as the dumbest investigative reporter you‚Äôve ever seen. Despite having a reputation as an ace journalist, his only onscreen detective work involves stealing an email from his fianc√©e‚Äôs computer (which gets her fired from her law firm) and asking slanderous questions to the film‚Äôs villain (Riz Ahmed) despite having little-to-no-evidence to back it up. This earns him a lecture on basic journalism along with a pink slip, and it‚Äôs hard to feel bad for him. When we run into his former flame again (Michelle Williams, giving the role more wit than it deserves), we‚Äôre relieved that she found a new beau and seems happy.
Once Brock breaks into the evil Carlton Drake‚Äôs laboratory and gets infected with the symbiote, the picture starts to cut loose just a little. But Hardy provides some entertainment even during the downtime, and his brief scenes with Jenny Slate (as a scientist who becomes a whistleblower) are amusing. It‚Äôs about an hour into the movie before we get what we came for (Venom being Venom), at which point the film turns into a self-aware buddy cop comedy, whereby Eddie constantly argues with the internal voice of the alien parasite that has engulfed him. Yes, there is action and violence (yes, Venom eats a head or two), but the entertainment comes from watching these two idiots learn to work together in order to save the day.
Venom finally comes to life in its second half, offering a snarky and unapologetically dorky superhero riff on Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin‚Äôs All of Me. It helps that the voice that Hardy uses for Venom sounds exactly like the guy who does the scary escalator narration at Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights. The special effects work is fine, but nobody‚Äôs going to win an Oscar here. The screenplay does find ways to keep Williams around without damseling her or having Brock try to ‚Äúwin her back.‚ÄĚ Her new boyfriend, a doctor, actually gets a decent chunk of sympathetic screen time. Ahmed is underused as a generic baddie, but Slate brings a fun ‚ÄúWhat the hell am I doing in this movie?‚ÄĚ attitude to essentially a plot device.
Pretty much everyone has that attitude. They are well aware of the absurdities on display, both in that this movie exists and that it corralled such a strong cast thanks to the lack of mid-budget studio programmers that would otherwise provide a non-indie paycheck. The film gets pulled back here and there into the realms of legitimacy, either because of concerns about succumbing to camp or concerns about not fitting into the MCU in the event of a cross-over. I‚Äôm guessing that those missing 30-40 minutes that Tom Hardy mentioned were mostly the star just being weird as a form of self-amusement. But even in its finished (and occasionally chopped up) form, it‚Äôs sillier and funnier than I expected. It‚Äôs not ‚Äúgood,‚ÄĚ but it‚Äôs not boring.
Venom isn‚Äôt really about anything other than its own existence, strenuously avoiding the real-world #MeToo-friendly topicality of Catwoman or the ‚Äúrevenge of the outcast‚ÄĚ fantasy of The Mask. It mostly keeps to itself instead of trying to set up a universe, and it‚Äôs essentially about two losers (one human, one alien) who together become the kind of winner this world needs. It‚Äôs a knowing throwback to a time where the likes of Batman Forever were the exception rather than the rule. I suppose it could have used some R-rated ‚Äúcarnage,‚ÄĚ but it has such a goofy gee-whiz dumb-ass charm that if anything it should have leaned into Peter Jackson territory. As a cinematic universe pilot, Venom may be doomed. But there is grace in its failings.