Movie Review: Venom
By Matthew Huntley
October 24, 2018
I’ve a feeling the studio that released “Venom” didn’t have a whole lot of faith in it. Watching it, one gets the sense it was made as a sort of a “throwaway” superhero movie, not to be taken seriously, especially since this Marvel character’s first standalone picture doesn’t even take place in the familiar Marvel Comics Universe, alongside well-established heroes like Iron Man, Spider-Man and Black Panther. Perhaps the powers that be felt that Venom’s inherently evil nature was too unsuitable and grotesque for the likes of the MCU’s more beloved and squeaky-clean Avengers team, and therefore wanted to keep him a safe distance from their safer, more family-friendly goldmine properties. In a way, it almost feels like “Venom” was set up to fail. But, as it turns out, it actually has a style and personality of its own and never stops moving.
That’s not to say “Venom” is a good film. In fact, it’s a bit of a small mess. But I do believe it sets up a promising series because we’re never quite sure which direction the titular character will swing as far as acting as hero or villain, and such an ambiguous trait makes him fundamentally more interesting. Generally speaking, Marvel superhero characters tend to be fairly cut and dry in regard to their morals, values and noble intentions, with little wiggle room, but in the case of Venom, it’s not just his physicality that can shift—so can his mood, his behavior and his principles, and that gives future installment a wide range of possibilities.
For now, though, we have this inaugural “Venom” chapter, which gets a bit out of control as far as plot, action and characters are concerned. Even though it has a constant momentum, the presentation feels rushed, scrambled and often too silly for its own good. It has a B-movie quality to it, although given the director is Ruben Fleischer, who helmed the irreverent and uproarious “Zombieland,” I’m not writing this off as his intention. Perhaps Fleischer wanted the movie to reflect Venom’s temperament, in that it’s sort of Marvel’s wildcard entry into the ubiquitous superhero genre. Maybe he wanted it to come across as a rebellious, anti-superhero movie with a rude, impudent, carefree attitude, one that doesn’t subscribe to the same old trajectory as its brethren. Whatever the case, “Venom,” despite its brief moments of audacity and impertinence, never fully gels or comes together in an overall satisfying way, but at least it’s never boring. Like its main character, it could go any number of ways.
As is typical of the genre, the plot of “Venom” finds an ordinary, pathetic man suddenly infused with extraordinary abilities, who’s then unsure of how to handle them. Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) is an investigative news reporter with his own TV show in San Francisco. His MO is exposing big, bad people for what they are in order to hold them accountable for their harmful actions and effects on society. Eddie is a do-gooder, but he’s also a little rough around the edges.
His latest target is a billionaire, megalomaniac named Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), who founded the Life Foundation, a large corporation, which, in spite of its name, is linked to various wrongful deaths and has several lawsuits pending against it. The firm representing Drake’s company employs Eddie’s fiancée, Anne (the always angelic Michelle Williams, whose grace and elegance makes us wonder what she’s doing in a movie like this). When Eddie tries to probe Drake on camera and get him to admit to malfeasance, both Anne and Eddie are fired, and Anne subsequently gives Eddie her engagement ring back.
As it turns out, Eddie is right about Drake. He came across documents that revealed how four astronauts died during one of Life Foundation’s missions to outer space to retrieve symbiotic life forms. It’s part of Drake’s larger scheme to bond alien symbiotes to human hosts as a way to ensure humans will one day be able to survive on distant planets since he sees the environmental collapse of Earth as inevitable. And of course, with Drake being the villain, his methods are hasty and ego-driven, and he demands his chief scientist, Dr. Dora Skirth (Jenny Slate), immediately start human testing with the parasites. But Skirth argues this could deadly, and so she seeks Brock out to expose the truth.
Cut to Eddie infiltrating Drake’s lab and becoming infected by one of the symbiotes, a black, gooey mesh named Venom, who has a personality and voice of his own. When Venom bonds to Eddie, he manifests as a large, beastly creature with big white eyes, razor sharp teeth, and a long, curly tongue. He gets inside Eddie’s head, talks to him, and uses his body, among other things, to feed, fight and form gigantic weapons like axes, hammers and blades. Our initial impression is that Venom only wants to spread evil and wreak havoc on the inferior human population, but as he tells Eddie, “I like you Eddie and I’m starting to like it here. On my planet I’m a loser like you.”
Surprisingly, Venom is not just a one-note character. He actually forms more than just a physical bond with Eddie and the two develop a sort of love-hate relationship as they vie for control of Eddie’s body. Once they reach an understanding, they attempt to stop Drake from launching another space mission that would bring additional symbiotes from Venom’s home planet back to Earth, which could be catastrophic.
Following its quick setup, “Venom” ultimately turns into a series of perfunctory superhero movie scenes, including an extended chase sequence (inevitable for any action movie, especially one that takes place in San Francisco); Eddie/Venom fending off Drake’s goons, which showcase Venom’s shape-shifting abilities; and short interstices of humor and plot exposition. Its familiar structure doesn’t really give us anything we haven’t seen before, which make the action and plot rather underwhelming and unambitious.
Where “Venom” holds its own, however, are the scenes between Eddie and Venom as they interact and actually have discussions about who they are and what they feel. I liked how the screenplay by Jeff Pinker, Scott Rosenberg and Kelly Marcel, adapting the character conceived by Todd McFarlane and David Michelinie for “Spider-Man” comics, gives Venom something to say. You may recall his first cinematic appearance was in the much-maligned “Spider-Man 3,” in which he was ultimately relegated to a forgettable side character, but here, obviously, he has a more substantial role. He talks frankly and honestly with Eddie, even confides in him. This is something I wasn’t expecting, and their exchanges proved more interesting than all the standard superhero stuff. When it comes time for “Venom 2,” I hope the filmmakers take this into account and expand on Eddie and Venom’s tug-of-war relationship and what makes them tick as individuals, instead of just flaunting Venom’s physical powers.
If Venom was to one day make his way into the “Avengers” version of the Marvel Comics Universe, it’s difficult to say where he’d fit in, but that’s part of his appeal. He doesn’t adhere to the normal rules, and although this first movie doesn’t quite pay off, it’s got me curious about future Venom entries, because with more focus and cohesion from the filmmakers, not to mention more apparent faith from the studio, I believe the character could go places. And who knows, maybe it would have to be the traditional MCU that would have to be worthy of him, and not the other way around.