Starring: Tom Hardy (Inception), Michelle Williams (All the Money in the World), Riz Ahmed (Rogue One), Scott Haze (Midnight Special), Reid Scott (Veep), Jenny Slate (Zootropolis)
Director: Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland)
Writers: Jeff Pinker (The Amazing Spider-Man 2) & Scott Rosenberg (Con Air) and Kelly Marcel (Saving Mr. Banks)
Runtime: 1 hour 52 minutes
Release Date: 3 October (UK), 5 October (US)
Let’s get this out of the way: Venom isn’t a particularly great character on his own. As a dark mirror of Spider-Man, he can work in the right hands, but his lasting popularity is mainly down to the edgelord boom of comics in the late 80s and 90s that still somehow overshadows much of the industry and its film adaptations. There is a way of making him relevant in the modern era, but removing him from Spider-Man completely is an incredibly bad first move. Sony have been trying to get a solo Venom movie off the ground since the Sam Raimi era and, after multiple false starts and despite having just gotten on good terms with Marvel Studios, they’ve gone and finally made it anyway. The final result is as messy and confused as you might expect, but also hilarious enough in its own ineptitude to be worth witnessing for the curious.
Throughout its runtime, Venom makes a lot of bold and daring decisions. It’s a shame so few of them are the correct ones. The plot is fairly simple and yet haphazardly told, mainly evident by the inconsistent pacing and jarring mood shifts that suggests this thing was hacked to pieces in post. The first act is relatively grounded and crams in a lot of information, but relies heavily on predictable clichés for character motivation and relationships (when there even is any). Shifting into the second act, the film takes a turn for the absurd with a bizarre mix of body horror and slapstick comedy that plays out like Evil Dead II as directed by a 90s teenager. That then quickly segues into a final act that is an incomprehensible blur that most resembles Street Sharks action figures covered in Nickelodeon slime being slammed into each other by a nine-year-old, then some sudden sequel set-up and a mid-credits scene, then it’s over. It’s a superhero film that feels like it was made over a decade ago, making all of the mistakes this genre has made and corrected in the years since, and it’s never quite clear if this is meant to be a tongue-in-cheek homage or to be taken dead seriously. It’s a sloppy mess that is often endearing in its own ridiculousness, but it’s too unfocused and cynically slapped together to fully appreciate. By the time it’s all over, the whole experience feels like, as the already infamous line from the trailer said, a turd in the wind; it blows by quickly but leaves a distinctive smell.
Why Tom Hardy of all times now decided to be in this picture is a mystery to me, but he is pivotal to this whole enterprise remaining afloat. His performance most reminded me of Nicolas Cage in his 90s action movie phase: unhinged and hilarious, and yet still somehow charming. He gives Eddie Brock some interesting depths as an ambitious but pathetic provocateur journalist, which helps differentiate him from the roided-out jock of the original comics or the Peter Parker-but-an-asshole Topher Grace version from Spider-Man 3. Meanwhile, Hardy then goes flipping nuts once the Venom symbiote is inside him, giving full gusto to the variety of absurd situations the script rights him into; it’d be embarrassing if it wasn’t so unbelievable. He also does a good job of playing the double act of being both Brock and Venom as they verbally spar inside his head, but it’s a shame the symbiote itself lacks depth beyond his monstrous image. Venom’s motivations are incredibly tenuous and only really decided upon all-of-a-sudden in the third act, which don’t feel at all informed by the preceding film and also take away much of the creature’s menace. Regardless, if Hardy hadn’t made the potentially career-ruining decision to star in this, we would have a far worse movie on our hands.
The rest of the cast feels incredibly wasted, playing stock characters that really don’t demand the high calibre actors they’ve managed to get for some of them. I applaud Michelle Williams for somehow managing to play this whole thing incredibly straight and give depth to a character that has none of the page purely through her performance, but it’s all for nought; any actress could have played this role, and better or worse it wouldn’t have affected the final product much. Riz Ahmed never quite manages to hit the right beat as Carlton Drake, constantly trying to go for the “villain with noble intentions but questionable methods” character when the film really demands a gonzo over-the-top supervillain to match Hardy’s level of performance. Scott Haze and Reid Scott are in relatively thankless roles (though I do applaud Scott’s role as Williams’ new boyfriend for having the decency to make him both plot-relevant and not a jerk), and why is Jenny Slate even in this movie? The role demands someone nowhere near her level and doesn’t even use her comedic talents; methinks there is a lot of her left on the cutting room floor.
On a technical level, the film feels just as out of time as the rest of the picture. The action sequences are a Michael Bay-level mess, overloading the eyes with dynamic motion and moving too fast for the eye to register what’s going on. That’s when action is even there, as there is a surprising lack of it; there’s only really two and a half Venom-heavy action sequences in the whole thing. Maybe all of this is because the visual effects themselves look incredibly dated too. The symbiotes actually look worse than the one in Spider-Man 3, going for a slimy goop effect that never looks right no matter the lighting or animation. The Venom design itself is impressive as a faithful recreation of the character, but in motion it ends up looking as goofy as Ghost Rider did on the big screen; some thins just don’t translate from page to screen. The film even has a tie-in Eminem song that plays over the credits; how much more anachronistic can this movie get at this point?
Venom is a bad movie. There is no questioning that. It’s a film conceived for cynical intellectual property reasons, telling a near-incomprehensible plot cobbled together from the indecisive minds of behind-the-times producers, featuring a well-respected actor giving a bonkers performance that would be impressive if it wasn’t so confusing, and all slapped together with a veneer that brings to mind early-to-mid-2000s comic book movies for all the wrong reasons. However, if you are in the right mindset, it’s still incredibly watchable as a so-bad-its-good hot mess.
Some have compared this movie to 2004’s Catwoman, and whilst there are parts of the comparison that are apt (both concern villains to a more famous hero removed from their source material, star lead actors way too good to be in them engaging in bizarre tick-led overacting, have an evil corporation based near water as the villain, feature CGI that look at least five years past their prime, AND have a subplot where the main character is annoyed by their neighbour playing music too loud and only having the nerve to do something about it after gaining powers), but I’d say that is going too far.
Venom is more like the Ben Affleck Daredevil or Nicolas Cage Ghost Rider: tonally incoherent and ripe with edgelord angst, but so blissfully unapologetic about its inherent ridiculousness that it’s hard not to find enjoyment in it. So, if you go into this knowing not to expect anything more than trash, you’re going to have a great time. If you were expecting anything more, then what hole have you been living in since 1997?
FINAL VERDICT: 3.5/10