Two Spider-Man related movies in two weeks (for me), and the hands-down winner is Spider-Man: Into The Spiderverse, a movie that just about succeeds in every department. In contrast, Venom, the second live action appearance of this character from Marvel Comics (the first being 2007’s misbegotten Spider-Man 3), falls flat just about everywhere, with only the character of Eddie Brock saving the movie from being a complete bore. A lot better than being a disastrous piece of crap like Bird Box and Holmes and Watson, but still nothing to get even mildly enthusiastic about.
I won’t give you a canned history of the character, because I’ve never been interested in him enough to read stories with him in it. Suffice it to say that my knowledge is limited to a few scraps: that he appeared as simply a symbiotic black and white costume Spider-Man picked up in the miniseries Secret Wars almost 35 years ago in 1984, before appearing as a villainous character its own right as Venom 4 years later in Amazing Spider-Man 300.
My knowledge of the character is limited after that, but if you’re more interested than me to find out about him, feel free to read up on it via this Wikipedia entry.
What I do remember is watching the trailers and feeling the same negative reactions that were all over the internet. They looked mostly rubbish, full of generic action sequences and CGI effects that didn’t seem all that evolved from the character’s depiction in Spider-Man 3, over 11 years ago. I also recall wondering why the hell someone like Tom Hardy would ever appear in this – it seemed to be a movie tailor-made for someone of lesser talents or a little known, but still capable actor, plucked from obscurity. Hardy has built up a considerable body of respectable work including Inception and The Revenant, to name just a couple – I couldn’t see him appearing in a superhero movie, much less Venom. Having seen the movie, I’m still surprised – but at least he saves the movie from being a complete failure.
In the movie, unconnected (as yet) to Sony’s Spider-Man franchise (as a brief aside, it’s worth noting that unless things change, the agreement between Sony and Disney/Marvel to allow Spider-Man to appear in the cinemtatic Marvel universe expires after this summer’s Spider -Man: Far From Home), there is no Peter Parker for the Venom symbiote to stick to, and no Marvel Universe-related origin story to adapt. In this version, a wishy-washy Elon Musk-like corporate bad guy, Carlton Drake, played by Riz Ahmed, has a kinda-sorta altruistic tranhumanist plan to extend the capabilities of humanity beyond our current physical limitations. He plans to do this by joining organisms from space he calls “symbiotes” to humans then … well, I’m not sure after that. Tom Hardy plays intrepid investigative reporter Eddie Brock, whose sense of moral outrage pits him against Drake and his “Life Foundation” when he gets the scoop that Drake may be up to no good in his pursuit of results. After gaining access to Drake’s building, Eddie encounters the symbiote, which attaches itself to him. For a while Eddie thinks he’s simply sick until the psychic and physical link between himself and the symbiote – which calls itself Venom – is established, and Eddie is unable to prevent the symbiote’s form from manifesting around him. Drake, meanwhile, is determined to retrieve the stolen property, and sends a team of goons to bring it back, whether or not Brock survives. However, an unexpected gatecrasher in the form of another symbiote has made its way to the US, specifically to the Life Foundation where the other symbiotes are being held, with a plan of its own.
I had some serious problems with the plot elements in this movie. The first being the fact that Drake has essentially invested massive time and money into this project simply through the knowledge that alien life forms were detected on a comet. The plot seems to be IF these unknown alien life forms can be brought back THEN I can fuse them to humans. I’m not drawing a clear line from A to B here in my mind, so all I can think of is that it’s just a simple, idiotic contrivance. Also, I absolutely could not buy that the already weakly-written corporate villain was threatening whatsoever. Ahmed brings no screen presence to the role whatsoever. I couldn’t buy him as a lab assistant, much less the owner of a multi-billion dollar company, and even less so a villain – he’s a cinematic non-entity. Menacing roles need actors who can play menacing, and Ahmed is maybe the furthest thing from that you can get. Add that to a boilerplate plot straight from the Marvel Studios first-franchise-entry, and once again, you end up with the hero battling a bigger, badder version of himself. See The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Ant Man, Black Panther, etc etc. It’s profitable (to date, Venom is closing in on one billion dollars from ticket and DVD sales), but lazy, and an unsatisfying creative dead end. And here, just as in The Incredible Hulk, the actors take a break while their CGI counterparts have at it. The trouble is, both Venom and the Big Bad – the other symbiote, known to Venom as Riot (a real “ugh” name), are rendered almost EXACTLY the same as each other – they’re even much the same colour – , so that when they’re fighting it’s just one uninvolving, colossal visual mess. If the plot was lazy, this final confrontation was just garbage, it can’t be described as anything more than that. The final part of this beatdown is that the comedy fell flat almost every time for me. It ALL comes from the internal dialogue between Eddie and Venom, but the conversations are just poorly written and juvenile, and not funny at all, almost as if the original dialogue was taken out (apparently the original intent – now contradicted – was to go in with an R-rating) and this was shoehorned in weeks before the final cut. It’s cringe-inducing at the best of times.
So I hated this movie, right? You’d be forgiven for thinking that, but the truth is, I didn’t hate it. I expected to, and a couple of my most recent reviews have seemed pretty harsh, but the truth is I’m a character driven movie watcher for the most part, and I actually really liked Eddie Brock. I thought he was well defined – he’s irresponsible, Quixotic, and it leads to his life going south, losing everything that’s meaningful to him. A hero’s arc should involve loss and redemption through acceptance of one’s own flaws, and this is really what the movie is about, lazy plot aside. And where I couldn’t accept Ahmed in his role, Hardy bring a considerable weight of authenticity to Brock that I found enjoyable to watch. While I’m still not entirely sure why Hardy agreed to take on this role, without him, the movie would have been a complete waste of time.