The moviegoing majority may not realize that in Marvel lore, the character Venom is a dated relic from comics’ EXTREME phase in the 1990s: one where supremely edgy (and aesthetically ridiculous) antiheroes such as Spawn, Lobo and Ghost Rider dominated the marketplace with their testosterone-fueled shenanigans.
It all looks rather silly in hindsight, and eventually comics were able to move beyond the notion that muscles and gore equate to maturity. It’s appropriate that the film version of Venom feels as antiquated as its source material, recalling a time when comic-book flicks could afford to be mindless garbage without the pressure of bridging gaps between installments of a shared universe. The story’s remarkable stupidity and goofy tone have more in common with 2003’s Daredevil than last year’s Spider-Man: Homecoming. That B-movie quality, along with a gonzo Tom Hardy, makes Venom a surprising little oddity among 2018’s crowded superhero slate.
The plot is flimsy enough as to almost not exist, so I’ll just cut to the chase and say that it involves some black alien space goo that lands in the hands of an Evil Corporation and eventually makes its way to Tom Hardy’s Eddie Brock, a dignified reporter who just wants to get to the TRUTH, damnit. This substance, as several characters constantly remind you, is a living organism called a symbiote and chooses to bond with Brock, turning him into our titular antihero. While it is rather refreshing to see one of these storylines not revolve around Infinity Stones and Quantum Realms or whatever, there’s nothing memorable about Venom’s narrative. Where the movie delights is when it turns into a bizarre bromance between man and goo.
Once Brock is invaded by the Venom symbiote, the movie shifts gears from by-the-numbers origin story to a slapstick-buddy comedy featuring what could be the most bonkers lead performance this year (and yes, I’ve seen and loved Mandy). Hardy, king of implacable accents, spends roughly two-thirds of Venom’s runtime drenched in sweat, twitching and abruptly screaming. There’s even a scene where our hero jumps into a lobster tank at a fancy restaurant to cool off his groin and subsequently eats one raw.
Meanwhile, the voice of the symbiote is frequently insulting and berating him while Hardy lumbers down the street shouting at himself like a lunatic. Of course, as with any good bromance, their squabbling eventually turns into affection, as Venom begins to take over and chomp off the heads of goons working for the evil corporate villain (Riz Ahmed, given little to do). They even make out at one point. So yeah, it’s a pretty weird flick.
Director Ruben Fleischer specializes in taking unique premises and draining them of that uniqueness. His direction proves no less bland here, and the action barely manages to be competent. Luckily, Hardy elevates the generic material surrounding him and Venom ends up being a surprisingly effective comedy, whether intentional or otherwise.
Honestly, after a horrendous marketing campaign, I’m shocked that I have any kind words to say about Venom at all, let alone enough to write a positive review. Given the critical panning the film has received so far, I think it’s safe to say your mileage will vary depending on how appealing you find the concept of a Marvel vehicle taking so many strange detours. Venom is certainly riddled with glaring flaws and inconsistencies, but it’s also a rare entry in the genre that isn’t afraid to be total schlock. When seemingly every superhero title carries overblown ambition, that’s not a bad thing.