Director: Ruben Fleischer
Writers: Jeff Pinkner, Kelly Marcel, Scott Rosenberg
Starring: Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, Jenny Slate
‘Baffling’ is the word that comes to the front of my mind when I think about Sony’s latest foray into the superhero genre: primarily in terms of the film’s quality, but also of its existence. After the mixed reception of the Amazing Spider-Man duology, a general dislike that only grew among film-goers with retrospect, and Marvel Studios’ subsequent acquisition of Spidey’s film rights, it seems strange (but maybe not out of character) that Sony would pursue further exploration of the web-slinger’s mythos despite being unable to use that universe’s central character. In all justifications of why it exists, Venom fails – as a redemption project for Sony, an attempt to kick off a ‘villain-verse’, or even as a simple foundation upon which to base a potential Spider-Man crossover. Its greatest sin is that, even in its laughable (borderline so-bad-it’s-good) state, it offers nothing new to its genre, nor tries to riff off any of the substantial progress made by superhero films in the last decade. In its attempts to operate as a convincing entry into this saturated catalogue, Venom falls on its side, scuffs its elbow, and begins whingeing about how nobody will take it seriously.
A rushed and frankly unnecessary romantic subplot leaves an initial sour taste in the mouth, not least because of the impassive chemistry between Tom Hardy and Michelle Williams (both of whom have previously proved themselves as solid screen presences, but do little to elevate the film’s ungodly script and dialogue). Crucially, though, the film’s narrative is bewildering. Every plot point or general script beat induces either a sigh or a giggle; the film flits between painstakingly tiring and frustratingly (but also hilariously) clueless, with the general flow of events wildly uneven and tonally scattered. It is droll in the all wrong ways, and everything that happens is more stupid or inane than the previous episode. Truly, it is baffling, and fascinating (and a little bit funny) that something so poorly constructed – so caught up in its own little world of incongruous rules – was passed.
Clearly under-thought plot inconsistencies reinforce character stupidity and only serve to coat the conflicted essence of the picture with more reasons for the audience to be uninterested (I refuse to believe that Eddie would be unable to find work, or self-run a show, if ‘The Brock Report’ holds as much social status as we are led to believe). Under-baked sci-fi elements are desultory and further a feeling of tackiness, only reinforced by the titular character’s gooey CGI render. Venom himself has some charisma when making jokes, but the one-liners that actually land are few and far between. The film does little with the character that could be interesting about him in the first place; uncontrollably violent, with his jokes holding a dark weight. Instead, he just sort of shouts “hungry”, and makes soft wise-cracks about biting people’s heads off. It doesn’t gel with Eddie’s reluctance toward the symbiote, because it doesn’t seem like there was much in the way of significant power to even resist.
Eddie Brock has no character development. He’s not a bad guy who becomes a good guy, or the opposite, which, really, should have been imperative. Tom Hardy’s jittery portrayal of the character can be enjoyable to watch, but these quirks are hardly in abundance; the scenes that follow his acquisition of the symbiote are the best in the film, and some of the only that are stressful, or revealing, or hold dramatic weight, with Hardy playing a mercurial and hyper-kinetic iteration of Brock’s normally tedious character. More bland is Riz Ahmed (another typically solid actor), who wields the screen command of a damp towel. His Carlton Drake, the film’s antagonist and a space exploration investor/entrepreneur figure, is unconvincing, and his performance, along with lacklustre set design and formulaic thematic foundations, diminishes most of the narrative mystery that the symbiote-harvesting company and facility could have held. There is no feeling of threat. This kind of vapidity can be found in most corners of this film; I didn’t understand the stakes, or care, nor was I entertained, or excited.
All of these mismanaged constituents culminate in a hysterical third act, which manages to top Wonder Woman‘s finale for levels of stupidity and technical inefficiency. We watch two terribly under-lit greyish rubber blobs flail at each other on a claustrophobic metal walkway, doing the hitty-punchy-smashy routine, until the obligatory blaze-of-glory, fade-to-white climax engulfs the display – the specifics of which should be left unspoiled. The explosive, optically demanding conclusion is emblematic of the construction of the full product – a vapid and difficult mess of the Suicide Squad variety. I really wanted to have fun (especially with Fleischer at the helm), but Venom seemed to do everything in its power to stop me from getting invested. I have no idea whether this may appeal to fans of the comics (or why), but, as a film, it is in unfortunate, straggly disarray.
Oh, but stay for the after-credits scene — really do. It is side-splitting stuff.