I’ll give this much credit to Venom, Sony and Marvel’s standalone feature centered on Spider-Man’s violent villain/anti-hero counterpart from the comics: He’s treated better here than the emo Peter Parker third banana who was awkwardly inserted into 2007’s Spider-Man 3. (As those who saw Spider-Man 3 can attest, that’s not saying much.) In development limbo for a decade, the Venom movie attached itself as spin-off projects to both the Sam Raimi and Marc Webb Spider-Man franchises like the goopy alien parasite at the center of its story, before finally taking shape within its own, dark, gritty, violent universe safe from the colorful, friendly neighborhood confines of Spidey. For some fans, this was a promising development, carrying with it the potential for madcap banter between host and hosted mixed possibly with a heavier examination of the inner struggle between good and evil within the human mind. That film could have established a tonal middle ground between Deadpool and Logan—a symbiosis, if you will—and served as a delicious helping of mainstream R-rated superhero goodness.
Instead, thanks to Sony forcing the project back into PG-13 in a misguided attempt to reconnect it to Spider-Man, and some slapdash scripting that tries too hard to give our chaotic neutral protagonists traditional superhero motives, we’ve been served a sporadically entertaining but frustrating mess. Carrying a moody color palette that was so dark and muted that I had to check with the press screening projectionist to make sure the brightness settings weren’t off, and chock full of Cronenbergian body horror, I can’t think of a single MCU fan who would be attracted to it. On the other hand, those in the audience craving carnage on par with the raging slaughter machine that is the titular character instead get a neutered version of Venom from which the camera cuts away as soon as things begin to get good and gooey. The result is akin to a parent who begrudgingly takes the kids to an R-rated movie and spends half the time covering their eyes. As a result, it’s hard to pinpoint an audience that would truly enjoy this on its own wishy-washy merits.
Hardy’s go-for-broke performance provides some meager fuel that gives Venom a modicum of fun forward momentum. His Eddie Brock is not the aggressive opportunist of the comics, but a meek, likable loser whose own ethical lapse in his reporting on Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), an Elon Musk-type egotist obsessed with alien/human hybridization, loses him his job and fiancée (Michelle Williams).
Eventually, Eddie ends up in Drake’s lab, where his date with symbiotic destiny awaits, giving the audience its first introduction to this version of Venom, a wisecracking alien presence prone to violence. Some of the film’s best scenes involve Eddie’s body getting used to the symbiote—Hardy’s performance as Venom takes control of Eddie’s body and mind demonstrates a kind of full-tilt panic that oddly feels more relatable through its mugging artificiality.
The symbiote’s ability to turn its black goo body into various deadly shapes—an unholy union between the Mask and T-1000—sounds like a promising visual, if nothing else, but if the prospect of a human character taking a mental back seat as a more intelligent sci-fi parasite takes over and kicks ass interests you, you would be better served watching the recent underrated sci-fi/actioner, Upgrade. (That flick wore its grimy exploitation gore on its sleeve and had a more uniform style to its action set-pieces.) The last-minute alterations to the violence in Venom may create some semi-satisfactory mid-2000s level action, but it does not really go any further.
Ultimately, the climax devolves into yet another Marvel third act where the bad guy turns into an even bigger, stronger version of the hero and the two duke it out. In this case, since both creatures are basically made up of black slime, the final ten minutes feel like we’re watching a shaky-cam CGI Rorschach test. Venom may not be completely terrible, but it’s definitely not very good. I suppose Venom can go and stand in line with the Fantastic Four, awaiting a decent Marvel adaptation.
Director: Ruben Fleischer
Writer: Scott Rosenberg, Jeff Pinkner, Kelly Marcel, Will Beall
Starring: Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, Jenny Slate, Reid Scott, Scott Haze
Release Date: October 5, 2018
Oktay Ege Kozak is a screenwriter, script coach and film critic. He lives near Portland, Ore., with his wife, daughter, and two King Charles Spaniels.