Among the host of superhero films to have exploded over the past decade, Venom is nowhere near the best nor worst the genre has to offer; rather it exists in a space that lacks the maturity to be taken seriously while resisting the urge to fully indulge in the level of absurdity needed to transcend into ‘so bad it’s good’ territory.
Existing in an IP void where Spider-Man is absent despite being produced ‘in association with Marvel Studios’, director Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland) delivers an alternate take from Topher Grace’s previous cinematic portrayal in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3, while retaining elements of the comic book source material.
Opening on a sequence eerily reminiscent to the Dwayne Johnson star vehicle Rampage, a space exploration voyage commissioned by Elon Musk-esque business magnate Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed, Nightcrawler) crash lands in East Malaysia after one of four alien symbiotes collected for further examination reeks havoc upon the on-board crew. Able to extract the remaining three symbiotes back to the US, Drake’s bioengineering work as head of the not-at-all suspicious sounding Life Foundation draws the ire of local San Francisco investigative reporter Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy, Mad Max: Fury Road) who suspects something more sinister lurking behind the veneer of affability.
Assigned a puff piece on Drake by his editor (Ron Caphas Jones, This Is Us), Eddie’s suspicions are confirmed after classified documents found on the laptop of his lawyer fiancé Anne (Michelle Williams, Brokeback Mountain) reveal evidence of wrongdoing. Intent on exposing the benevolent façade, the gotcha ploy backfires with Anne breaking off the engagement following the pair’s respective firings.
Left to wallow in a drunken malaise months later, an encounter with one of Drake’s head scientists Dr. Dora Skirth (Jenny Slate, Obvious Child) leads Eddie to uncover symbiote experimentation on humans taking place at the Life Foundation, but before he has the chance to blow the whistle, a symbiote infects him resulting in the titular Venom taking over his body.
What follows is a perfectly fine, if not completely disposable comic book film comprising of multiple action set pieces culminating in a climactic showdown between two opposing CGI vessels complete with a ticking clock that merely serves as an inevitable end point wherein evil is defeated; unless you have never seen a film akin to this, there are no surprises to be had.
That is not to say Venom lacks a sense of enjoyment. At its most absurd the physical commitment of Tom Hardy is bafflingly amusing, while during the brief period the film plays as an insider conspiracy thriller the exchanges between Hardy and Jenny Slate succeed with genuine intrigue. Likewise the interplay between Eddie and Venom comes across reminiscent to young John Connor and the T-800 from Terminator 2: Judgement Day, albeit with a lighter touch.
Having shown great versatility in a slew of terrific films this decade, Tom Hardy does a fine job in the leading role, but having excelled with rich characters in lesser known titles such as Warrior and Locke, along with being the sole reason to endure the unbearably self-important The Revenant, Venom feels like a film on an uneven playing field with its star. Similarly, as a villainous member of the one per cent, Riz Ahmed comes across miscast; having transformed from a fragile college student to an intimidating prisoner in HBO’s The Night Of, the British-Pakistani actor has previously demonstrated menace on-screen, but in facing off against Hardy he appears like a boy wearing his father’s clothes. While of the three leading performers, Michelle Williams’ underwritten Anne lacks the initial development needed to make her separation from Eddie cut through; the film seeks to tell the audience of the pair’s connection, but a level of intimacy or even closeness is barely sighted.
Filled with enough laughs and fight sequences once the film kicks into gear, the 112-minute end result is enjoyable enough without being memorable for the right or wrong reasons. Setting up a sequel with a mid-credits scene likely to appease fans, criticisms of being hampered by a PG-13 rating (M in Australia) fail to represent the film’s shortcomings. Whereas the extreme violence depicted in Logan enhanced the overall sombre tone, it is hard to imagine Venom being vastly improved by on-screen blood or the vulgar snark of Deadpool.
Overall, Venom is a serviceable addition to an ever-growing genre that doesn’t appear to be slowing down, but for a film boasting such talent audiences are entitled to expect more.