Back in 2007’s Spider-Man 3, we got our first on-screen glimpse of Venom, the over-the-top comic book villain who battles the web-slinger before meeting his untimely demise. More than a decade later, Venom is back, and any resemblance to Spider-Man 3 villains, living or dead, is purely coincidental… and, oddly enough, also is any hint that Venom knows who Spider-Man is, or even exists in his world. Greenlit in 2015 as a snug little chapter in the gargantuan Marvel Cinematic Universe, Venom was eventually rebranded as a Sony film, simply made ‘in association with Marvel’, with honcho Kevin Feige proclaiming it a stand-alone effort, separate from the MCU.
Is that a problem? Probably not—unless you’re a season ticket holder to Comic-Con and/or still have Spidey posters on your walls. And, heck, maybe not even then. What is a problem, though, is the all-over-the-place script by Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle’s Scott Rosenberg and Jeff Pinkner (with some tweaking by Fifty Shades of Grey’s Kelly Marcel) and the wildly uneven effort by director Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland).
Fleischer spends the first hour of Venom crafting a creepy, and deliberate sci-fi film, along the lines of the Alien franchise, or, more aptly, 1986’s The Fly. And then, without any warning, he careens into Zombieland territory, injecting Venom with goofball humor, hyper-frenetic chase scenes, and even a little Woody Harrelson (in the form of a bonus, mid-credits cameo).
Had Fleischer gone one way or the other, Venom might have been a rock-solid super(anti-)hero movie that Feige might have indeed wanted for the MCU. Instead, it’s a hybrid mess that, while eventually redeeming itself, takes a heck of a long time to get there.
Tom Hardy stars as investigative journalist Eddie Brock, who one day gets too close to the truth about megalomaniac Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed) and his efforts to biologically merge aliens and humans. Drake gets Brock fired, causing the schlub to also lose his apartment and his fiancée Anne (Michelle Williams), but six months later, he gets a call from one of Drake’s lab doctors (Jenny Slate). She secretly invites the disgraced reporter to Drake’s compound to blow the lid off the joint and get the horrific experiments stopped. Brock winds up becoming infected himself, however, and Venom is born.
At that point, just as the film is comfortably settling in as a dark and intense sci-fi actioner, Venom finds its funny bone, and the resulting theme shift is enough to send any number of people to the hospital with severe whiplash. Without ever cracking a smile for the first hour, we’re all of a sudden expected to chuckle along as Venom (and his six-inch-long, razor sharp chompers) wreaks havoc on the streets of San Francisco, biting the heads off bad guys and shish-kebabing them with mutant claws, all the while inhabiting Brock’s body and carrying on a humorous internal dialogue with him.
Granted, Hardy sinks his teeth into the role, elevating what could have been a schlocky mess into something better than decent, and Williams, who is easily among the best actors at work today, does the same with a criminally underwritten role, but Venom takes so long to find its footing that it’s almost all for naught.
In the end, Venom is certainly worth watching, though only by the narrowest of margins—as long as you either show up an hour late, or bring a handy neck brace and some Advil.