In this particular comic book boom in cinema history, when superhero adaptations are almost stubbornly efficient in terms of both frequency and relative quality, it’s almost refreshing to witness a good old-fashioned mess. Enter Venom, which is inarguably an incoherent quasi-disaster, albeit one that is nevertheless occasionally entertaining, sometimes on purpose and other times in a stupefied, keep-one-eye-closed sort of way. Such is the inevitable result of this rogue Marvel side-character getting caught outside the machinery of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Not that it doesn’t try to emulate the MCU template in every way in which it is contractually permitted, as the Venom character remains one of the few Marvel vestiges under the Sony banner. In fact, this notorious comic anti-hero, an otherworldly hyper-muscular blob who eats people’s heads, is given the full, square-jawed hero origin treatment, replete with a learn-your-powers montage, overt Stan Lee cameo, and multiple attempts at future character crossovers. So rather than capitalizing on this kinky fringe property and going somewhere odd and interesting – or even taking a meta route and commenting on this sore-thumb character in a standalone film, as the Deadpool films have successfully done – Venom is basically an MCU imitation, contractually barred from fully immersing itself but also limiting its inherent potential for a unique attitude and tone.
The resulting film is about as confused and confusing as one might expect under such circumstances. The filmmakers are mimicking a format that has become boundlessly lucrative for Marvel and Disney while star Tom Hardy – precisely the guy you’d want to cast if you weren’t going the traditional route – experiments tirelessly in a performance that feels perpendicular to the film it inhabits. Hardy has made mention that there are perhaps hours of improvisatory footage that was cut from the finished film, which seems to hint at the kind of singular oddity that really could’ve worked for this character. Instead, Venom currently exists in a weird middle ground between Grosser Spider-Man and Deadpool Lite.
Venom’s true origins stem from the Spidey comics, but now that Spidey has jumped ship over to the proper MCU fold, no such story is permitted in this film. The new origin concocted by this screenplay is staggeringly belabored and unbelievable even within a superhero context, with reporter Eddie Brock (Hardy) attempting to expose the shrouded inhumane practices of a celebrated scientist (Riz Ahmed, wasted) by spying on confidential legal documents in his girlfriend’s (Michelle Williams, magnificently wasted) computer, which results in both he and the girlfriend being fired. The idea is that this intrepid reporter becomes so disenfranchised that he could turn into a villain, except this movie doesn’t want him to be a villain, so we’re left with a sort-of glum but still totally valiant version of Tom Hardy, a needle the actor likely thread within those hours of cut footage, but without them we’re left with a heavily edited half-assed characterization.
Anyway, a heroic tip from an altruistic scientist (Jenny Slate, totally wasted) permits Brock to sneak back into the lab and witness the frightening truth: rogue symbiotes have been smuggled from outer space in order to create a new superhuman species. In the process, one such symbiote attaches itself to Brock, and so begins the legend of Venom, as the symbiote names itself and speaks for itself independently, permitting Hardy to engage in conversations with himself as he tries to talk his darker side out of eating the brains of unsuspecting innocents. Truly, this is the most WTF superhero plot ever, to such a degree that it’s morbidly interesting even though it makes no sense.
If the film’s first half is dedicated to ridiculous exposition, the last half is mercifully focused on wall-to-wall action sequences, which are impressively mounted even as they are totally incomprehensible, the unfortunate result of being tied to a random plot with stakes that are hazy at best. It’s in this final half that Hardy really gets to dig into the titular character, turning in another of his now-legendary voice modulations as the archly lethal symbiotic being. In spite of early questions about Venom’s rough appearance, the CG presentation is one of the film’s highlights, slickly rendered and appropriately ghastly. And while I can’t say it’s a successful strategy to have a grotesque cartoon emanate from Tom Hardy’s neck and engage in pithy Roger Rabbit-style conversations with him about the merits of eating human heads, I can say it’s an oddly entertaining one. I suppose that’s one unique merit Venom can boast that the MCU cannot.