To me, it seemed that the idea of producing a movie about the comic book villain/anti-hero Venom completely divorced from Spider-Man was poorly thought out. The character is intrinsically linked to the web head in almost every way. I saw the first trailer and was unimpressed. I don’t think I bothered watching the ones which came later. By that point, Venom felt as though it would be little more than a half-assed attempt by Sony Pictures to jump start their own Spider-Man Cinematic Universe…without Spider-Man.
For the sake of clarity, I will say two things up front: one, I did not pay to see this film. I attended an advanced screening held by Sony Pictures; and two, I will be judging Venom on its own merits. The common complaint (which I even brought up in the last paragraph) of the character simply being too close to Spider-Man to make a standalone origin film without Spidey’s involvement will not be coloring my perspective.
The first act, from the film’s title card to when Eddie Brock actually gets the Venom symbiote, is actually pretty solid. Tom Hardy’s performance makes Eddie sympathetic to the character’s cause but not to the point that his betrayal of his fiance’s trust is forgivable. Eddie is an investigative journalist who is a bit of a loose cannon in the sense that he crosses some boundaries in order to uncover harsh truths, but this is what ultimately becomes his undoing in both his personal and professional life early in the film. And, to the film’s credit, it works. It’s nothing spectacular, but it’s believable and Hardy truly sells it. In all honesty, he’s the one actor who seems to really be putting his heart into the movie, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Even the start of the second act is done rather well. After Eddie gains the symbiote, he experiences intense hunger pangs and starts acting much more off-kilter than he had previously. Despite the laughs elicited from the audience, I felt that his bizarre behavior and mood swings which came with his ravenous hunger were rather…unsettling. This combined with the symbiote’s quick, sharp comments inside his head added to the effect.
Venom himself looks damn great. He still looks obviously CG, but considering that the character is meant to be kind of slimy I would imagine that it would be difficult for the artificiality of the effects not to be evident at some points. As for Venom’s origin…it’s fine. The film made Venom, at his core, work completely independently of Spider-Man. While he still can stick to walls, the way the symbiotes move on their own in this film back up the logic behind this. Tendrils are still used, but they did not make me think of webbing due to how thick they were, plus they never came from Venom’s wrists but from anywhere else on his body. The voice for Venom is spot on, as well, a solid combination of deep, guttural, growling tones and a hint of reverb and multi-tracking to give it the feeling of truly being “many”. “We are Venom”, indeed.
Easily the biggest element that brings this film down for me, personally, is Venom himself. He looks good, his movements feel natural, and you feel every brutal strike he makes, but the way he talks moves back and forth between being “the monster inside your head” and “your dick-bag imaginary friend who never learned he wasn’t real”. His interactions with Eddie are at times just silly, such as when Eddie is being held up in his own apartment and holds up his hands, and he and Venom go back and forth on his decision. Venom even tells him, “You’re making us look bad.” Up until this point, Venom’s primary concern was survival. He told Eddie to eat, to consume, and beyond that until the hold up he told him not to open the door just before there was a knock (this led to the hold up). Why would this alien symbiote care about “looking bad”? An explanation is kind of given later, when Venom tells Eddie that, on his home planet, he was “kind of a loser,” which…comes off as especially silly. I understand the need to add some kind of levity in a film like this, but it often goes overboard into mood whiplash of comic proportions.
But this ties into Venom’s arc as a character. At first, he seems to be out to survive, and he needs Eddie as a host to make that happen because the two are biologically compatible and have achieved symbiosis, whereas the test subjects at the L.I.F.E. Foundation failed to do so and ended up dead as a result of the other symbiotes literally eating their organs. Eddie is scared, but powerless to really do anything about it. After a quick trip to the top of the building where Eddie used to work as a reporter, Venom comments on how Earth “isn’t so ugly”, and apparently that’s all this parasitic alien creature needs to be convinced to save the planet from an invasion force by his own kind. That and they apparently don’t like him because he’s “kind of a loser”, which is apparently why he likes Eddie on top of being a match for him?
On the topic of biological compatibility, the antagonist of the film, another symbiote named Riot, is not recovered along with the other three symbiotes in the shuttle crash at the start of the film. Instead, it wanders about Malaysia and mainland China for six months attempting to find its brethren (which have been moved to San Francisco), and it seems to have no compatibility problems with the hosts it finds, including an elderly woman whom he inhabits for a whole six months with seemingly no issues.
Furthermore, on this same thread, Eddie is given a medical exam by his ex-fiance’s boyfriend, who finds out that his heart has atrophied as a result of being infected by the parasite (Venom). Venom himself tells Eddie that he has nothing to worry about, that he will heal Eddie and keep him alive. This is supported by Venom healing his broken legs during an earlier scene, just as Riot did with a Malaysian EMT in the opening sequence. But it’s also been established by this point that other human test subjects had their organs slowly being consumed by the other symbiotes, and Venom’s trustworthiness to Eddie and the audience is still in question at this point, so is Venom telling the truth or is he being willfully deceptive? Well, the film doesn’t seem to care, because after this scene it’s never brought up again.
And tugging on this symbiosis thread one last time, apparently Venom is able to inhabit Eddie’s ex-fiance, Anne, in an attempt to save and reunite with him, seemingly without any sort of consequences for her. Did the movie just forget about the symbiotes’ adverse effects on humans, or are we expected to believe that these rules don’t apply to Venom for some reason?
The biological compatibility aspect and the subject of Eddie’s health aren’t the only dropped plot threads, however. After Eddie escapes a group of mercenaries working for the L.I.F.E. Foundation to bring him in, he returns to the news corporation he used to work at in order to leave his cellphone, which is loaded with photographic evidence of the foundations heinous experiments with the symbiotes on vulnerable and homeless people, in the office of his former boss who fired him when Eddie tried going beyond what he was asked to talk about in an interview with the L.I.F.E. Foundation’s CEO, Carlton Drake. This never comes back again in the film, though it may explain why Eddie has a new reporting job at the end. Whether or not this is the case, however, is not explicit.
Outside of Hardy, the rest of the cast just don’t really seem to be all there. They’re not completely phoning it in, but compared to Hardy, who is putting so much energy into playing Eddie Brock, everyone else just seems underwhelming by comparison.
Finally, there’s exposition. Venom himself likes spouting exposition. Who’s the villain? Venom tells you that Riot was a team leader who is going to bring the symbiotes to Earth. What are the symbiotes weak against, asks Anne? Well, Eddie and the audience know they don’t like sound (we were even given a specific range, which Venom itself knows and tells us again), but Venom also flat out states they don’t like fire, instead of naturally showing the symbiotes’ weakness to it beforehand. This combined with the aforementioned plot lines that don’t go anywhere give the impression that a lot was left on the cutting room floor and that the editor had to hastily patch the movie together again. The run time would suggest this, as the credits started rolling after about 1 hour and 38 minutes. The latter half of the film feels rushed as a result.
Venom is not a bad movie, necessarily, but it is incredibly mediocre. Tom Hardy is a joy to watch and Venom himself looks and sounds fantastic; but that same title character is also the source of incredible tonal imbalance due to its propensity to act as comic relief while also being a literal monster inside Eddie’s head; there are several plot threads which either don’t go anywhere or are forgotten about entirely; and the films starts showing its cracks and feeling more rushed as it goes on.
If the comic relief was excised from Venom’s dialogue and the film leaned more into the concept of him being a monster, adopting more of a horror tone, this could have been something special. The best example I can think of, in some respects, is 2008’s The Incredible Hulk. Maybe the last-minute decision to go for a PG-13 rating instead of the hard R that was being touted as the goal during production was the cause of some of the film’s issues, but that’s purely conjecture and we may never know what happened.
As it stands, if there’s a $5 matinee and you’ve got nothing better to do, there are worse ways to spend two hours. As a friend of mine put it, “Venom is a turd in the wind. But a nice turd. Like, you only have to wipe once or twice.”