A lot of people criticized Sony for their unabashed attempt at kickstarting a cinematic universe solely within the Spider-Man mythos a few years ago with The Amazing Spider-Man and The Amazing Spider-Man 2. While the first was regarded as decent but uneventful, a lot of people lambasted the second for being overly ambitious and overstuffed with storylines, just like the much maligned Spider-Man 3. I, however, wasn’t one of those people. Was it the cinematic marvel that was the first two entries in Sam Raimi’s trilogy? No. Was it a little too cartoonish to fit in within the modern superhero landscape? Yeah, probably. But as someone who grew up on Spider-Man and his own subset of the larger universe, just seeing as many filmic treatments of those characters as possible was reason enough for me to look forward to the Sinister Six movie that never happened. I’m not saying they would have gotten any better, but they sure would have been neat considering the rich field of source material they have to mine from. Sure, I was a miffed to learn that the Rhino wasn’t actually in ASM 2, but I was excited nonetheless to see where this pocket universe would go from there. But, lo and behold, Sony yielded to the Disney machine and lent their best toy to them, which admittedly gave us one of the best outings yet for the web-head in Spider-Man: Homecoming, not to mention his memorable appearances in Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War. Still, you can’t keep a good corporation down, as Sony is determined to rake in some more cheddar on the movie rights they still technically own, and though we may have to hold our breath on that Aunt May solo movie they were talking about, we’ve already gotten our first foray into their Spider-Man-less Spider-Verse in Venom, something that has been in-the-works in some form or another for the last twenty years. Makes sense that’s where they’d start too, seeing as he’s the second-most-popular character swinging around New York (traditionally). So is it worth the wait? Not really, though it’s not without its merits. Thanks to Tom Hardy, one of the best performers of his generation no matter the role, Venom is constantly entertaining. However, with some shoddy storytelling and and a lack of true originality, one can’t help but feel like it was one script rewrite away from being truly great. What we got, however, was far from it, as whatever good will it builds up is quickly dismantled in a chaotic third act that relies far too heavily on CGI too induce actual thrills.
Set in San Francisco, Venom follows the plight of Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy), an investigative journalist who centers on the Life Foundation in the hopes of exposing their seedy back-door dealings and bring Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), the founder, to justice. However, upon gleaming some unsourced information, Eddie is terminated from his job and is left by his fiancée Anne Weying (Michelle Williams), leaving him in a state of despair. After being contacted by indignant Life employee Dora Skirth (Jenny Slate), Eddie finds a way to infiltrate their headquarters, only to come into contact with their darkest secret. Retrieving four symbiotic life forms from an outer space expedition, Life has been experimenting on human test subjects in the hopes of achieving symbiosis and evolving the human race. Before Eddie can escape the compound, one attaches itself to him, becoming a voice in his head known as Venom. Now on the run from Drake and his men who aim to kill him, Eddie must give in to this violent parasite if he wants to live to fix the mess he’s made. The situation gets complicated, however, when Drake is bonded with a symbiote himself.
Even though Venom has been done on the big screen before with Spider-Man 3 in 2007, this is the first time that he’s been represented as an actual character, instead of just a black, goop costume. So the filmmakers were indeed tasked with taking him in a new direction, something they mostly succeeded in doing. Something that becomes evident about midway through is that the movie hinges on the relationship between Eddie and Venom, and weirdly enough it’s the best part of it. I don’t know if it could have worked without someone like Tom Hardy being given free range to be weird on both sides (yes, he also voices Venom). While Eddie Brock may not be the tried-and-true anti-hero that readers of the comics will recognize, he does serve as a good foil – comedic foil too – to the big, goopy alien. The whole Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde paradigm has been played out, even in superhero films like The Incredible Hulk, but never to such an extreme as this. For those of you feeling indignant about Sony going back on their promise to follow in the footsteps of Logan and stay true to the character by making it R-rated, fear not, for it doesn’t really detract a whole lot from it being without blood. That said, I can’t say I agree with certain story liberties they made with Venom down the stretch. Of course, I won’t go much further else I spoil the resolution, but the relationship between Eddie and Venom does become a casualty for the sake of plot convenience and an expedited denouement. I wish I could say they could backtrack and double-down on those positive elements in the sequel, but it might be too late for that considering where they took those two.
Seeing as this incarnation of Venom is wholly distanced from Spider-Man in terms of origin, and isn’t simply the nega-version of him as seen in SM 3, it’s understandable the filmmakers would rely heavily on CGI to create this behemoth of an anti-hero. And it largely works, until it doesn’t. To be more concise, the scenes involving Venom solely are the best parts of the film. Watching him take control of Eddie as he lashes out his goo tentacles to great effect to beat up bad guys or control a motorcycle are pretty sweet, not to mention when he hulks out entirely and bites off a head or two. However, it’s the scenes when Drake’s symbiote-fueled Riot enters the fray that everything falls apart. Marvel fans have been whining for years that villains are simply carbon copies of the hero, as they often glom on to whatever origin story is happening outside of their characterizations. And while I don’t praise the likes of the Yellowjacket fight in Ant-Man, or the Abomination in The Incredible Hulk, or hell, even Venom in Spider-Man 3, at least I could tell what was happening when they started tussling. Here, the goopy Venom and Riot look so alike at thirty frames-per-second – aside from slight variations in color palette – that it looks like we’re watching Jackson Pollock paint in slow-motion, or even a Transformers movie on its best day. I’m not going to pretend like I know the solution to fitting in an aesthetically different villain without bloating the runtime with setup and exposition, but it does suffer from origin story syndrome in that respect. And I’d say I’m more optimistic about the inevitable sequel being given more time to breathe, but considering the post-credits sequence that lays on the tease pretty thick, that doesn’t seem very likely.
But let’s get back into what doesn’t work about this movie involving Riot, and that is Carlton Drake as the primary villain, namely Riz Ahmed’s portrayal of him. Now, I’m not going to go blasting Ahmed as an actor; it only makes sense that this is where his career would go after his fabulous, star-making turn in Nightcrawler back in 2014, but between this and the Jason Bourne reboot, he has not proven himself very serviceable as a villain. Granted, I do think he was given a very thinly written antagonist with very flimsy motivations, but boy does he stick out like a sore thumb in this movie whenever he comes onscreen. I almost feel like he thought he was going to be in the bad version of this movie, the one that likens itself more to last year’s The Mummy and kills its franchise before it can even get started – though this isn’t as awful as that. Same thing goes for Michelle Williams – with one of the few other characters with an actual arc – who though by no reason bad, seems to have been not been told what movie she was signing up for. I think had there been better communication on what the tone of this was going to be, they really could have knocked it out of the park. Namely, whenever Tom Hardy is onscreen being sweaty and talking to the symbiote in his head, Venom is exactly what it needs to be. But when you drag anyone else back into the picture, the movie comes to a screeching halt. I don’t know if any superhero movie ever needed to only have a single, named character, but if there was, this is it.
And for these reasons, I mostly blame director Ruben Fleischer for not being able to wrangle in all these components to fit what the movie actually has going for it. While his career began on a fairly considerable high note with the gross-out classic zom-com Zombieland, credit for that one should largely go to eventual Deadpool writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick for crafting such funny, likable characters to chum around with for ninety minutes. Without them, Fleischer delivered two duds in the form of 30 Minutes or Less and Gangster Squad, both lessening in quality from his previous effort, though the latter admittedly for some reasons outside his control. Suffice it to say, I don’t think Fleischer was the guy for the job given his track record, though judging by Venom‘s success at the box office in its opening weekend, he’ll probably get the call to do the second one, provided it doesn’t interfere with his helming of Zombieland 2, which is now in pre-production.
So it would seem that Sony finally broke through the door in launching their Spider-Verse, not to be confused with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse coming out this December. And I can see why a lot of people are liking it; it’s irreverent and fun. Hell, I enjoyed watching it even if I don’t think it’s a good movie. It has some really strong things about it, but it just so happens to be the case that it’s sullied in all the things that aren’t good about it. Having said that, I think Sony can learn from their mistakes and come back even better if they really do pump out a Morbius movie as the universe’s second entry like they say they are. Until then, I think people will be pleased with this bad movie.
Final Score: 3/10