Review – Venom (2018)

It’s been over a year now since Spider-Man Homecoming gave our favorite webslinger his own solo movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe after debuting in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War. That movie, while the third version of the character since his big-screen debut in 2002, was a commercial and critical success, giving a fun, youthful spin on Peter Parker, where other films seemed to be in a hurry towards adulthood and not dwelling on the high school experience. It was this uniqueness that made the announcement of Venom particularly odd to process. Eddie Brock and his hulking symbiote counterpart was birthed on the pages of Spider-Man comics, and his ties to Spidey go far deeper than just having a large white spider on his chest. His appearance, motivations, and overall purpose are intrinsically tied to Spider-Man, so here we have a film that is created “in association with Marvel” and (***spoiler-alert***) not featuring Tom Holland as Peter Parker or even mentioning him. Ties to anything in the overall mythos are scant (but there are some). So, obviously, there are some liberties taken with the character, but overall, with a lead actor like Tom Hardy, front and center, and big-budget special-effects, it all works out, right?

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Well, partly. In the film, we focus on Eddie Brock (Hardy), a docu-journalist a’la ‘VICE’, that has much going for him in San Francisco. Engaged to a beautiful lawyer, Anne  Weying (played by Michelle Williams), all is well, until Eddie makes a choice with some sensitive information surrounding Life Foundation and their CEO, Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed). This shakes things up for Eddie from the top down. Months later, he is wrapped back up investigating Life Foundation, but he brings more than just a story from it; he is infected with an alien parasite, a “symbiote” that comes to call itself Venom. Imbuing Eddie with  incredible powers and abilities, we see him try to come to grips with a foreign presence inside his mind, controlling and manipulating him almost like a marionette. We spend the rest of the film, following Eddie’s struggle and quest to deal with the problems brought about by the symbiote organisms on Earth.

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With the casting of Tom Hardy, I knew a few things would result. Most obviously, the physique of Eddie Brock would be convincingly portrayed as it should be (sorry, Topher Grace). In addition, I knew that the performance could wind up being a lot of things, but it would definitely be attempting something unique. We get that here, definitely. While not entirely likable, Brock’s problems with becoming Venom create something different than we are used to seeing. And boy, is it different?!? Taking what the comic page shows as duality and really running with it, we get a frantic, muttering performance that displays full commitment for sure, but it isn’t without missteps. The verbal interplay and spats between Eddie and Venom provides some of the film’s highlight moments, but when you slow down and start to think about why Venom would say or behave the way he does over the film, things don’t always add up. The missteps I mentioned in the performance we get come mainly from the writing, I would say. Tom mostly chews through it, like his character does through anyone that gets in his way, but there were plenty of moments where the dialogue and character motivation left me like “What?” It’s hard to imagine who came up with what in relation to the strangeness of it all, but I have to imagine Hardy pushed for the weird, and boy, do we get some here!

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The supporting cast does their job, but they don’t get near as much material to work with as Hardy. Indie darling Michelle Williams is finally coming into more mainstream material after the success of The Greatest Showman, but I really wasn’t wowed by too much here, as she and Tom exhibited little to no on-screen chemistry. Jenny Slate & Reid Scott, both known primarily for their comedy work, do great playing it straight as their characters here, but neither are given enough to do to elevate the rest of the film. Riz Ahmed is very capable as an actor, but the God-complex speeches he has to deliver here as Carlton Drake feel oddly dated and out-of-touch for a film in 2018. The film doesn’t waste much time in showing him to be a guy with nefarious means in play. Great villains have understandable and nuanced motivations, but none of that really comes together here.

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What really does shine here beyond the erratic work of Hardy is the special effects. My biggest takeaway from the film is that Venom, even in the crazy ways he is realized on the pages of comics, can be effectively translated to live action. Paradoxically massive yet lithe in his movements, savage in his exercises of strength and horror, and completely strange and horrifying to witness, the character’s realization on-screen is quite an achievement for all of the special effects studios involved here. It’s not all perfect, but it is all effective. Venom was realized on-screen before in Sam Raimi‘s Spider-Man 3, but it’s best we forget about how all that turned out (again, sorry, Topher).

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Strangely in that film, the effect of Venom worked best when the “suit” was removed from the host, as shown above, but in this film, the symbiote works on the host, off, and wherever else in transition. It’s as if the effects team scavenged every nerdy 90’s kid’s Trapper Keeper and realized what we all were trying to draw when we should have been listening to our teacher. Alluding to the 90’s feels key here, because, while the film implies, at least to me, some interesting parallels with addiction and its effects on lives, it never fully sticks that it seems to be shooting for. This results in there being not much that is very deep going on with the film beyond a story that doesn’t have that much motivation going for it. Prior to the successes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and even the masterclass that is Christopher Nolan‘s Dark Knight Trilogy, it was enough for a comic book movie to just look right, even if it didn’t have really anything interesting to say. One could argue that the MCU films aren’t saying a whole lot either, and I could see their point; still, a main strength of those films is a dedication to tone and feel, even as that tone may change between Marvel properties. This film doesn’t do too well here, as it goes all over the place with tone. The direction of Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland) amplifies all the horror beats effectively, which is largely where it should have stayed, but the film mixes in strange comedy liberally by way of some truly weird dialogue. I was a fan of the humor that naturally came from watching the physicality that Tom Hardy brought to it all, but that dialogue though! “A turd in the wind”…Yeah, it gets ugly!

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With regards to content, I did feel the film would have been better suited as an R-rated affair. Everything attempted here winds up feeling stunted by the PG-13 limitations. With no demonstrable links to the MCU Spider-Man here, why wasn’t this film even edgier? That said, with what we do get in terms of language, violence (both implied and shown), implied sex, and just overall darkness, this really isn’t a film to take the kids to. If anything, I see them more likely leaving terrified, rather than mesmerized. As I said earlier, there are speeches revolving around God and Biblical characters like Abraham and Isaac are (erroneously) discussed. Think of these mentions as prompts to discuss with friends what the Bible really shows, and there is some utility there. Listening to how the film portrays the God of the Bible on its own word will only disappoint sincere believers. Showing the effects of a man possessed by something other than himself can be a parallel to understanding sin and addiction, but again, these can be things one lifts out and discusses on their own, rather than seeing them correctly stated by the film.

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All in all, I liked parts of the film, but it is definitely one of the strangest big-budget films I’ve ever watched. My inner child reveled in seeing the Venom of the page brought to life, but stripping away Spider-Man from it all left it hollow to me. I respect Tom Hardy for his performance, and inevitably, I think there could be more coming (especially, if that end-credits scene is any primer), and I hope to see him develop things. That said, Sony, tie in Spider-Man directly, ASAP, because those ties make Venom interesting. With what we get here, everything winds up forgettable in many ways, and that’s a shame. Tom Hardy brought the goods; now, we just have to have some reasons to care, because this film’s plot, pacing, and inconsistent tone wasn’t compelling enough on its own. The above image says it all: come to enjoy Tom Hardy acting crazy and some slick visuals. Other than that, it’s likely you’ll be disappointed on some level.

4.75

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