The character of Venom may not mean quite so much to you if you haven’t been a Marvel Comics collector within the past thirty years, or if you saw Spider-Man 3 and hold a grudge against Topher Grace and Sam Raimi to this day. When first introduced on the printed page, Venom was a team-up of two of Spider-Man’s enemies: Eddie Brock, a bitter workplace rival of Peter Parker’s who got fired and blamed him for it; and Spidey’s former black costume, which was actually an immoral liquid alien parasite that Mr. Fantastic had to help him escape. Venom was the perfect anti-Spider-Man — he all the same powers, the spiffy black design, all of Peter’s memories which the alien had absorbed, and the ability to sneak-attack Spidey without setting off his Spider-Sense. I was 16 at the time and thought Venom was a great idea for a nemesis…one among many nemeses, mind you.
Unfortunately in the ’90s, whenever fans liked any one character a lot, Marvel editors and/or executives would then decree that character must appear in as many comics as possible. Characters such as Wolverine, the Punisher, and Ghost Rider were each given two or three series to their name and/or dropped into other heroes’ titles as special guest stars, constantly and gratuitously. Sometimes it worked and sales spiked with every appearance, until the mid-’90s when their sins finally caught up with them and they knocked off the guest-star oversaturation for a while.
Among those Fan Favorites du Jour in the ’90s was Venom. One problem: he was a most heinous villain with a body count. Homicidal maniacs can be protagonists, but that’s a tough premise to weave into four to six comics per month. Marvel therefore tried reinventing him as an antihero and hoping the other Marvel heroes would forgive and forget, and not try to arrest or kill him four to six time per month. I never loved Venom that much, especially after he began spawning imitative spin-offs like Carnage, Riot, Toxin, Hybrid, Scream, and several more my son could name but I can’t because I never cared. Unless that was all of them. I wouldn’t know. I quit reading the various Spider-titles shortly before all those Venomettes hit the stage and spread the Venom plague.
I’ve run across Venom at random times since then (loved Rick Remender’s version starring Flash Thompson; had no strong feelings about Ultimate Venom) but don’t go out of my way for him. So why did I bother giving a Venom movie any attention? Because I was curious to see if Tom Hardy could sift gold from dross, because I really liked director Ruben Fleischer’s horror-comedy Zombieland, and because my son has been a Venom fan since he was a kid. The occasional father/son outing is a good thing, and we had fun trying to sort out this mess together afterward.
Short version for the unfamiliar: What if an ordinary guy were given an alien artifact with vast powers, but instead of a Green Lantern ring it’s the Blob, and instead of turning into Green Lantern he becomes the Punisher, but instead of guns he uses his power-Blob to shoot blobby spikey tentacles and/or eat people’s heads? And sometimes the Blob gives him dating advice?
Also, instead of Golden Globe Nominee Ryan Reynolds, it’s the generally amazing Academy Award Nominee Tom Hardy, who hasn’t been boring since Star Trek: Nemesis. Hardy is Eddie Brock, a crusading journalist from New York who’s moved to San Francisco to chase down California corruption and let his accent fade away. We’re told he’s good at what he does, but everything changes one day when, using light evidence he obtained by betraying an intimate trust, he decides to go all-out Michael Moore confrontational on evil businessman Carlton Drake (Rogue One‘s Riz Ahmed) with no credible ammo, no camera crew of his own, no incisive questions, no subtlety, no coherent plan, and no visible display of journalistic competence. To his complete surprise it takes him about ninety seconds to become a public embarrassment and lose everything. This was among the film’s most realistic parts.
A six-month time-jump sees Eddie turned into a loser with no job but who can afford an apartment in California anyway, and who doesn’t want to get involved in anything every again. Fate makes other plans for him when a promise of solid proof of shenanigans entices him to sneak into Drake’s labs and take photos of evil afoot. Opening the wrong cell at the wrong time leads to a meet-ugly when a captive alien symbiote decides Eddie is his new best friend. A stressful adjustment period ensues for Eddie, entailing binge-eating raw meat, hating loud noises, fighting off armed henchmen with ease, and getting used to the growly new voice in his head (Hardy himself, but with a creepier, less muffling filter than Bane’s). Can this extremely odd couple learn to coexist, stop Drake’s machinations, save lives, get the girl, and stay calm once they learn Venom isn’t the only symbiote on Earth?
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Oscar Nominee Michelle Williams is the Concerned Ex-Girlfriend, who has to drag Eddie out of a few messes, push exactly one button, and perform exactly one abnormal feat. Jenny Slate (Parks & Rec, Zootopia) is the whistleblower who leads Eddie to EvilCo Labs.
Ron Cephas Jones (Bobby Fish from Luke Cage; Randall’s real dad from This is Us) has a few minutes as Eddie’s wise ex-boss. And shooting the film in California made it easy on Stan Lee, age 95, to do one more Marvel movie cameo, this time as a friendly neighborhood pedestrian who should keep his cute doggo away from that pesky, insatiable Venom.
The scene in the middle of the end credits adds one more well-known face who costarred in another would-be blockbuster film earlier this year…
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Morals of the story include but aren’t limited to:
- Compromise with species vastly different from your own can achieve desired results, but prepare for unpleasant consequences
- Journalism is a noble profession, so please pay no mind when it’s done terribly
- Science is good except when rich men pervert it
- Not all bad guys are white
- Lying is bad sometimes kindasorta
- Murder is bad unless your victims have sinned, in which case enjoy your kill-spree
- Privatized spaceflight can be used for nefarious purposes if we don’t start heavily regulating it now
Otherwise the film is all about Venom doing what Venom does best: hogging the spotlight, making weird shapes, decapitating people (but bloodlessly, like Lord of the Rings), and saying disturbingly inhumane things. One car chase through the non-hilly parts of San Francisco pack a punch and a few surprises. Lots of shooting, stabbing, and hurling fills the runtime, most of it short and one-sided. Venom’s CG effects look appropriately otherworldly, though the other symbiotes vary in quality.
Nitpicking? A Venom movie without Spider-Man is like a Bizarro comic without any Superman references. “Evil Spidey” is literally the character’s entire point. With that layer of Spidey’s backstory scrubbed out, the movie’s pedestrian narrative can’t help achieving much beyond average super-heroics. I mean, setting aside all that butchery. Luckily for Eddie and his new amorphous partner, the rest of the cast eventually overlook his little homicidal indiscretions, some but not all of which can be written off as self-defense.
Other annoyances and aggravations included but weren’t limited to:
- Acts One and Two establish repeatedly the symbiotes cannot bond with just any human, and that maybe one in a million are compatible. By Act Three, every attempted symbiosis works without an issue or anyone concerned with possible rejection before just letting it happen.
- Symbiotes seem to have a bottomless appetite, but Venom expends enormous energy and sustains itself through numerous battles, explosions, and calamities without shriveling up or passing out from starvation.
- Venom introduces itself to Eddie with the name Venom. No explanation is forthcoming as to how an alien from outer space wound up with an English name. Same goes for another symbiote later.
- As a wispy Elon Musk homage, Riz Ahmed is utterly wasted in a part that should’ve been gleeful scenery-chewing cinematic mania, but comes off as mild-mannered milquetoast even after he begins escalating his crimes. I’ve seen him go over the edge in past works such as Nightcrawler and The Night Of, and find it all the more saddening to see his talents mostly tucked back in his toolbox unused here.
- In this Year of Our Lord 2018 we’re still using the Wilhelm scream? Really?
- Launching a rocket into space apparently takes far fewer people than Apollo 13 and The Right Stuff taught us. In fact, most of Mission Control can clock out and go home well before the countdown reaches the final few minutes, as long as your C++ is coded just right so your entire computer network can finish up on autopilot, apparently.
Capping it all off, the final symbiote duel is a Transformers-level mess, with interchangeable CG body parts telescoping and tangling and ramrodding and flying hither and yon all over the screen between our all-black antihero and the very-dark-gray final boss. Lighting the background with a few fiery effects doesn’t illuminate or add excitement to the sight of two monsters basically squishing and squooshing at each other.
So what’s to like? As expected, the main reason to be here is Tom Hardy. All the best parts are jittery, anxious Tom Hardy debating Evil Tom Hardy’s disembodied voice, which becomes even more alarming when it gets embodied and sprouts a head on a stalk, like a thinner Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors sticking out of his chest. The give and take of their relationship — often awkward, never less than intense — is far more engaging than any interactions between him and the rest of the criminally underfed cast. It’s not hard to guess Tom Hardy beats Topher Grace without even seeing the film.
Scarce traces of Zombieland dark humor can be glimpsed between the pixels, but not nearly enough to place Venom apart from the rest of the comic-book-movie pack. The final trailer bragged, “THE WORLD HAS ENOUGH SUPERHEROES”, but Our Antihero shouldn’t bee claiming bragging rights when he’s surrounded on all sides by the same old superhero tropes.
How about those end credits? To answer the burning question that MCC is usually happy to verify: yes, there is indeed a scene during the Venom end credits, along with a second offering at the very end after the final names have dropped. For those who fled the theater prematurely and who really want to know without seeing it a second time…
[insert space for courtesy extra-strength spoiler alert in case anyone needs to abandon ship]
…Eddie Brock, still with Venom inside, now pursues a new dream to write nonfiction books about important subjects. His first interview is at a maximum security prison, at the window of one particular cell. Behind the glass is infamous Marvel Comics serial killer Cletus Kasady, played by Woody Harrelson in a Carrot Top wig. He makes a Lecter joke, he makes Eddie squirm, and he closes out our Venom experience with one last line: “When I get out…there will be carnage.”
Longtime Venom fans will no doubt be ecstatic at this obvious choice of a sequel antagonist. But Woody Harrelson? My son thought he looked perfect as Cletus, but he and I have very different perceptions of Woody Harrelson.
After all is said and done and the credits have run, near the very end is a treat for fans: an extended preview of the upcoming animated theatrical film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. It’s not a trailer, though they did show the most recent one in front of Venom. Rather, we see an extended sequence in which Miles Morales, the primary Spider-Man among many in this tale, grieves at the grave of one Peter Parker, only to be surprised moments later by a living Peter Parker. Awkwardness and a concussion follow, then a merry, exhilarating ride through New York City at top speeds involving a subway train and some misguided Spider-webbing, which reminded me faintly in a good way of the end of the classic monorail episode of The Simpsons.
To an extent this preview was a tactical error on the studio’s part. Now I’m far more interested in Into the Spider-Verse than I ever was in Venom.