After the underperformance of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Sony had no choice but to team with Marvel Studios to save the image of Spider-Man in the eyes of moviegoers as Marvel’s iconic hero lost his box office might to Iron Man. The result of that union merged from necessity was Spider-Man: Homecoming, which was a smash hit and helped merge Spidey into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While Spidey is loose within the MCU, Sony was left with multiple ancillary characters from Spider-Man. Their plan was to create a universe of Spider-Man’s friends and foes in a separate universe without the web-slinger. The first in this prospective series of films is Venom, which sees Tom Hardy taking on the mantle of the Spider-Man’s archnemesis from the ‘80s and ‘90s. This time, however, Venom is an anti-hero in director Ruben Fleischer’s bizarre superhero movie. It’s impossible to declare Venom as a good movie, but it’s hard not to be entertained by this wild, unusual entry into the cannon of superhero cinema.
Eddie Brock (Hardy) is a renegade reporter, asking questions in thick New York accent that nobody else dares to ask. He’s engaged to attorney Anne Weying (Michelle Williams), whose law firm is working for tech giant Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed) and his company. After suffering some bad publicity following a crash of one of their exploratory space craft, Eddie Brock is assigned to interview Carlton Drake for a puff piece. But Eddie Brock doesn’t simply do puff pieces and with the help of some documents that he saw from Anne’s computer, he confronts his interview subject with accusations that he knowingly kills people in clinical trials. The contentious interview that backfires big time. Eddie is fired. Anne is fired. Anne dumps Eddie.
Six months later and Eddie’s life is in shambles. He’s unemployable and behind on his bills. Meanwhile, Carlton Drake is experimenting with the symbiotes that came back in the doomed space ship, testing how the alien lifeforms bond with human subjects. Horrified at the indifference towards human life, research scientist Dr. Dora Skirth (Jenny Slate) reaches out to Eddie Brock to investigate and report on Drake’s nefarious dealings. While snooping around, Eddie accidentally finds himself bonded with a symbiote that takes over his body and mind. Now Eddie must learn how to control an alien being who has melded with him while preparing to battle Carlton Drake’s numerous goons across the streets of San Francisco.
The first act of Venom is incredibly shaky. You keep thinking that Fleischer and screenwriters Jeff Pinker, Scott Rosenberg, and Kelly Marcel would get the ball rolling and get Hardy’s Eddie Brock in the Venom costume as soon as possible, but the film delays the inevitable for far too long. There are aspects of Venom that feel like it’s a superhero movie that was made in 2004, before the MCU and Christopher Nolan’s Batman films changed how we see superhero movies. The soundtrack choices obviously mandated by Sony don’t help, and often result in some unintentional moments of hilarity. There’s a bit too much expository dialogue for some aspects of the story that don’t need explanation.
Venom comes alive when Eddie Brock merges with the alien symbiote. Then Hardy’s performance, which was already pretty crazy, goes completely nuts. It’s one of the most oddly captivating performances to ever grace the screen. He’s a wild man, mumbling in his thick accent while descending into a sweaty and paranoid state. Then the film takes on the form of a weird buddy comedy, with Venom and Eddie bantering back and forth in some ridiculous moments, including an astonishing moment in a live lobster tank. Never at any point could you say that what you’re witnessing is good cinema, but it’s often such heightened absurdity that you can’t turn away. Without Hardy’s bizarre performance, Venom would just be a by-the-numbers bad movie. He singlehandedly makes this bad movie not only watchable but wildly entertaining.
The great supporting cast is given little to work with. Michelle Williams is one of the best actresses of her generation but she’s given the thankless role of the concerned ex-girlfriend, who at first is shocked and repulsed by her ex’s transformation before becoming a supportive ally. Jenny Slate is absolutely squandered in a minor role that seems like it was cut down extensively. Nobody fares as bad as Riz Ahmed, who really tries in one of the most poorly written villains of recent memory. There’s an earnest attempt to give him some kind of motivations for his actions, but they’re paper-thin. Carlton Drake’s dialogue is the worst of all the characters, which is really saying something.
Venom is such a weird movie that never really pulls off what it’s aiming for, though it’s hard to tell exactly what it’s aiming for. If this is supposed to launch a series of Spider-Man movies, there may not be a series. There’s a post-credits tease of another famous characters but I don’t think you’ll ever see the next chapter in this proposed saga. While Venom is a very bad movie, it’s a miracle that it’s as entertaining as it really is. I was never bored and most of that is thanks to the mesmerizing, absolutely bizarre performance by Tom Hardy. I may be alone, but I contend that Tom Hardy gives a great performance in Venom and I’d have no problem if he were to earn an Academy Award nomination for his boundary-pushing acting. I don’t know what he was trying to do, but I couldn’t take my eyes off it.
A bad superhero movie that is seemingly pulled from the past, Venom never works but it is endlessly entertaining mostly due to an absolutely crazed performance by Tom Hardy.