An action-packed sci-fi film with notes of romantic comedy that delivers an overly convenient plot, a ton of tonal dissonance, and a lot of fun.
In Venom, Tom Hardy plays Eddie Brock, an investigative journalist who loses his job, fiancée, and his spirit to do good after his investigation into the Life Foundation. The Foundation is a company interested in everything from cancer research to space exploration. When a sentient alien goo the Foundation calls a “symbiote” ends up bonded with Eddie, they learn to cooperate to stop the Foundation’s founder, Carlton Drake, from taking his research to world-threatening places. Does the movie kick off a new franchise deserving of a “-verse” suffix?
Venom is a film for two types of people: fans of the character from the comics who are willing to enjoy the campier aspects of the symbiote and their host or people who may not know the character well, but are open to a fun, corny, action-packed sci-fi romp. Venom never quite decides if it wants to be a gritty sci-fi film, a romantic comedy of boy-meets-symbiote, or a bombastic action-film, so it settles on trying to do a little bit of all without ever reaching genre symbiosis. One moment Eddie’s sneaking through a dimly lit lab splattered with viscera, then flying down San Francisco roads on a motorcycle with some Sick Stunts, then exchanging banter with his ex-fiancée, her new boyfriend, and the symbiote inside him that’s beginning to learn how wonderful life is now Eddie’s in the world. I wouldn’t say the film inspires tonal whiplash, but I couldn’t help but chuckle here or there at the dissonance in mood from one scene to the next.
The best word to describe the plot of the film is convenient. Characters know how to operate machinery they’ve displayed no expertise in if they need to. When the film forgets to explain exactly who the antagonist is and why they matter, a character fills Eddie in on the situation before the audience gets lost. Venom–who refers to themselves as “we”–needs to get from one place to the other, but it’s been established that symbiotes need a host they’re compatible with in order to stay bonded. The film decides to ignore that in a couple scenes and let the audience assume the people they choose to travel with are a good enough match. Fortunately, the plot is kept very simple, so even if the film reaches its goals through any convenient shortcut it wishes, there’s no sweeping, complicated story arc for these shortcuts to really blemish.
What saves the film from being an unorganized mess when it comes to genre are the performances of the main cast. Tom Hardy is serving the late-80’s Eddie Brock of the comics who was full of ridiculous one-liners and quips, but just grounded enough in modern sarcasm and irreverence to keep the camp factor from completely overwhelming the character. This is an Eddie Brock with his own sense of justice and who’s willing to break the rules–or his loved-ones’ trust–to dole out that justice. Hardy’s enthusiastic delivery of Eddie’s exasperation, quick-wit, and panic make Eddie a hugely likable character even as he was making very poor decisions. As Venom, Hardy delivers a hilarious performance where quips and insults are delivered almost with glee, making their dialogue sound all the more funny after being edited to sound like a rough, threatening monster. Hardy plays off himself well, developing a natural chemistry between Eddie and Venom that makes the invoked romantic-comedy trope of Venom caring deeply about Eddie after such a short time together almost believable. Whenever Venom would be forcibly separated from Eddie for one reason or another, I actually found myself saying, “Aw,” and feeling bad for Venom being ripped away from their new Earth boyfriend. It was clear throughout that Hardy was having a lot of fun in the role, a feeling that rubbed off on me as I watched his performance and greatly enhanced my overall enjoyment of the film.
In the supporting cast, Riz Ahmed plays Carlton Drake as part Silicon Valley-esque science visionary, part charismatic cult leader who’s just charming enough to make characters conveniently do his bidding. There are some notes of malice in the undertone of some of his lines, by Ahmed chooses to let the subtext do the threatening until further into the film where his plans began to really get foiled. Michelle Williams meets Hardy’s light-hearted attitude well as ex-fiancée Anne Weying, but also tones down the sarcasm when things get serious. Her chemistry with Hardy sold the couple well and while the circumstances of their separation didn’t have me rooting for them to get back together by the end, I enjoyed the role she plays in the overall conflict. Did it feel–say it with me–convenient how much she was included in the conflict by the end? Of course, but her performance was compelling enough that I didn’t mind her having a more active role in the plot rather than, say, get killed off to forward the motivations and stories of some other irreverent, time-traveling, or purple Marvel characters I know.
On a technical level, the film is simply conventional. There wasn’t much done with regards to cinematography, sound design, or scoring that sets it apart from any other action film. Some of the songs chosen for the soundtrack felt like they were reaching for “coolness,” but landed on the aesthetic of an Xbox commercial. It’s clear who the target audience of the soundtrack is, but subjecting the viewers to a half-baked Eminem track before the mid-credits scene felt a bit rude. I can at least say that scenes like a high-speed car chase or a CGI-heavy brawl were shot in a way that kept me from feeling lost amongst the explosions and smackdowns which is especially important for a movie featuring such mutable bodies as the symbiotes. There were maybe a couple moments during the symbiote fight where my eyes had trouble finding what they were supposed to focus on, but overall the action is very readable.
Speaking of the symbiotes, Venom and their amazing friends were all animated very well and managed to read realistically even as they emerged out of or submerged within their human hosts. When Venom’s gooey body would shoot out of Tom Hardy’s arm, the effect was clean enough that my immersion was never broken. As for the times Venom would fully show themselves and cover Eddie completely, they were just as tall, dark, and handsome as I hoped. The animators really sold how ferocious Venom is in the animalistic way they hurdle forward on all fours with a predatory fierceness that gives their allure an edge of danger and makes them even more exciting to look at. Aside from an erotic moment from the trailers where they lick a goon’s cheek to get a taste of their prey, Venom’s tongue was criminally underused, usually only appearing during triumphant roars. Those scenes still sent my heart aflutter, but I would’ve liked to see more creative uses of Venom’s tongue considering how iconic it is in the character’s design.
Though I wanted a bit more tongue during my time with Venom, there are a ton of cool stunts executed with the symbiote in creative ways during fights or action scenes. The filmmakers take full advantage of Venom’s liquid-like form to pull off tricks like softening the ground with a puddle of goo as Eddie whips a motorcycle around an otherwise impossible turn or sending out a tendril to twist a goon as Eddie turns so he can punch them with ease. The filmmakers really managed to use both Venom and Eddie together in the action choreography which made those scenes a lot of fun.
Overall, Venom may not be a deadly serious or relatable and grounded take on the character in line with most comic book films like the cinematic universes DC or Marvel, but it’s a lot of fun and had me laughing throughout whether with it or at it. I can’t say that it made me desperate for more movies in the Venomverse–and the post credits scene hinting at the future felt more indulgent and hamfisted than titillating–but fans of the character who can maintain their expectations going in are likely to really enjoy the film for the silly ride that it is.