The benefit of adapting any pre-existing intellectual property for the silver screen is that studios always know an audience is waiting. Whether the source material is a book, a video game, or even a line of toys, the logic is straightforward: if somebody liked a story in its original medium, they’ll probably be curious enough about the movie version to buy a ticket. That’s particularly true for comic books, where decades of readers’ emotional investment can help serve as a filmmaking shortcut. Screenwriters just need to bake a reference to a beloved storyline into their script or add a post-credits scene with a fan-favorite villain, and more often than not, people who love the original property will respond passionately to the adaptation.
But for a big-budget movie to succeed, italsohas to work for everyone else. And that’s where Ruben Fleischer’sVenomhas real problems. It’s a train wreck of a movie, mixing and matching wildly dissonant tones, bizarre plot contrivances, and a truly unique lead performance. It’s full of odd slapstick moments and computer-generated effects that look like they were pulled straight from the 1990s. Hardcore fans may just be pleased that the titular character has his own movie. But for everyone else,Venomis a mess.
Tom Hardy plays Eddie Brock, an investigative journalist with his own TV show dedicated to taking down evil corporate powers. (The audience knows Eddie is good at his job because he always reads from a reporter’s notebook while on camera, and he is really earnest.) One day, Eddie is assigned to do a puff piece on the head of The Life Foundation, Dr. Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), a megalomaniacal tech tycoon who is basically just Elon Musk without a Twitter problem. But Eddie can’t respect boundaries, even in his own personal relationships. His fiancée Anne Weying (Michelle Williams) works at a law firm that represents Drake’s foundation, and he breaks into her computer to find incriminating evidence then pulls agotchaat his interview with Drake.
As a result, Eddie’s life falls apart: Anne leaves him, he loses his job, and six months later, he’s reduced to looking for dishwashing gigs. (That last one goes counter to everything we know about online publishing, but okay.) That’s when Dr. Dora Skirth (Jenny Slate) approaches him to explain that she works for Drake who’s been trying to mix humans with a number of alien life forms called “symbiotes.” Desperate, Eddie investigates and is infected by a symbiote that eventually introduces itself to him as Venom.
The film is utterly dissonant, recalling the weird camp ofBatman & Robin, which illustrates a fundamental conflict between the presentation of what the Venom symbiote is and does and the filmmakers’ efforts to turn his story into aDeadpool-esque laugh riot. Director Ruben Fleischer has successfully walked the horror-humor tightrope before in films likeZombieland, butVenomnever strikes the note of ironic self-awareness that made that film work. Eddie hears Venom talking even when the creature hasn’t taken over — Hardy voices both roles — and it gives their entire relationship anOdd Coupledynamic that is jarring at first and only grows more absurd as the movie goes on.
It also steals the tension from many of the film’s action scenes. When Eddie is being chased by Drake’s henchman, Venom takes over, causing cars to crash with his sinewy, symbiotic tentacles, and even serving as a bulletproof shield when necessary. It makes Eddie a ride-along passenger in his own chase scene, with nothing to do but watch and make the occasional wisecrack. And because Venom is presented as more or less indestructible, there are no stakes to the action, for either the creature or his passenger.
The rapport between Eddie and Venom is ultimately the film’s most effective emotional element. Williams and Hardy have no chemistry — though, in everyone’s defense, it’s hard to root for the relationship after Eddie breaks into her computer. Ahmed might as well just sit back and twirl an imaginary mustache, given how many Evil Villain Speeches he’s forced to make. Over time, Eddie and Venom work out a begrudging respect, which of course neatly sets up a possible sequel where audiences might be able to enjoy Venom’s antics without having to feel bad about rooting for an evil parasitic space monster.
But it’s truly hard to see anyone clamoring for that movie after watchingVenom. It feels like a movie from the era of sloppy, inconsistent hero films that predominated beforeThe Dark Knightdirector Christopher Nolan and Marvel Cinematic Universe honcho Kevin Feige demonstrated how dramatic and effective superhero movies can be. It’s more useful as a counterpoint or an example of what not to do, showing that even with fan-favorite characters, things like tone, focus, and story do matter. “The world has enough superheroes,” the posters forVenomproclaim. It feels more like the world has enough Venom movies.