Making a Venom movie without Spider-Man is a unique challenge. But many of Venom's issues have nothing to do with Spidey's absence.
For example: Early in Venom, the Symbiote that will later be revealed as Riot escapes the Life Foundation's custody and infects a woman in a marketplace in Malaysia, with the explicit goal of reaching San Francisco. The movie's main story then begins: Eddie Brock makes some poor decisions, loses his job and his fiancé (Michelle Williams' Anne Weying), and hits rock bottom. Cue a six month time jump--and our friend Riot, still inhabiting the old woman from the marketplace, has finally made it--to the airport?
What was Riot doing for the six months between then and now? Did it go on a killing spree across Malaysia? Was it dormant or hibernating--something the movie never gives any hint that Symbiotes might be capable of? Was it biding its time pretending to be someone's grandma? That blatant plot hole has nothing to do with Venom's general 1990s cheesiness as a character, or the considerable challenge of trying to make a Venom movie without a single reference to Spider-Man. It's just good, old fashioned, avoidable sloppiness.
Don't get me wrong: The lack of Spider-Man does cause problems. Specifically, the entire premise--that Venom chooses to stick around on Earth, attach itself permanently to Eddie Brock, and betray its entire species--doesn't really work in this movie. In the books, Venom's obsession with Spider-Man gives it common purpose with Eddie, and cutting Spidey out of the equation necessitates something take his place as their end goal. The movie tries to get around that by clumsily painting Eddie and Venom as Breakfast Club style lovable "losers" (actual, direct quote: "On my planet, I am kind of a loser, like you"). It's nonsensical, implausible, under-explained, and tonally weird; that line is easily the movie's biggest laugh, but not in a good way.
Venom is surprisingly funny, mostly in the verbal abuse the Symbiote whispers directly into Eddie's brain, usually after Tom Hardy's character does something Venom considers cowardly or embarrassing. When Eddie holds his hands up in surrender to law enforcement, Venom laments that he's "making us look bad;" when Eddie opts to take the elevator rather than jumping from a skyscraper, Venom calls him a "pussy." These moments are deliberately played for laughs, and they land well enough. The bigger problem is why an alien parasite from space talks like a frat bro, or, extrapolating further, why it needs eyes and teeth if its main form is a shapeless, pulsing black goo. These essential curiosities of Venom as a character are never so much as acknowledged, much less explained.
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On the plus side, Venom and the other Symbiotes look pretty good in this movie. The CG work is somewhat inconsistent, and it definitely goes through ups and downs when it comes to raw fidelity. But unlike in his other live action incarnations (looking at you, Spider-Man 3), Venom actually looks like Venom here. The alien comes off as both lithe and powerful; it leaps around gracefully, but its hulking form also exudes menace and strength. The visual effect of Venom's vicious visage wrapping itself over Eddie's head is creatively executed, and Symbiote-on-Symbiote fight scenes play out in unexpected ways, with human hosts and alien parasites struggling to remain linked while trying to rip and tear their opponents apart.
Hardy is as baffling in this role as the movie's trailers have suggested he'd be. As a New York transplant living in San Francisco, he's doing something like a caricature of an NYC cab driver's accent, mixed with frequent slurred mutterings--and that's before he encounters the Symbiote and his behavior becomes understandably erratic. Besides Hardy's strange performance, Brock himself is not a likeable or relatable character. He thoughtlessly uses his fiancé in a half-baked gotcha journalism scheme that gets them both fired, and it literally never occurs to him to so much as apologize to her, until Venom for some unknowable reason nudges him in the right direction later in the film. Brock lacks the depth of character to carry this movie, and Hardy lacks the charm to make up for the character's shallowness.
Michelle Williams does just fine as Anne, although her attachment to Eddie is really inexplicable, as the two have zero chemistry. Even weirder is the willingness of her new doctor boyfriend (Reid Scott) to administer Eddie multiple MRI screenings, even after Eddie interrupts their fancy lunch date by climbing into a lobster tank (the Symbiote affects him in some truly strange ways).
Riz Ahmed does a great job as the megalomaniacal head of the Life Foundation, totally selling his character's belief that humans will have to mutate themselves using alien parasites if we want to survive climate change. That said, it's a pretty thin motivation, and Dr. Carlton Drake is an utterly one note villain. To be honest, the only character who actually experiences any kind of growth or change is the scientist played by comedian and actress Jenny Slate, who is terrific in this movie--and, unfortunately, underused.
Venom has all the ingredients of a decent superhero movie--10 or 15 years ago. With spotty CGI, poorly drawn characters, tonal inconsistency including forced "edginess" and awkward humor, sidelined female characters, and even cringeworthy licensed musical cues, it feels like a relic from the distant, pre-Marvel Cinematic Universe past. That may in part be attributed to the fact that it's been in production in one form or another since at least 2008. But its problems go way past simply being "old school," and ultimately, Venom lacks the charm, clarity, and ambition superhero fans have come to expect.
|The Good||The Bad|
|Surprisingly funny||Inconsistent CGI quality|
|Venom looks like Venom||Unlikeable, shallow characters|
|Some creative action and visual effects||Tom Hardy's strange performance|
|Better than Venom portrayal in Spider-Man 3||Multiple plot holes|
|Venom makes little sense as a character|