VENOM Review: Call Poison Control

Remember Catwoman? The solo movie for the famous Batman villain Warner Brothers released back in 2004? Except the movie had no connection to Batman whatsoever? And wasn’t about Selena Kyle or any other famous version of the antihero but some new what’s-her-name called Patience? Or was it Grace? Definitely something on-the-nose like that. You know. They got Halle Berry, hot off her Oscar win, to star in it? And then they got some single-named French director to make it? And the movie effectively killed both of their careers? And the movie tried oh so very hard to be cool and trendy and sexy but just delivered some unknowingly goofy nonsense instead? Like when Catwoman prowls into a nightclub in her skin-bearing leather-strap costume and promptly orders a glass of cold milk? Because cats??? Yeah, you remember it, right?

I ask all of this because I certainly remembered. But I don’t think Sony did. Because if they did, I would hope they would’ve learned a lesson from their rival’s failures. I would’ve hoped they would’ve decided against attempting something so similar to that experiment in milking an intellectual property for whatever it’s worth without any care for general common sense. That the restriction of not having their most recognizable character to anchor a story would dissuade them. And yet, the evidence on the screen bears out that either they didn’t bother to do any of that self-reflection or they saw the potential dollars on the table and, like a good edgy frat wannabe would, thought “hold my beer.” And while Venom is not quite the disaster that Catwoman was, it definitely shares a lot the same DNA.

Take the re-imagining of Eddie Brock, for example. With only an off-hand reference to getting kicked out of New York, this Eddie is now a righteous activist journalist instead of the scumbag reporter and rival of Spider-Man comic fans would know. He’s also played with overly-verbal hangdog charm by Tom Hardy. Running a popular news show and engaged to a successful lawyer, Eddie loses both after a run-in with the possibly sinister Life Foundation. He later finds out that the company is using San Francisco’s homeless population to experiment with some alien goo they collected from space. Unwittingly, Eddie picks up one of the goos, called “symbiotes.”

The alien symbiote, which calls itself Venom, bonds with Eddie. It talks to him in a low, raspy voice, demanding (living) food and insulting him. Hardy fulfills the silly voice clause in his contract by voicing Venom as well. Only Eddie hears the voice, creating ample opportunity for awkward situational comedy in which Hardy talks to himself, literally. Ruben Fleischer, director of such modern comedy classics as Zombieland (yay!), 30 Minutes or Less (ehhhhhh?), and Gangster Squad (oof.), seizes each one with reckless abandon. The cleverness of this set-up wears off quickly. Venom’s potentially intimidating interjections land with the impact of a punchline with no joke. Or perhaps the failed attempt at intimidation is the joke. After all the character does refer to himself as a loser in a line that feels more like a mea culpa than actual character development. That would certainly be more interesting and fun than the generic sci-fi superhero trappings we get.

Ruben Fleischer

Tom Hardy
Riz Ahmed
Michelle Williams
Jenny Slate

Screenplay by
Jeff Pinkner &
Scott Rosenberg and
Kelly Marcel

Besides inducing schizophrenia in its host, Venom also acts as his own grabbag of superpowers. He makes Eddie virtually invincible and extraordinarily strong. Early in the film, sentient black tendrils shoot out of Eddie’s body to attack assailants and pull Eddie’s body to and fro. And in his final form, Venom envelops Eddie’s body, creating a large, muscular, veiny, toothy monster. Who eats people. And he’s the hero now.

This nonsense will make more sense to people with little knowledge of comic books when they hear that Venom originated as a Spider-Man villain. The character’s introduction originally served as a dark, murderous antihero to mirror the beloved wall crawler, down to the costume including the famous spider logo on the chest. In fact, the only reason Venom was ever particularly interesting was his connection to Spider-Man. Though Marvel has made several changes and revamps to the character in the years since to take him in more unique, distinctive directions, the incarnation is still the most popular. Chalk it up to an iconic design on the page. The CGI creation seen here certainly isn’t.

Venom is a giant monster. That’s it. There’s little else to him. In and of itself, this is not an insurmountable obstacle; just make a monster movie. And much of Venom feels like it could have made for a solid B-level horror show. But the success of Marvel’s ambitious Cinematic Universe means everything has to be a superhero flick, and everything has to kick off a massive shared continuity. And despite Fox now having produced three massively successful R-rated comic book films and a character whose whole thing is being a murderous asshole who, again, eats people, we gotta adhere to the PG-13 standard of dark and just slightly offscreen bloodshed and dismemberment. Because no one actually had any faith in this thing and Sony needed to maximize all of its profits.

And thus, the ingredients for that possibly fun monster movie get poured into the superhero mold. And then the producers try to fill the spider-shaped hole at its center with, just, everything bad, hackneyed, and awful. You want awkwardly deployed quips and snarky banter? You got it. In the mood for no more than three wildly incoherent and boring action setpieces with no tension and dodgy special effects? Venom has you covered. A second act that whizzes by with no purpose like so many spun wheels? Boom. Right here. Need your obvious and tedious sequel-baiting cameos and references? Why, you must’ve loved Amazing Spider-Man 2!

A cast this great deserves better. At the very least Hardy is having a blast. You might guess the rest of the cast formed around him. Michelle Williams mostly gets stuck with the thankless girlfriend role. One exceptionally strange moment involving her character indicates some weirdness of which the film could’ve used more. The corporate bad guy, played by talented young actor Riz Ahmed, does what is expected with a plan that makes no sense and monologues laden with biblical references to justify it. The pedigree on display here should provide some amount of competent fun. The film is some thrill-less, edge-less, tasteless thing, rolling into theaters.

I’m sure there’s an analogy there somewhere.

Venom is currently playing in theaters everywhere.