After watching Venom, Sony’s new standalone Spidey-verse movie that isn’t really a part of the rest of Marvel’s cinematic universe, I can appreciate what a thankless task the studio set for itself. Take one of Spider-Man’s greatest foes — and then decouple him from Spider-Man entirely. Rework the origin story to stand on its own. Take an R-rated character, and make him PG-13. And then, of all things, make him kind of a hero? It’s not really kid-friendly, or comics fan-friendly either. So, what IS it, then?
Honestly? It’s fun. I mean, don’t get me wrong — it’s a flawed film. The tone waffles about and the plot is utter nonsense, but if you can set aside all the expectations and baggage of what you think a Venom movie should be, you just might be surprised by how much you enjoy just what this movie is. It’s a throwback comic book movie in a lot of ways — rooted in those pre-Iron Man or even pre-Raimi Spider-Man days, when it was enough to take a comic book character and throw him (or her! but really, him) on screen, in the midst of some very creative action set pieces, and let the silliness abound. They didn’t have to be faithful to any comic arcs. They could be “inspired by” the source material in the loosest sense of the term — remixing rather than recreating the original elements. Nowadays we take comic book movies very seriously. We’re used to hunting for know-it-all easter eggs and scouting for all the ways one film ties into five others. Venom doesn’t truck with all that. And that’s its saving grace, really.
Also, it’s just surprisingly funny. There’s action, and plenty of (bloodless) violence, but Venom is mostly a buddy comedy, with a dash of slapstick and a bit of rom-com — all rolled into one. It’s directed by Zombieland’s Ruben Fleischer, who knows how to pull off a mix of tones. Granted, you have to sit through about a half hour of set-up before the laughs start, and though the balance isn’t always perfect, I wouldn’t trade any of it. It was, dare I say, refreshing?
About that set-up: Tom Hardy plays Eddie Brock, a gritty and unpredictable investigative journalist of the Vice mold. The kind of guy who goes on camera without shaving or taking off his leather jacket, having just rolled out of bed and hopped on his motorcycle to go track down the news. Only, like, let’s pretend he got a show on a CNN-ish network instead. Eddie relocated to San Francisco because he, I dunno, burned too many bridges in NYC or something. He’s a rebel! But it’s OK because now he’s engaged to a beautiful no-nonsense lawyer named Anne. And look, I was ready to bemoan how wasted Michelle Williams was in this role, but I have to say — their love story doesn’t quite go the way you expect, and a lot of it is down to her performance. Even with what might possibly be the worst hairstyle since whatever they did to Bryce Dallas Howard in Spider-Man 3, Michelle is just the coolest chick in the room, and she suffers no fools. When Eddie screws things up and breaks her trust in a BIG way, Anne doesn’t hang around waiting for him to go on his hero’s journey of self-growth. She just walks away. And Eddie has no one to blame but himself.
Fast forward six months and Eddie is the textbook definition of down-on-his-luck when a surprise visit from a scientist (played by Jenny Slate) offers him proof of some shady dealings at a lab run by billionaire Carlton Drake, the head of the Life Foundation. Riz Ahmed plays Drake, and again — he could easily have been wasted in the role, except that Ahmed is a total professional who chews through a load of lame bad-guy dialogue like it’s Shakespeare. Turns out, Drake has been funding space expeditions to scout for a new planet (because ours is, you know, totally screwed), and his latest expedition found mysterious lifeforms of the gloopy variety on a space rock and brought back a few samples.
Enter: symbiotes! Drake has been experimenting with bonding the gloops to living hosts, in the hopes that it will enable people to survive in space. The only problem is that not every living body is a suitable host to each specimen, and you reallllly don’t wanna know what happens to the unsuitable hosts. That’s the case that Eddie decides to investigate. And that’s how he meets Venom — and when the film really finds its footing.
From here on out, the movie is about the budding relationship between Eddie and his symbiote, an alien who wants to bite faces off and maybe also take over the planet. Venom speaks as a voice in Eddie’s head (HeadVenom), and their banter is hysterical. Eddie is scared and reluctant and can’t believe this is happening, and did he really just eat someone’s head?! HeadVenom berates him and calls him a pussy and comes out to save his life, because he needs Eddie! It’s Tom Hardy playing both voices — and he nails it, with an assist from the cleverer-than-expected dialogue. Even the physical parts, where Eddie’s body starts fighting based on Venom’s commands rather than Eddie’s, is really well done. Hardy is fully in the moment as the person who doesn’t understand how his body is doing what it’s doing, pleading with people to stop attacking before they get hurt, and the stunt choreography that projects that interplay is impressive. It reminded me a lot of Upgrade, another surprisingly effective film about a man whose body is commanded by an internal outsider (in this case, a computer chip), where the interplay between the voices and the physical expression of the characters inhabiting the body are so well done, it makes up for some of the more lackluster plotting.
While Eddie and Venom are on the run together, fighting for survival while evading Drake’s forces, they start to really bond. HeadVenom, at times, even plays wingman to Eddie, giving him tips on how to talk to Anne (it’s delightful). And by seeing the world as Eddie sees it, Venom also changes. It turns out that amidst the hierarchy of the symbiote race, Venom is a bit of a loser — but so is Eddie, and that makes them a great team. Does Venom still want to eat people? Oh hell yes. But he’s more willing to listen to Eddie on when and how.
Of course, Venom wasn’t the only symbiote that was brought back from space, which puts Venom (and Eddie) in a bit of a pickle — one that carries the film through the big climax. Not that it matters, really. If you think too hard about anyone’s motivations or the beat-by-beat particulars of the plot, you’ll get nowhere. Even Venom’s change of heart isn’t explained clearly. And if that’s what you’re judging the film on, then sure — it’ll come up lacking.
But to me, the point of this movie was to introduce Eddie Brock and Venom to the big screen, and in that, it was wildly successful. I had a blast, and I left wanting to see more of them. And honestly, I wouldn’t like Eddie or Venom nearly as much if they didn’t come as a pair. As far as pure character introductions go — in creating someone fully-realized that I am genuinely excited to see more of — it was almost as successful as Deadpool (albeit less slavishly faithful to the source material). I don’t know that I want to see Venom pop up in other films, necessarily. I’d be satisfied just getting to watch their banter for another hour and a half every couple of years. And based on that first end credit sequence, Sony already has plans for Venom’s future.
Oh yeah, that’s right — make sure you stick around for both end credit sequences because they’re worth it. Or just keep an eye on this space, because I’ll have a spoilery reveal ready soon!
Header Image Source: Sony