In Association with Month of Horror
Since I know you all wouldn’t have clicked on today’s Month of Horror post of which this review is officially a part of, I figured Venom should get its regular theatrical movie review post.
It’s difficult to view Venom separate from its genesis. Thanks to the massive success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, superhero movies, and more specifically the Marvel name brand have become a license to print money. For a time however, Marvel couldn’t give their properties away fast enough, leading to a situation where a number of their biggest properties wound up elsewhere. While the X-Men and Fantastic Four are slated to return to the MCU fold with the Disney buyout of Fox, the one major holdout remains Spider-Man.
For Sony, Spider-Man represents its one connection to the Marvel moneymaking machine and its only superhero property. Disney has the MCU, Warner Bros has DC, Universal has The Fast and the Furious. Yet, Spider-Man is only one character and Sony is leaving a lot of money on the table if they are only making one superhero movie every couple years. Instead, they’d have to make do with only Spider-Man’s supporting characters, the only ones they had rights to. The public not knowing who these people were didn’t matter to the MCU when it started, why should it matter to Sony now?
Fresh off the relative success of its sort of integration into the MCU with last year’s Spider-Man: Homecoming, Sony has given us is first Spider-Man Extended Universe film, starring a character that had already made it to the big screen before. Eddie Brock/Venom was one of three villains in the overloaded Spider-Man 3. Topher Grace’s performance was terrible (a typical Topher Grace performance) and it was clear Venom was added as a studio obligation by a director (Sam Raimi) who didn’t care about him. Not that I can say I have any attachment to him as my knowledge of Venom comes mostly from that movie, the Spider-Man and Venom: Maximum Carnage video game, and general pop culture assimilation. Created in 1986 by David Michelinie and Todd McFarlane, he quickly became one of Spider-Man’s most popular villains and later developing into an anti-hero in the era of dark and edgy comics of the ’90s.
Like every other iteration, the Brock here is an investigative journalist, working for a major news organization hosting his own show, The Eddie Brock Report in San Francisco. He has a reputation though for getting into trouble, having already been chased out of New York City (which is about the closest we get to a nod to Spider-Man) over his style. After confronting the Carlton Drake (played by the ever reliable Riz Ahmed), a pastiche of every crazy rich tech guy (Elon Musk certainly feels like an influence), the founder of the Life Foundation, and a brilliant medical researcher who pivoted to rockets believing the future is in space, Brock loses his job, is blackballed from the industry, and his fiancée (Michelle Williams) leaves him.
Drake’s work has brought back four symbiotes (found on a comet) on one of his rockets which crashes into East Malaysia. One of which escapes and moves from host to host returning to the others (apparently taking six months to do so, in one of the dumbest parts of the movie). The others are tested on animals and eventually humans. After being tipped to the activities and snuck into the building (and who doesn’t put their phone on silent when they are sneaking around a building), Brock is accidentally infected by a symbiote. The symbiote starts talking him, driving him to eat, and do its bidding. That last point is a bit more complicated as the relationship between the two builds and their differing goals and approaches conflicts.
Tom Hardy is unsurprisingly a far more compelling Eddie Brock that Topher Grace, turning in genuinely strange performance. Even before he is infected, he seems uncomfortable in his own skin and embraces the gonzo nature of the “parasite”. His deep modulated Venom voice is likewise funny, but not just because of the effect. Venom’s quips and Hardy’s able to make a bond between two characters played by himself the most interesting part of the movie. The movie makes the smart decision not to play Venom as the cool, skulking, black figure (for the most part), it makes him alternatively the voice of chaos and the one of reason whose personality becomes more defined as the movie develops. You grow to care about the two which is far more than I expected.
The quality of the movie falls off dramatically after the relationship between Brock and Venom. The horror aspect that got I mentioned earlier is very much present, but also clearly suffering from its PG-13 status. The symbiotes takeovers scream body horror and there are a few scenes that hint at the potential, the twisting bodies and gruesome injuries. Venom simultaneously acting as a life support and to his chagrin (name wise), a parasite on his human host. The compulsions to eat food and specifically living creatures by an alien creature. It’s all a pure horror set-up and yet, the movie backpedals this at every chance. I had the same issue with The Meg, another PG-13 horror title, that I had here. It would line up its horror moments and instead of the typical bloodless moments or just using discretion to scare and imply more, the film doesn’t even bother most of the time in a constant fear of making Venom too unlikable.
In the place of the horror is more of what you’d expect from a Spider-Man adjacent film, action. It’s just that the action is complete rubbish. It’s an indecipherable miasma of nonsense filled with quick cuts and rapid camera movement. The special effects for the symbiotes’ eyes (to indicate who is infected) never stop being silly, looking like they are going to bug out straight out of a cartoon. Thankfully, the full Venom doesn’t come out often because it is one that looks far better in the form of big black tentacles and shifting into shapes such as knives then when he’s turning into that stupid looking demon with veins on loan from Electro. The characters who aren’t portrayed by Tom Hardy are altogether rather bland, largely serving as people for him to play off of.
The film is not nearly as bad as general consensus would indicate. In fact, if they had gotten someone vaguely competent to shoot the action scenes and embraced the inherent body horror of the premise, the film could have even been good. Instead, it exists in a weird space in between where it both exceeds my nonexistent expectations and disappoints in the same film.