[This story contains minor spoilers for Venom.]
While Tom Hardy is no stranger to superheroes, he’s also a decidedly defiant movie star. He’s made a name for himself carrying plenty of impressive independent films, in supporting roles in big-budget blockbusters, and so on, but his lead role in Marvel and Columbia’s new film Venom is something entirely different.
Hardy tends toward the offbeat in the films in which he stars, so in some ways, the weirdness on display in Venom is no surprise. What is a surprise is how sorely let down Hardy is by the rest of the film, which seems unwilling to aim as high and swing as big as he is.
Here is a film that answers the question, “What if the lead actor thought he was in a goofy comedy, and everyone else thought they were in a dour thriller?”
Lots of the elements of this film, from the brilliant but selfish villain (billionaire scientist Carlton Drake, played by Riz Ahmed) to the kind-hearted but bland fiancee (here played by a wasted Michelle Williams) to the CGI-overloaded action sequences, feel like they could have been lifted from a film in the first wave of modern superhero movies. Back then, in films such as Daredevil and the execrable Catwoman, it often felt like the people involved in making the final product didn’t care much about the heroes onscreen. The cynical and calculated sense of throwing a few disparate elements together in the hopes of making enough money is very much on display throughout most of Venom.
That is, except in Hardy’s performance. It’s not exactly as daring a set of choices as what Hardy did as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, but he’s getting the opportunity to play two very weird characters in one body and unwilling to rest on his laurels.
When we first meet Eddie, he’s essentially a loner despite being this close to marrying the pretty Anne Weying. His pushy brand of journalism feels as much a put-on as anything else — we know that Eddie is a journalist, because he’s always on camera, reading from his notebook — and once he loses that job, Eddie becomes even weirder. Turning into Venom makes Eddie get sweatier and shiftier. The bass-voiced symbiote gets into his head, literally and figuratively, to the point where Eddie is soon diving into a tank of lobsters at a fancy restaurant so he can eat a one or two.
The movie surrounding Hardy, though, doesn’t know how to keep up with his manic energy. The three credited writers and director Ruben Fleischer aren’t able to make Drake a genuine threat; they seem to get more of a kick out of the idea of Drake as fictional corollary to a certain real-life billionaire just accused of fraud by the SEC than they do out of giving him a sense of actual menace. The tortured love story between Eddie and Anne goes nowhere, in part because they only have one scene of relative joy together, and in part because Williams seems all too cognizant of the fact that she’s got barely anything to do in this story. Just about the only interesting aspect of their subplot is the other man in the scenario, a nice doctor played by Reid Scott who seems perfectly happy as Anne’s new boyfriend. Instead of leaning into making the guy an obvious baddie, making him a normal and friendly guy only amplifies how weird Eddie is becoming.
That, in effect, is the problem and best part of Venom. Hardy has arguably been weirder in movies than he is as the lead of this film. Bane remains one of the silliest (intentionally or not) villains in modern superhero sagas, in no small part because of the lilting and looping vocal inflections Hardy brought to the role. But he feels exceedingly strange in this film precisely because no one else does. Everyone else in this movie plays things by the book, from the performances onscreen to the work behind the camera. The weirder Hardy gets, the more boring the movie around him becomes.