The only startling moment in the thoroughly irredeemable Venom that makes you sit up and take notice comes at the 71-minute mark, when the sight of a disheveled, stubbly, sweaty and bloated Tom Hardy jolts you with the realization that here is the perfect actor to one day play Harvey Weinstein. For that insight and that insight alone, this film is valuable. Notwithstanding the guaranteed profits stemming from any film with the Marvel brand attached to it, those involved should reflect upon the truth of the pic’s advertising tagline: “The world has enough Superheroes.”
Venom briefly surfaced in the modern cinematic world of superheroes and arch-villains in the 2007 Sony release Spider-Man 3, but director Sam Raimi always resented that producer Avi Arad had forced this bad boy upon him, and Topher Grace’s impersonation was not a success. Eleven years later, the character finally has a film of his own, and more’s the pity.
At a time when the Marvel universe is both expanding adventurously (Black Panther) and wrapping up other storylines (Avengers: Infinity War), Venom feels like a throwback, a poor second cousin to the all-stars that have reliably dominated the box-office charts for most of this century. Partly, this is due to the fact that, as an origin story, this one seems rote and unimaginative. On top of that, the writing and filmmaking are blah in every respect; the movie looks like an imitator, a wannabe, not the real deal.
While a spaceship of unknown origin is crashing in Malaysia, bringing with it a plague in the form of bluish-black seaweed-like goo that even the late Anthony Bourdain might have resisted trying, scruffy San Francisco investigative journalist Eddie Brock (Hardy) is fired from his local TV show for insulting hi-tech magnate Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed) during an interview. For all his alleged talent, as well as for the smarts and insolence Hardy normally brings to his roles, Eddie comes off like a grubby schmuck — too clueless to have convincingly forged a career as a fearless reporter and too sloppy and unsophisticated to be engaged to a sharp cookie like Anne (Michelle Williams), a character insufficiently defined and employed in the inspiration-challenged script by Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg and Kelly Marcel.
Virtually living on the street now, Eddie is certain there’s something funny going on up at Drake’s fancy facilities tucked on a Marin hillside just west of the Golden Gate Bridge. Plus he has an insider there (Jenny Slate), an ethically conflicted woman who eventually tips the suspicious Eddie off as to what’s going on with the goo. Slate’s is a role that could profitably have been expanded and made more realistic.
Unfortunately, the Marvel formula remains the same as usual, involving a genius entrepreneur’s double identity as a man of science and a secret monster with grandiose plans. The potential for Drake’s plot seems conspicuously unconvincing even by Marvel standards (the late Peter Cook’s World Domination League, anyone?), and the normally scene-stealing Ahmed can’t come up with any amusing angles to make the character pop.
Meanwhile, Eddie becomes infected with the yucky stuff, which equips him not only with startling powers of elasticity but, perhaps more importantly, with an alter ego who maintains a constant dialogue with him. A modest degree of humor grows out of this — the voice of Venom comes to serve as the human’s host’s therapist and confidant — but this is small compensation for the rote action scenes that play out across the city streets as Drake’s goons try to corral the fellow who’s got the goods on the boss.
A significant problem in a film full of them is that Eddie comes off as a dope, an eager doofus hardly convincing as a boundary-pushing journo or someone who can out-think a titan of technology. Whatever his shortcomings as a journalist or a mate, the character needed a deep repository of intelligence and resourcefulness that is nowhere detectable; he’s all Basset Hound and no German Shepherd. Hardy has always had a terrific screen bearing and presence, but this may be his least interesting role and performance.
Similarly, Williams has been excessively normalized here, a standard-issue girlfriend without the distinctive character she usually conveys. None of the other characters pop at all.
The pervasive lack imagination of this film under the auspices of director Ruben Fleischer, in his first feature outing since the dreadful Gangster Squad in 2013, makes one appreciate the thought and care that Marvel has lavished not only on the likes of Black Panther and Captain America but even on more minor-league entries such as the amusing Ant-Man titles. Everything here seems by-the-book, without amusement or surprise, save for Stan Lee’s more extensive-than-usual last-minute cameo.
Production companies: Columbia Pictures, Marvel, Tencent Pictures
Cast: Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, Scott Haze, Reid Scott, Jenny Slate, Melora Walters
Director: Ruben Fleischer
Screenwriters: Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg, Kelly Marcel, screen story by Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg
Producers: Avi Arad, Matt Tolmach, Amy Pascal
Executive producers: David Householter, Stan Lee, Kelly Marcel, Tom Hardy, Edward Cheng, Howard Cheng
Director of photography: Matthew Libatique
Production designer: Oliver Scholl
Costume designer: Kelli Jones
Editors: Maryann Brandon, Alan Baumgarten
Music: Ludwig Goransson
Visual effects supervisors: Paul Franklin, Sheena Duggal
Casting: John Papsidera
Rated PG-13, 112 minutes