The comic book hero (or anti-hero) has pretzeled itself into many different forms over the past decade. Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s dweeby vigilante in Kick-Ass gave basement-dwelling teens new hope. Watchmen leant mythology and existentialism to its ageing heroes, and Ryan Reynolds’ Deadpool ran in the opposite direction with that ideology, single-handedly delivering the word ‘meta’ to the masses with supreme comic effect. With Ruben Fleischer’s Venom, Sony delivers a split vision that like Deadpool, isn’t afraid to poke fun at itself.
Venom, who appears briefly in Spider-Man 3, is one of the few Marvel characters still under Sony’s ownership and remains crucially separate from the monolithic Marvel Cinematic Universe. This explains the lack of a one Peter Parker. Venom, the slippery, alien ‘symbiote’, enters our atmosphere by the design of Dr Carlton Drake, the self-righteous ‘philanthropist’/unfulfilled biotech billionaire, played by Riz Ahmed. Drake seeks to blend the slithering, amorphous symbiotes with a compatible human host in order to improve bodily function to maniacally powerful, and obviously, violent levels.
In steps Eddie Brock, the disgraced investigative journalist, portrayed by Tom Hardy. Brock inadvertently merges with a symbiote, delivering him a newfound purpose (whether he wants to or not) and his new Jekyll and Hyde routine, Venom. Brock and Venom share everything: mind, body, soul, and to comic effect, the all too human urge of hunger. The latter leads to arguably the funniest scene in the entire film, as Brock struggles to contain the voracious hunger of Venom in a classy restaurant – much to the horror of his ex-fiancee, Anne (Michelle Williams).
“But there’s a loveable clumsiness to Venom. Fleischer takes a carefree attitude to his concoction – a complete antithesis to the slick precision of the MCU”
Williams, for the most part, manages well with the comic elements of her role. The script overall is a little wooden, but Williams rises enthusiastically to overcome it. After the success of her minor role in I Feel Pretty, it’s safe to say that Williams, a four-time Oscar nominee, is more than comfortable outside of weighty dramas. It would have been more satisfying if Ahmed, who famously cut his teeth on the comedy Four Lions, had shared that same zest in his role. Drake is a relatively weak villain, but Ahmed does deliver at times as the Elon Musk-baiting antagonist. Like most villains, there’s the twisted saviour complex at the centre of Drake. One that seeks to save humanity by utterly destroying it. Ahmed thrives when he’s allowed to tussle with Hardy onscreen but unfortunately these instances are rare throughout Venom.
Venom and Brock are portrayed by Hardy, an actor who has become increasingly more difficult to pin down and define. Hardy and the symbiote that inhabits his character’s body are not that different in that respect. Hardy’s performance is a manic and brilliantly jittery one. Probably the kind of performance you’d expect from a man riddled with a writhing, psychopathic parasite.
Unfortunately the effect of a talent such as Hardy’s contributes to the downfall of Venom during its action sequences. When required to, the symbiote can conjure all manner of weaponry and transform its shape to suit its surroundings. As Venom takes over, Hardy’s Brock is lost amongst the black goo. There isn’t anything unique about the CGI at work here which further compounds the invisibility of Hardy during these scenes.
But there’s a loveable clumsiness to Venom. Fleischer takes a carefree attitude to his concoction – a complete antithesis to the slick precision of the MCU. It captures a campy sweet spot between Marvel’s bright, patriotic feel and the overly dark DCEU. If that thematic presence could be maintained consistently the film would be more effective. The same could be said of Venom as a character all of his own had it been introduced far earlier. Venom’s impulsiveness is fun to watch, and like the lack of depth to Carlton Drake, would have been a greater triumph had it been given more space to thrive. But surprisingly, Venom just about does the job. It’s a clumsy, flawed project but its held together by the earnest, unabashed approach.