Inhabiting the odd twilight zone between the MCU and a standalone continuity, Venom is Sony’s semi-aborted attempt to capitalise on the success of the Deadpool films. R-rated antihero films are proven to work, so it’s sad to see the studio opt for a PG-13 option, a soft 15 in the UK. This half-heartedness cuts to Venom‘s core.
Tom Hardy is Eddie Brock, shifty and limping star reporter in San Francisco, asking hard questions of The Man. He’s told to softball an interview with Riz Ahmed’s patently nefarious Carlton Drake, but instead steals key information from his fiancee Anne (Michelle Williams) to ambush the businessman with accurate accusations. Summarily fired and dumped, Eddie hits rock bottom.
Months later, he is embroiled back into Drake’s plotting when accidentally infected with a symbiotic parasite. That’d be Venom. Coming to terms with his new power and the hit and miss buddy-movie dynamic in his head, Eddie realises he and Venom will have to stop Drake’s nasty plan, because obviously they must.
Venom boasts a curiously magnetic central performance from Hardy. He is twitchy, shuffling around and mumbling even before infected with alien goop. Manic energy pairs with an unwillingness to enter into conflict that is oddly played, but undeniably enjoyable for it. Better to be memorably unpredictable than to go straight down the middle as every other member of the cast manages.
The film’s comparatively mature certificate is equal to its middling commitment to the brutality of its antihero. Director Ruben Fleischman has offered the explanation that Venom is a “lethal protector” not a butcher – he sought to include but not focus too much on head-eatings and impalings. This means that Venom’s brutality is blurred, off-screen or obscured by smoke or rubble. It might be unfair to call this cowardly, but it certainly makes it harder to invest in the alien’s love for murder.
A script that drops multiple clangers for every smile-wringing line doesn’t help. Ahmed in particular is lumped with dialogue that might slip by at the annual panto but don’t sound much like an evil business executive hiding in plain sight. His motivations are left muddled, the hope being that his obvious similarities to Elon Musk are enough to satisfy the less curious viewer.
It is inevitable that Venom ends in a blur of mediocre CGI and explosions, a villain explained late in the day serving the requisite symbiote-on-symbiote climax. This sequence is a lacklustre and tired conclusion to a largely forgettable film. Somewhat like the first Ant-Man, a leading man is undernourished by the film around him. Unlike that Marvel effort, there is a lack of warmth and wit that underscores the odd timing of a standalone Venom.
Should this prove the jumping-off point for a Spiderverse, as rumoured, it will have been an odd genesis. The brief post-credits preview of upcoming animation Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse offers more verve, invention and energy than the movie that precedes it – a worrying state of affairs.