The last time we came across Eddie Brock/Venom on the big screen, he was playing third or fourth lead in Sam Raimi’s last go at the Spider-Man franchise (since rebooted twice). Raimi famously didn’t want Brock or Venom (same difference) playing supervillains in an already overcrowded, overstuffed Spider-Man 3. Raimi wanted to tell a different and at least to Raimi, a more personal story pitting Spider-Man against Sandman and the Hobgoblin (i.e., Baby Green Goblin), but Sony executives intervened, forcing Raimi to add Venom to an already overstuffed superhero movie. Both Spider-Man 3 and the Venom were all the worse for Raimi’s deliberately shoddy mishandling of a character who deserved better. But where there’s IP (intellectual property), there’s always a way, even if that way involves an eleven-year wait and the conspicuous absence of the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) Spider-Man. They probably should have waited another eleven years. Or maybe jumped into a time machine and released this version of Venom eleven years ago instead to less discerning pre-MCU moviegoers.
With Spider-Man contractually tied to the MCU, that meant Sony executives, director Ruben Fleischer (Gangster Squad, Zombieland), and four credited screenwriters had to come up with a Spider-Man-free origin story for Venom. The black, undulating blob-like symbiote still comes from the farthest reaches of outer space, though courtesy of an Elon Musk-inspired billionaire, Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), with money to burn and space rockets to build, this time. One of Drake’s single-stage rockets crashes back to Earth, but Drake’s men recover several symbiotes from the wreckage (more or rather nothing about the missing symbiote to save the semi-surprise). Symbiotes are big on bonding, especially with human hosts who can help them survive in Earth’s oxygen-rich environment. They’re also big carnivores, preferring their meals alive, squirming, and mewling for their lives. Bonding with a symbiote gives the human hosts the usual set of superpowers (e.g., speed, strength, near invulnerability), but a bad bonding session can leave both the symbiote and its host dead or the host devoured from the inside out.
When we meet Venom’s human host, Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy), he’s got it all together, a career as a crusading TV reporter in the great city of San Francisco, a lawyer-fiancé, Anne Weying (Michelle Williams, both miscast and underused), and an apartment the envy of the average and below average San Franciscan. Then it all goes sideways when Brock, sacrificing Anne and his job, goes after Carlton Drake and Drake’s side gig as a philanthropist, the Life Foundation. It doesn’t matter that Brock’s right about Drake, only that he takes a massive risk and loses big-time. When one of Drake’s researchers, Dora Skirth (Jenny Slate), spontaneously grows a conscience after years of leading Drake’s massively questionable experiments, it’s not long before Brock and Venom meet and bond, leaving Drake down a symbiote and Eddie developing a sudden appetite for human heads (among other apparently delectable body parts). Why Venom prefers reshaping himself (or itself) to look like a monochrome Spider-Man (minus Spidey chest symbol or markings) remains a question Fleischer and his writing team didn’t think they needed to answer.
They might have been right, especially since the second half of Venom: The Movie turns into a black comedy/mismatched buddy flick with Brock and Venom at constant odds while more or less sharing the same body/space. While Brock and Venom get to throw around high school-level banter (Venom calls Brock a “pussy” at one, groan-inducing point), everyone else in Venom: The Movie barely gets any dialogue at all. With all of four speaking parts for female characters (Anne, Dora, a homeless woman, and a convenience store owner) and a parade of disposable henchmen, it’s basically the Brock and Venom show. The greatest mumbler of his acting generation, Hardy deliberately slurs and slings his words in every direction and in every register, dropping consonants and syllables with Method Acting intensity. Hardy’s never less than watchable in Venom: The Movie. Sometimes he comes close to mesmerizing, but Venom: The Movie has little else to offer than Hardy’s committed performance or Venom: The Special Effect. A mid-flick chase through the streets of San Francisco (partly Atlanta) shows more imagination and invention than Venom: The Movie’s other set pieces, including the finale between Venom and Spoiler (not his/her/its real name). Venom: The Movie’s least scene is a massive disappointment. It’s poorly choreographed and chaotically edited, making it near impossible to figure out who’s doing what to whom and where.
That incoherence and chaos extends to a shockingly underwritten screenplay. It’s not just that everyone except Brock and Venom get minimal screentime or dialogue. It’s that the dialogue falls short of barely functional (i.e., story elements, overall exposition) and the attempts at humor are just that, attempts at humor. Of course, when it comes to humor or comedy, it’s all (or mostly) subjective, so your mileage may vary. But it’s hard to argue with the constant tonal shifts or Venom’s weakly developed arc. He’s a monster until a bigger monster enters the picture. Even then, that doesn’t explain Venom’s switch except to undercut the whole superhero thing, especially when your biggest superhero can’t make an appearance to help save the day or night. In the end, Venom: The Movie’s ends up as another wasted opportunity to do right to one of Marvel’s most enduring, most popular characters. An R-rating would have helped too.