When a movie gets bad reviews, there is usually a reason why. You may not agree with that reason, and that is completely legitimate, but it is usually impossible to deny that you can understand the reason why critics/audiences don’t like the movie. One of my favorite movies of all time is 2008’s Speed Racer, a movie that was critically slammed for its odd narrative construction, the campiness of its presentation, and the overuse of (admittedly bad) CGI. I personally love the tone that the film takes towards the material and the fact that all the action and every performance in the film is completely aligned with that tone (the ending of the movie never fails to make me tear up with joy), but I respect and understand that there are many people who did not, and still do not, appreciate it in the way that I do. All that said, I am having a lot of trouble understanding why Venom has as bad a batch of reviews as it does. While I fully contend that Venom is not a perfect movie, I really enjoyed watching it this weekend and I think that there are a lot of elements within the movie that are very well executed. I could understand the movie having a Rotten Tomatoes Score in the 50%s but the film currently stands at 31% and I genuinely am baffled.
The film, Venom, for anyone not familiar with the Marvel Comics character, tells the story of Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy, in a fantastic dual role), a disgraced journalist who, after losing his job and seeing his personal life unravel, tries to expose the deadly corporate secrets of the mysterious Life Foundation in a last-ditch effort to piece his life back together. In doing so, however, he is exposed to an alien symbiote that infects his body with a ravenous entity known as Venom. While learning to contend with the alien monster that is trying to use his body as a host, Eddie must eventually team up with Venom and his ex-fiance Anne Weying (a game, if a bit underused, Michelle Williams), to stop the madman industrialist and head of the Life Foundation, Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed, in fine form), from unleashing extraterrestrial mayhem upon the earth.
Before continuing, read that entire paragraph back to yourself. How does it sound? A bit goofy, a little cheesy, certainly very comic book-like. That is, without a doubt, the perfect way to describe Venom as a film. Many reviews of the film as of yet have made the comparison between Venom and the comic book superhero films of late 90’s and early 2000’s. I feel that is a very apt comparison, but not at all in the disparaging way that many reviewers have used it. The early 2000’s are, in particular, the best touchstone for Venom as it was during this time that we got what still considered to be one of the best superhero films ever made, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man; a film that spent years trapped in development hell before finally being made, opening to critical acclaim, and becoming the first film in history to gross $100 million over the course of a single opening weekend, all while under the direction of the man behind the Evil Dead movies. Yes, the Sam Raimi comparison is key here, not just because his Evil Dead background provided him with the perfect skill set to mold and translate the slightly absurd sensibility of a comic property into a film, but also because in that process, Raimi never forgot that he was dealing with a comic book property. While still managing to ground the story of Spider-Man in genuine emotion, Raimi leaned heavily into comic book sensibilities in every possible aspect of the production, from every actor in the cast having picture-perfect good looks, to the cheesy dialogue and one-liners, to scientific research going on within the story that tests the limits of suspension of disbelief, Raimi even when as far as to compose some shots as though you were looking at an image peeled right off of a comic book panel. In his making of the film, Sam Raimi understood not only the inherent ridiculousness of comic book scenarios, but also just how endearing that ridiculousness is, and he leaned into it without hesitation. One need only look at the comic book superhero films we have now, which feel the need to wrap themselves up in a different packaging (a war film, a political thriller, a John Hughes-style coming of age story, etc…), to see just how radical the idea of a comic book movie embracing its inherent absurdity is.
I mention all this about Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films because I genuinely feel that Venom falls squarely in that camp of superhero filmmaking. Admittedly, Raimi did do it better than director Ruben Fleischer does here, but Fleischer (to his immense credit) is not at all far off in his impression of Raimi (which actually makes a lot of sense when talking about the director of Zombieland). Like Raimi, Fleischer recognizes the inherent wackiness of the Eddie Brock/Venom dynamic, mining the situation not only for its creepiness but also its inherent comedic potential. He is assisted enormously in this endeavor by Tom Hardy, whose performance as both Eddie Brock and the titular Venom (Hardy himself performs the voiceover which his used to create Venom’s monstrous voice) is a feat in and of itself. Over the course of a single film, Hardy is able to not only able create two distinct characters but is also able to play off himself while in character, at times giving an almost improvised feel to the dialogue that helps to enhance the realism of both his performance as well as the chemistry between Venom and Eddie. Hardy plays Eddie Brock as a rough-around-the-edges character, hard-headed in the pursuit of his goals, but also possessing a warmth and humanity in his interactions with the people he cares for, so much so that you cannot help root for him in every endeavor despite his ignorance toward common sense at times. Venom is much more egotistical, hedonistic, and manipulative. He knows what he wants and refuses to settle for less, even if it means biting off a few heads. The dynamic between these two electric and hilarious, reminiscent of the best odd couples from TV and film (in my theater, the moment in which Venom calls Eddie a “pussy” because he won’t jump out the window of the TransAmerica building elicited a lot of laughs), and to know that all of it comes from one man is a testament to Hardy’s incredible acting talent as well as Ruben Fleischer’s ability to guide Hardy to that particular acting mindset.
Now, typically this is where the positive anecdotes about the Venom tend to come to a grinding halt. Most reviews of the film have singled out Hardy’s performance as the sole bright spot in a film that is otherwise completely incoherent, chaotically written, tonally confused, and filled with material that makes the critically acclaimed members of its cast look as though they have no acting ability whatsoever. In all fairness, maybe my expectations had been significantly lowered based on the reactiond I’d seen to the film, but one has to imagine my complete and utter shock when I discovered that film is not only competently written but also surprisingly well-paced for a film of this genre. Sure, the screenplay has its share of cheesy dialogue, over-exposition, and incomplete worldbuilding (standard shortcomings for the genre) but I was surprised and delighted to discover that Venom is a movie that actually takes its time to tell its story. Written by Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg, and Kelly Marcel, the script really breathes, not only efficiently introducing characters but also effectively fleshing them out, elucidating their personalities and motivations with small lines here and there that are delivered quickly but go a long way toward getting us to understand where these characters are coming from and what they are trying to achieve. The actors themselves also work very much in tandem with the script, singling out these small but effective lines and mining them for depth to craft a fully formed character. Aside from Hardy (who does a great job selling Eddie as a crusader who stands up for the little guy), Riz Ahmed does this fabulously. Far from the megalomaniacal corporate overlord that typically would feature in a story like this, Ahmed takes a small line at the begin of the film about how people will always try to silence those who question the world around them and runs with it. He creates in Carlton Drake a character that is not evil for the sake of being evil but instead sees himself as a visionary, more intellectually advanced than his fellow human beings, and believing that only he, in his infinite wisdom and drive, can possibly save humanity from its own destructive impulses. This egotistical thinking drives him to use the alien symbiotes that his company recovers from a space shuttle crash to experiment on helpless test subjects in order to “evolve” them into something greater. While this objective is indeed hilariously cartoonish, Riz Ahmed’s satisfied smirk as he watches the test subjects get their insides eaten out by the symbiotes (“all in the name of progress”) grounds his motivation in fully formed and well-realized characterization.
Secondary characters also receive this kind of treatment thanks to great work from their respective actors. Jenny Slate, typically a comedic actress, manages to fully convey her character, Dr. Dora Skirth’s, conflicting feelings towards the work she is doing as one of Drake’s head researchers. Slate does a lot with admittedly little screen time, allowing us to see the gears turning inside her head as she wrestles with her commitment to Drake’s vision and her awareness that what they are doing is ethically wrong (she also gets a few funny little moments in for good measure). Reid Scott also makes a great impression as Anne’s new doctor boyfriend Dan, who, despite the audience expecting him to be dismissive of Eddie (being Anne’s ex-fiance and all) conveys a genuine concern for Eddie’s well-being as he witnesses the effects of hosting Venom on Eddie’s health, grounding that concern with a well delivered line about admiring Eddie’s journalistic work and how he fights “bad guys”. The only character who succumbs to some underwhelming writing is that of Michelle’s William’s Anne Weying, who gets saddled with the stereotypically limited role of the girlfriend/love interest who has to reckon with Eddie’s newfound superhuman abilities. To her credit, however, Williams looks to be having a great time with the material, matching Hardy “witty retort for witty retort” in their verbal sparring matches and selling the terror (and hilarity of said terror) of seeing her former beau turn into an alien monster before her eyes. To credit the writers as well, Anne is never once being made out to be the damsel in distress, refreshingly so, and does participate in a surprising amount of the action as the story goes along. One such moment toward the end of the film is downright awesome, shocking, and ripped directly from the comics (it slightly makes up for not giving her more to do early in the film).
The only issue with the script is that it does not do a great job fleshing out Venom or the other symbiotes as an alien race. This may seem like a minor complaint given how strong the rest of the script really is, but I mention it because it is continuously hinted at throughout the film’s runtime with no real narrative pay off. We learn that the symbiotes were collected by a shuttle sent into space by Carlton Drake to find a potential new planet for humanity to reside on (Carlton’s plan, despite having well fleshed out motivations, is also a bit frustrating in its nebulousness). Upon crashing the shuttle on reentry, the symbiotes escape and begin to infect and possess humans across the globe, and Venom himself speaks of a desire to take over the earth for their race. However, we as an audience never really end up learning much more, the film choosing instead to focus more so on Eddie and Venom’s relationship instead of the magnitude of the looming threat. As a result, the final battle can feel a bit weightless at times, especially when combined with some clunkily staged moments in the ensuing fight scene. Venom’s motivations with regarding Eddie can also be a bit mercurial at some points, though his charisma makes this pretty easy to overlook.
Despite these narrative flaws, the movie still proves to be a wacky, fun, and thrilling ride, with many issues able to be easily looked over thanks to slick production values. Aside from a few editing hiccups, the action is exciting and intense with Venom’s spidery powers adding an unhinged energy to the proceedings. Venom’s full form is incredibly well realized in all its slimy, stylized, and gleefully comics accurate glory thanks to very strong visual effects work, and the makeup team should be commended for making Hardy (and all the symbiote hosts for that matter) look effectively sweaty and sickly once they are infected. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique also gets a shout out for effectively capturing Hardy’s freakout as the Venom symbiote infects him via shaky close-ups, though it should come as no surprise that the cinematographer who so famously and frequently works with Darren Aronofsky can effectively capture a mental breakdown on camera.
Verdict: 3 Stars (out of 4)
Venom is not a fantastic film, and it certainly is nowhere near as grounded or realistic as many of the comic book film being released today. That said, I personally can’t find anything truly wrong with that. This is a comic book film that knows it is a comic book film and is completely unashamed of itself in that regard. Ruben Fleischer takes a cue from Sam Raimi and embraces the inherent absurdity of comic book scenarios, finding a comedy and thrills in equal measure thanks to a game cast in tow, particularly Tom Hardy who fully commits to the inherently ludicrous nature of the premise. The movie can only really be faulted for being cheesy and not aiming to elevate comic book filmmaking into something more serious. Venom is simply a movie looking to have fun, and if you go in looking to have fun as well, you will likely have a great time whether you see it in a theater or via rental/streaming (I highly recommend seeing it in a theater though!)
(On a side note: No, the lack of Spider-Man in the movie does not detract from the film at all. Venom, to my surprise and delight, was perfectly able to stand on its own, and potentially launch a standalone franchise if Sony is so inclined. Finger crossed, for me personally)