For years, Venom has been one of the great “what if?” characters of the Marvel Universe. Immensely popular with comic-book fans, Spider-Man’s most charismatic villain was realised once before on the big screen in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 in 2007. The portrayal was poorly received, and even Raimi would later admit the character was only included due to studio pressure.
Ever since, the question has remained – can you make a movie about Venom, an inherently scary and violent character, that lives up to both fan expectations and exists within the limits of Hollywood’s PG-friendly culture? Tom Hardy thinks so, and is stepping into the lead for perhaps his highest profile role yet.
He plays Eddie Brock, an investigative reporter with a strong moral compass but a knack for getting into trouble. An investigation into the shadowy Life Institute that cost him his job brings him into contact with an alien symbiote, a liquid parasite that bonds with Eddie and turns him into the devilish being Venom. With this new voice in his head and the Life Institute’s founder Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed) on his tail, Eddie must work out a way to survive.
Plotted in a similar way to superhero movies of the noughties, nothing in Zombieland director Ruben Fleischer’s film seems to fit together. Eddie’s bonding with Venom plays, in parts, like a creepy horror flick, and yet the first act navigates through a bland and pointless drama between him and his lawyer girlfriend, Anne (Michelle Williams). Goofy comedy and a painful script stitch these elements together, and while there are moments to enjoy there are far more that come off as clunky. On the bright side, there are some entertaining action sequences, most notably a car chase sequence where Eddie gets to grips with his astonishing new powers.
Some might have hoped for a Deadpool-style interpretation; a film made for adults where the character can really let loose and live up to the comic-book lore. Sadly, with a bigger budget and wider audience concerns, we get a monster that mainly does his eating off camera. While buckets of blood aren’t essential, it is a reminder that this out-of-control entity can only go so far. It’s a fine vision of the popular character, but much like a pre-Logan Wolverine there seems to be something held back.
The plot’s disarray leaves the bevy of acting talent involved in the movie stranded. Michelle Williams is a four-time Oscar nominee, and one of the finer actors of her generation. Yet, here she is restricted to a very flat role, playing the “long-suffering girlfriend” to Hardy without having any kind of character arc of her own. She’s there to serve Eddie, even though they spend much of the film separated. Similarly, Ahmed is capable of a lot more than Drake allows, with the star’s charisma hidden beneath banal speeches.
At least the starring duo get their time to shine. Hardy’s interactions with himself as Brock and Venom provide the movie’s more enjoyable moments. Venom becomes a voice in Eddie’s head, demanding that he feed on whatever is nearby and cajoling him into reckless behaviour (Venom’s disgust at Eddie taking an elevator, instead of leaping from a roof, is a comedy highlight). This decidedly odd couple don’t get a lot of time together, but when they do the buddy cop-style banter is one of the film’s biggest strengths.
The action is solid, and the character well realised. So why doesn’t Venom work as it should? It’s all down to balance. As imposing a monster as the alien star might be, he’s stuck in a film that tries to please too many and ends up feeling disjointed. There’s a tease of future films to come in the end credits, but if that is to be the case the film-makers may want to find a darker direction, or at least a better script.
Venom is released in cinemas on Wednesday 3 October