Having finally conceded Spider-Man to Disney’s branch of Marvel, Sony have a problem. Their biggest asset is essentially, temporarily, gone and they have no headline act for the not-so-new world of cinematic universes. To their favour, the studio have nine hundred comic book characters to play with in their historic acquisitions and room for world-building expansion. It’s just a shame that Sony’s answer to their big problem is Venom.
Erstwhile foe of Tobey Maguire, in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3, Venom is the globular alien symbiote who can only survive on Earth when melded to a human host. Step in, Tom Hardy. No stranger to comic book cinema, Hardy plays investigative journalist Eddie Brock, an essentially good guy who just happens to also be the very best in his field. Brook lives with his fiancé, successful attorney Anne Weying (Michelle Williams – who needs a new agent), in San Fransisco, having been run out of New York in the wake of ‘the Daily Globe incident’. For fans of Spider-Man, that’s the only link to the webbed franchise in the film.
The first in a very long list of oddities appertaining to Venom is just how surprisingly unlikable Eddie turns out to be. In his self-righteous journey to do the right thing, Eddie ignores his boss and betrays his girlfriend; later he will demonstrate a critical lack of compassion by neglecting to think twice about the deaths of two significant individuals in his life and story. When Venom finally does rock up, it’s a blessing that his two dimensional wit schtick does at least embrace the character’s status of anti-hero by becoming a loveable nasty rather than indecisive wimp. It’s a testament to Hardy’s skills that he manages to surface well.
As does Riz Ahmed, bringing zeal to the thankless role of Carlton Drake, genius inventor and head honcho of the Life Foundation. Driven by his awareness that the planet’s going to hell in a handcart, Drake has invested heavily in rocket technology, for the purpose of inter-space real estate, and has managed to dig up some deadly extraterrestrial life forms. ‘Drake believes that the union between human and symbiote is the key to our survival. But not here on Earth’ says Jenny Slate’s sympathetic Dora Skirth. Venom is big on retrograde exposition.
Long story short, Eddie winds up in a buddy-comedy relationship with Venom – one not a million miles away from Leigh Whannell’s infinitely more inventive Upgrade from earlier this year, which, ironically, starred Tom Hardy lookalike Logan Marshall-Green. Whilst Eddie splutters with Hardy’s best New Yorker accent, Venom (also Hardy) delivers throaty lines with a sense of humour that would be more comfortable in a very different film. On the one hand, you have Eddie apologising for his parasite’s indiscretions; on the other, Venom concludes a kick-ass scene with the line: ‘Now let’s bite all their heads off and pile them up in the corner!’
Many issues haunt the film, which is directed stolidly by Zombieland’s Ruben Fleischer, but all seem rooted in Sony’s insecurity with the idea of breaking the mould. From its dull set up to its loud, messy, chaotic and uninvolving CGI finale, Venom has little to offer that hasn’t been done before and handled better. There are hints of the film this could have been – a blackly comic, adults-only thriller – but an adherence to formula and reluctance to enter grisly territories undermine the effect. This is an insanely bloodless film.
In spite of an astronomic budget and top notch cast, Venom is visually ropey and tonally weak. The script’s a mess too; in one scene, Venom claims to know Eddie inside out but, two scenes later, announces that he’s never heard of Annie. Go figure. Certainly, the film’s dafter strains allow a frisson of delirious fun to sporadically burst forth but it’s hard not to wish that the production didn’t take itself quite so seriously. This really isn’t that sort of film.