Ten years ago, if a superhero movie had characters with a passing resemblance to their comic-book counterparts, a semi-intelligible story, and acting that wasn’t laughably bad, it was considered a pretty good movie — for a comic-book movie, that is.
A lot can change in 10 years.
Sony Pictures’ Venom arrives in theaters at a time when every comic book movie is expected to either be a faithful, blockbuster preamble for the next “nothing will ever be the same” event, or a dramatic, nihilistic deconstruction of heroism and the human condition. All things considered, it’s not exactly the most welcoming environment for a wacky, odd-couple comedy about a head-chomping alien and the poor guy who’s forced to share a body with it.
That’s really too bad, though, because Venom is almost two hours of gloriously loony, thoroughly entertaining fun.
Directed by Zombieland filmmaker Ruben Fleischer, Venom casts Hardy as Eddie Brock, a crusading journalist who ends up becoming the reluctant host of a powerful, symbiotic alien creature. The alien, which goes by the name “Venom,” gives Eddie amazing abilities that make him practically invulnerable, but it also has a mean streak and an appetite for human heads (among other body parts).
As Eddie struggles to reconcile the co-habitation of his body and the recurring need to convince Venom not to take a bite out of the people they encounter, the reluctant partners soon find themselves battling a powerful genius trying to harness the alien’s power for his own, nefarious reasons.
Hardy throws himself into his performance with all of the manic energy he has at his disposal, and elevates one scene after another that could have easily devolved into something more campy than comedic with a different actor. The Mad Max: Fury Road and Bronson star has always been at his best when there’s an underlying current of crazy in his character, and Venom wisely provides him with more than enough material on that front, whether he’s fighting the alien for control of his own body or engaged in what appears to be (to everyone around him, at least) a heated, violent argument with himself.
The actor also knows his way around action sequences, and Venom offers plenty of those, too.
Although the film relies heavily on computer-generated elements to bring Venom to life, the creature’s fluid-like composition plays to the strengths of the film’s digital effects.
Venom has always been a morphing, viscous entity that doesn’t shy away from sprouting the occasional tendril or shape-shifting into whatever object is needed. With the exception of a few wonky scenes that try to blend Hardy’s face with Venom’s toothy maw, the film’s visual effects team generally finds a good balance between the alien and the organic in what appears on the screen.
In a supporting role, Riz Ahmed feels similarly invested in his performance as the film’s diabolically brilliant antagonist, but the premise of Venom turns the typical hero-villain relationship on its head in ways that make it difficult for the story’s bad guy to stand out. In any other comic book movie, a sociopathic scientist experimenting with alien-human hybrids would be the craziest person in the room, but the frantic, bipolar nature of Hardy’s “hero” character makes the most cold-blooded villain seem calm and collected in comparison.
On the down side, four-time Academy Award nominee Michelle Williams feels a bit under-utilized (and out of place) in a script that doesn’t give her character much to do.
In the run-up to the film’s release, there was no lack of debate regarding the studio’s decision to tone down the violence to a more family-friendly PG-13 rating. To its credit, Venom doesn’t feel stunted or held back by its general-audience rating, though. The film’s relatively bloodless brawls don’t appear to be watered down, and the aliens’ affinity for eviscerating, bludgeoning, and chewing humans doesn’t seem conspicuously reined in.
That’s not to suggest that Venom couldn’t have been improved by adding a few more severed limbs and gory encounters — only that the film doesn’t feel like it suffers for the lack of those elements.
It will be interesting to see whether Venom can find its audience in the current comic book movie environment. If Sony had brought the same film to theaters a decade ago, it would have made a fantastic year for comic book movies even better.
Released in 2008 instead of 2018, Venom wouldn’t have received the critical acclaim The Dark Knight earned, and it wouldn’t be the career-redefining project for star Tom Hardy that Iron Man was for Robert Downey, Jr. that year, but the darkly comedic, crazy niche that Venom carves for itself would have been celebrated as another win for the genre.
The bar has been raised significantly for comic-book movies over the last decade, and that’s a good thing. Still, Venom offers a nice reminder that there’s still a lot of entertainment (and escapist value) to be had in a film that just wants to be crazy fun — and then delivers on that promise.