There’s nothing about the idea of a Venom solo movie that precludes it from working. Tweak the origin, introduce a foe even worse than he is, and the Marvel Universe’s favourite brain-eating ET anti-hero is, in all probability, ready to go.
It’s worth stating that up front, because make no mistake, the thing preventing this movie from working isn’t that the concept is fundamentally bad – it’s entirely in the execution.
Tom Hardy stars as Eddie Brock, a down-on-his-luck journalist who finds himself dumped by his fiancé Anne (Michelle Williams) after a minor betrayal of confidence has unexpectedly large ramifications – specifically ones that leave him bonded to an alien symbiote. Riz Ahmed completes the main cast as Carlton Drake, an antagonistic and amoral futurist with designs on the stars. Zombieland’s Ruben Fleischer directs, his usual charm buried somewhere between the woeful storytelling and the workmanlike CGI.
There’s no denying that Venom is a movie with some talent, but for the most part those talents are wasted in service of a dull, cliché-prone script with an incoherent narrative. There’s only so much any actor can do when the material is this devoid of charm, and to the credit of those in the movie everyone you see on screen is visibly trying to squeeze blood from a set of increasingly large stones, though mostly in vain.
If you were to pick a single thing wrong with Venom, it’s that it doesn’t seem to know what type of movie it is. The initial 45 minutes are a fairly po-faced portrait of a righteous man’s descent into bitterness at the hands of powerful enemies, albeit enemies with a sideline in xenobiology. It’s firmly in dull sci-fi territory, but at least it’s consistent. As soon as Eddie gets the symbiote, however, the movie decides it’s a PG-rated Deadpool, all bloodless ultra-violence and hilarious wisecracks of ambiguous intentionality.
Indeed, Eddie’s central tragedy – that he neglected to respect those he loved while pursuing his obsessions – doesn’t get anywhere near a resolution. Then again, neither do about six other plotlines that started in that first half only to disappear in the second. When Tom Hardy says that they left the best 40 minutes on the cutting room floor, it’s easy to believe; the film as released is only better than Suicide Squad because it’s considerably shorter.
Venom fans hoping for even a hint of cross-pollination with the Marvel Cinematic Universe will be sorely disappointed. In fact, an offhand mention of kryptonite means it lands it closer to DC’s movie universe than Marvel’s. The best you can say is that it’s not not in the MCU, though any hope of convincing Kevin Feige to put Toms Hardy and Holland on screen together are surely killed the moment Venom bids Eddie to divide the fresh corpses into two piles – one for bodies, one for heads.
In all fairness, the story the film aims for isn’t one that that would benefit from closer connections with the MCU. Stripped of any connection to Spider-Man the film reorganises the central conceit of Venom, taking him away from an expression of Brock’s anger and jealousy and moving him more towards (believe it or not) a manifestation of Eddie’s desire for friendship and love. A charitable interpretation might be that this is a buddy cop movie where one buddy is the other’s alien suit, and the moments where it works (and it does occasionally work) are those where Venom’s inner-voice injects some trademark maniacal humour into Eddie’s internal monologue.
However, Venom and Eddie’s relationship isn’t a theme that’s explored in any depth, nor a concept that forms the throughline of the movie. Indeed, there’s no coherence from one scene to the next in thematic terms, and scarcely any more in narrative ones. An attempt to capture Brock sees his pursuers instead attempting to kill him in increasingly elaborate ways. A subplot about the symbiote’s effects on its host is dropped without reference. Brock’s relationship issues seem to conclude without any attendant personal growth. And Carlton Drake starts off as a charming idealist but quickly morphs into a cartoonish moustache-twirler whose endless appetite for murder isn’t even thinly justified.
Perhaps worst of all is that there’s no-one in the film you can really root for, not least because Venom’s capricious nature is the only reason he even wants to stop his foe.
It is, we regret to report, a mess. And while there’s a cast doing all they can to keep the movie from collapsing, they don’t have the raw material they need to do so. The elements of a movie, like a symbiote and its host, need to be perfectly balanced to thrive. Venom, despite delivering that lesson, has yet to demonstrate it.