Credit where credit is due: A solo Venom movie has been in development for a long time (11 years), and a number of filmmakers have worked hard over the years to make it a reality. But the idea of making a movie based around one of Spider-Man’s admittedly most popular villains after his first big screen appearance in 2007’s Spider-Man 3 fell somewhat short of expectations is one that’s always carried a certain amount of creative risk.
Making a movie centered solely on Venom, minus the participation of Spider-Man, has ever seemed a dubious proposition, like making a movie about the Joker without Batman (uh… wait a minute). Heroes and villains complement each other and play off each other in ways that are essential to the development of both; even Venom’s iconic physical appearance is a distorted mirror image of Spider-Man, which makes no sense when you take it out of that context. When you add in all the back story that comes with this particular bad guy–who’s not really a guy at all but a shapeshifting symbiote from deep space–there’s a lot of information for audiences to buy right off the bat.
Venom, the new movie, does not overcome these challenges. Sadly it’s first and foremost a tonal and creative failure, swinging wildly from would-be ominous sci-fi/horror to low comedy that verges on camp. The script (by three credited writers) plays out like a Marvel movie that might have been made in 1996, with no nuance, little character development, and a clunky, on-the-nose style of advancing its plot that seems hopelessly juvenile and antiquated in the era of fare like Captain America: Civil War and Black Panther.
It doesn’t help that the film hurries through plot points as if racing to catch a train. We’ve barely met investigative journalist Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) before his entire life plunges into ruin thanks to a bad decision that no reporter worth their laptop would make. The architect of his demise is scientific genius Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), an Elon Musk-type visionary who might as well paint a big red “VILLAIN” across his forehead. Drake’s private rocket fleet is journeying to deep space (the lazy writing here never gives us a sense of what year this might be) and coming back with containers full of black, formless CG pixels (sorry, alien symbiotes), which he is unethically attempting to combine with human hosts in an effort to find a way to help us survive Out There.
A whistleblower (Jenny Slate) clues Eddie into all this, reawakening his impulse to dive recklessly into any situation that will bring him face to face with unnecessary risk. Before you know it, a symbiote has wriggled deep inside Eddie’s body, at first making him ill but then imbuing him with super-strength, incredible agility and the power to argue forcefully with a gravelly voice that only he can hear without having anyone nearby call the cops on him (this is set in San Francisco, after all).
The scenes in which Eddie and Venom (as the symbiote inexplicably comes to call itself) banter back and forth do have their amusing moments (along with some cringe-worthy dialogue), and it probably would have helped if the movie embraced the humor in this full-on, sort of in the style of Deadpool. But director Ruben Fleischer, and producers Avi Arad and Matt Tolmach, want to make a superhero movie with gravitas as well, and the mix of tones is simply not handled skillfully. It’s like someone crashing a cymbal next to your left ear while someone else is pounding on a piano in your right.
Introducing Venom in Spider-Man 3 didn’t work because the film was already too jam-packed to do the classic Spidey/Venom origin story any real justice. Unfortunately rebooting the character with a revamped, Spidey-less origin is not the answer either. The movie wants to shove an arc that played out over years in the comics–how Venom goes from vicious alien entity to somewhat righteous anti-hero–into 105 minutes of movie, with barely a chance for any of it to land properly. By the time Venom battles another symbiote at the film’s climax in an incoherent cloud of CG (little of the action in the film is well-staged), the viewer couldn’t care less what they’re watching or what the stakes are.
One problem may simply be that the character of Venom, while fun in the comics, has some inherently ridiculous qualities that don’t translate well to the screen. Those qualities are on full display in Hardy’s performance as both Eddie and Venom, hurting Hardy’s return to the genre following his powerful turn as Bane in 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises. Hardy voices Venom as well as playing Eddie, and as a result there are a number of scenes in which he is literally talking to himself or a Venom head that pops out of his chest in a direct reference to the comic panels. Hardy is one of the finest actors of his generation and does what he can here, but this is still one of the weakest performances of his career, and it’s because you can see the actor visibly struggling with how to play it.
The other fine actors in the cast, including Ahmed and Michelle Williams as Anne Weying, Eddie’s ex-girlfriend, are not given much to work with either. Ahmed’s Drake is a stock evil genius right out of central casting; even the actor’s charming demeanor can’t hide that. Williams gets to do even less, and one scene meant to cause a stir among fans not only flies in the face of the film’s internal logic but, like everything else here, happens so fast that it barely registers. The fact that Williams’ character, as well as her current boyfriend Dr. Dan (Reid Scott), are completely comfortable with an alien symbiote occupying Eddie’s body after one or two scenes gives some sense of the level at which the script operates.
We suspect that younger viewers (who are not traumatized by the violence, which is fairly harsh but still within quick-edit PG-13 parameters) and even some older fans may enjoy Venom as a kind of throwback to a more cartoony type of superhero movie. But even the comics have endeavored to offer more than meets the eyes, and the films have spent the last 18 years or so catching up to that. Venom wants to have it both ways, and ironically the split personality at the heart of this particular mythology may be a more telling metaphor than this movie and its makers realize.
Venom is out in theaters this Friday, Oct. 5. And yes, there are two bonus sequences during the end credits, so stick around if you haven’t had enough yet.
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye