Watching Venom is a little bit like a visit to the recent cinematic past. I refer to the years BS (Before Stark, or perhaps BDK, for Before Dark Knight – your choice), the years wherein the superhero craze in film was picking up steam, but actual quality hadn’t quite caught up yet. Sure, there’s Spider-Man 2, Batman Begins and X-Men United, but by and large the offerings were slim. Between 2002 and 2007, your garden variety comic book movie was heavy on wisecracks and cut-rate CGI while light on story and character. That is precisely the aesthetic in which Venom resides – maybe not quite the trash fire of Catwoman but certainly nestled among paragons of bland mediocrity like Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. Which is to say, it’s competently made, but the screenwriters were operating on Cruise Control, as it is lazily written, uninspired and not very original.
The film’s sole saving grace is its lead, Tom Hardy, who plays scrappy investigative journalist Eddie Brock and also voices the vicious, attitude-heavy Venom, an amorphous alien life form – dubbed a “symbiote” – which physically bonds with Eddie. Hardy aims for the cheap seats, playing Eddie loud and scruffy and full of tics which, in a better movie, might have made him a contender for a Golden Globe nomination. His conversations with himself – I.e., Eddie’s bickering with Venom – are easily the movie’s high points, as Hardy constructs a unique, often hilarious inter-species bromance that I wanted to see a lot more of. The rest of the cast and movie fare far worse, as everything and everyone is flat and rote; Michelle Williams and Riz Ahmed, both brilliant actors, are wasted as the love interest and the villain, respectively. They and the rest of the cast are merely showing up and collecting a paycheck for a production which tries to be as conservative and routine as possible. Hardy acts as though he didn’t get that memo.
It’s painfully apparent to anyone familiar with comic book lore that the filmmakers struggled with building a tale solely around Venom, who in the comics is one of Spider-Man’s worst, scariest enemies. It feels awkward to watch this film about an anti-hero because you realize the writers had difficulty with defining him outside of his relationship to his famous nemesis.
Instead of considering Venom in relation to his comic book roots, though, I instead see an incredibly missed opportunity. The oily, polymorphic alien parasite is a visually striking creature when “wearing” its human host and displaying its outlandish abilities and its terrifying appetite. Considering the horror genre is currently enjoying a bit of a golden age, I don’t see why the filmmakers didn’t go all in on an R-rated monster movie, with Venom becoming a horror icon in the vein of the Fly, the Wolf Man or the Predator.
For the general moviegoer though, Venom is, ultimately, a harmless, mind-numbing night out. Your mileage may vary, but I doubt you’ll regard this as a timeless classic.