If, for some reason, you miss the superhero adaptations of the 1990s and early 2000s, “Venom” might be right for you.
It feels like a movie that is largely unaware of the progress that has been made to tell stories that are both authentic to their source material and sophisticated enough for audiences unfamiliar with that material to experience them in a real way. That it stars Tom Hardy and Michelle Williams, two of the most gifted and consistently interesting actors in Hollywood, makes it an additional curio, but one assumes that the second or third homes they purchased with their paychecks was worth the experience of making this misguided, gobsmacking mess.
Hardy plays Eddie Brock, a San Francisco investigative journalist who scuttles his job and his relationship after ambushing Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed, “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”) with confidential information stolen from his fiancée, attorney Anne (Williams), during what was supposed to be a puff piece interview with the billionaire industrialist. Six months later, a broke and alone Eddie has abandoned reporting for the solace of the bottom of a bottle, but when Life Foundation scientist Dr. Dora Skirth (Jenny Slate) contacts him with evidence that Drake is testing alien biology on poor and homeless subjects -- merging them with “symbiotes” -- he reluctantly agrees to see for himself.
During his visit to the Life Foundation, Eddie is infected with a symbiote of his own, a creature called Venom. It bestows him with incredible powers, but as he soon learns, Venom expects to use Eddie's body for its own destructive purposes. As Life Foundation foot soldiers come to retrieve the escaped alien, Eddie and Venom forge a tenuous bond via an ongoing internal dialogue, even if -- outwardly -- it seems like the poor human is certifiably crazy. But each is forced to decide what side they are on, and what is worth fighting for, when the duo discovers that another symbiote, Riot, has bonded with Drake and intends to turn Earth into a host planet for his species to consume.
One of the reasons that Hardy took the role of Eddie Brock/ Venom was reportedly because his son was a big fan of the character, but notwithstanding the anecdotal charm of that decision, it doesn’t seem enough for an actor of his caliber, and certainly given the bizarrely uneven effort he puts into his performance. Indeed, it’s hard not to evaluate the film in light of many comments from many of the people who made it -- especially director Ruben Fleischer, who vacillated between saying the film was always going to be R- and PG-13-rated, and hedged in recent interviews about how deliberately funny it’s supposed to be -- since the end result is stupefyingly incomprehensible.
I mean, Hardy is the literal face of this anti-hero origin story, but its failure is not his fault; that the film (and his character’s journey) intermittently resembles “Teen Wolf” and “Liar Liar” (complete with Hardy channeling Carrey’s manic energy) explicitly feels like the byproduct of the worst sort of committee thinking.
That said, if by chance one developed a misbegotten affection for the Andrew Garfield-Marc Webb “Amazing Spider-Man” movies (which, like this, it’s no coincidence that Sony produced largely independently of Marvel), then you might actually like “Venom.” It feels as if the studio executives saw the reactions to those films and tried to just maximize superhero CGI stuff in this, eliminating anything resembling mythology or character development. It’s kind of astonishing how bad both Hardy and Williams (and Ahmed, for that matter) are in this movie, but Eddie and Anne are barely one-dimensional characters with almost nothing of substance to do. The script, by Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg, and Kelly Marcel, is painfully anemic whenever it isn’t serving as a delivery system for symbiote-driven CGI, leaving the actors to improvise and react to developments and events that never bother to be tethered to reality, much less basic logic.
Even as a person who read comics during the character’s heyday, Fleischer’s film leaves a lot of lingering questions, but in retrospect, they seem unimportant in the grand scheme of whatever cinematic universe Sony is trying to create. (That I can remember just a few of them feels like one of the few victories of this noisy, ugly, disjointed movie.) In which case it’s hard to decide whether you want this movie to fail or succeed; if it follows in the footsteps of the Webb “Spider-Man” movies and “fails,” for example, perhaps Sony will hand the reins back over to Marvel to do with this character what they did with “Homecoming.”
But if it succeeds, the Spider-Verse may finally get its own “Batman and Robin,” and I suppose that even after hating “Venom” from start to finish, I would be curious what that might look like.