In modern-day San Francisco, Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy, his face covered up in some form yet again) is an investigative reporter looking to bring down corruption wherever he can find it. His latest target is Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), the enigmatic head of the Life Foundation, which recently came into possession of several alien symbiotes while on a reconnaissance mission to the far reaches of outer space. When an attempt to confront Drake on-camera costs Brock his job, his lawyer girlfriend (Michelle Williams), and his livelihood, Brock hits rock bottom for six months until one of Drake’s employees, Dr. Skirth (Jenny Slate) reaches out to Brock asking for help to expose Drake’s nefarious scheme of using San Francisco’s homeless population as unwitting test subjects for merging with the symbiotes. Unfortunately, during his investigation, one symbiote merges with Brock, forming the entity the city will soon come to know as Venom.
Venom is, ironically, a movie of two halves. The first is almost a character drama, and a surprisingly adequate one at that. With solid performances from Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, and Riz Ahmed, we spend a good amount of time actually getting to know these characters before all hell breaks loose. The writing tends to underserve them — Williams isn’t given much to do other than look either disappointed or concerned, while Ahmed is essentially playing a slightly darker version of his Silicon Valley bad boy from Jason Bourne — but the actors overcome that by investing wholeheartedly in their work. This isn’t Shakespeare, but thankfully they all seem to know that.
Once the titular character makes his first appearance around the halfway mark, the movie starts losing its identity. The interactions between Brock and his symbiote are admittedly amusing, and there’s at least one strong action sequence in which Venom takes down a cadre of armed security guards in a smoke-filled room. But overall, the film’s third act is largely comprised of generic action beats, cut together spastically and made with increasingly subpar CGI. After a refreshingly well-paced first half, it’s disappointing to see the movie devolve into “been there, done that” territory, and I suspect much of the footage reportedly deleted from the movie came from the back end.
The other big problem the movie has is that, well, it’s not really Venom. I mean, the creature we see looks like Venom, sounds like Venom, and calls itself Venom, but there’s an intangible quality missing that would’ve sealed the deal. This isn’t an issue of there not being any Spider-Man in the movie; those who have read standalone “Venom” comics know that the character can work just fine without the friendly neighborhood wall-crawler.
It’s that despite the movie doing a decent job of setting up its characters, we never really feel Brock’s seething anger at the world around him (it comes off more as an annoyance), we never get the sense that the symbiote is attracted to Brock because of his rage, and frankly, there’s an inherent darkness to the character of Venom that this movie completely lacks. Maybe that’s where the R-rating could’ve helped.
If the big question is, “Is this Venom better than the Topher Grace one?” then my answer would be “kinda.” The Grace version was honestly fine whenever it was actually Venom, but Grace himself was badly miscast as Eddie Brock. Hardy is a huge improvement in that department, and the 2018 depiction of Venom is physically much closer to his classic depiction as a hulking mass of brute force. But both versions barely scratch the surface of the kind of evil Venom is truly capable of, and never capture the essence of why the character has proved so simultaneously frightening and fascinating to legions of fans for the better part of three decades.
Tech credits are solid but unspectacular, with good lensing by Matthew Libatique (A Star is Born) and very strong 3D. The score by Ludwig Göransson (Black Panther) is also fine. Production design comes off a bit cheap at times, and the aforementioned poor CGI doesn’t help. And although the quality of the editing is inconsistent, the movie is at least short enough not to overstay its welcome (FYI, you only need to watch the first mid-credits scene, but it’s a good one).
In a lot of ways, Venom is reminiscent of the 1998 Roland Emmerich version of Godzilla (also a Sony product). Based on iconic figures, both movies found ways to ignore the typical depictions of these characters by doing something that should prove highly divisive among core fans. In spite of that, when taken on their own terms and freed from the burden of expectations inevitable when dealing with such beloved properties, they manage to provide some measure of fun. That’s not to say they’re good movies from an objective standpoint, but in right frame of mind, Venom could find itself remembered as a “guilty pleasure.” It’s not terrible enough to hate, it’s not good enough to champion. It’s just… there for those who want it.