Isn’t the point of anti-heroes that they’re not dull?
Great power, great responsibility? That’s Peter Parker’s deal. He’s gotta defeat Doc Ock in time for date night for MJ, and pick up Aunt May’s prescription on the way. But Eddie Brock gets to be a shithead. In the tradition of superhero doppelgangers, Venom gets the super-abilities without the baggage, indulging in the petty, violent delights off-bounds for your friendly neighbourhood Spidey.
But in Venom, Sony Pictures’ still-can’t-believe-it’s-real foray into the fringes of their Spiderverse IP, which doesn’t mention the wise-cracking web-slinger at all, Eddie Brock gets to save the world. How very noble and boring.
Venom could have been this year’s Deadpool, an improbable, bloody, neckbeard-baiting, kind of insane super-asshole who dices up bad guys but gets forgiven thanks to leading man charm. And the film is a little fun, and even funny, especially in the early section, when Tom Hardy is losing his mind and chewing the scenery like lobster fresh from the tank. But this is a sanitised, curtailed origin story, which dovetails quickly with the familiar superhero structure: a bad guy who is a beefier version of the hero, and a race to save the day.
Hardy plays Brock, a video news reporter whose life goes to pieces in one unfortunate day. He’s dispatched by his editor (Ron Cephas Jones from This Is Us!) to do a puff piece on Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), a Muskian billionaire with a hard-on for space travel whose company is testing gloopy extra-terrestrial lifeforms on the disposable underclass. But Brock pisses off the CEO: he’s fired, and his girlfriend (Michelle Williams) leaves him.
Some time later, he’s a jobless slob, but gets a chance at payback thanks to a whistleblower scientist from Drake’s labs (Jenny Slate). Things go south, and one of the lifeforms — or “symbiotes” — infects Brock, who wakes up with an awful flu, a growling voice in his head and the ability to transform into the veiny, super-jacked, flesh-savouring alter-ego, “Venom”. Why a symbiote without Spidey experience names itself this — and why the symbiotes call themselves English names at all — is unclear.
Drake — or “Riot” — wants to blast back to his home planet and rally an invasion force, and it’s up to Brock’s Jekyll-and-Hyde routine to stop him, with a bit of help from the game, always-watchable Williams. The two inevitably clobber eachother in the underwhelming, rushed finale: the melee looks like the mess a dying man would leave on a handkerchief.
The closing coda provides a clue about what a more ambitiously warped movie would have looked like. Free from all that save the planet burden, Brock slouches through his New York neighbourhood, muttering to himself, negotiating with the internal voice about rules on who does and does not deserve to get eaten. He gives a gang lowlife that speech from the trailer about turning him into “a turd in the wind”, and suddenly the movie is dumb in a fun kind of way again.
Todd McFarlane’s creation gives comic book artist licence to go nuts with all that inky, sticky, horror aesthetic blackness, not to mention the ridiculous, erotica-courting tongue, but director Ruben Fleischer and his team shoot most of the film like a basic studio super flick from the early-noughties.
A little more monstrosity would have gone a long way. Conor Smyth
Venom is out on wide release.