Sometimes I have to break from the consensus – Venom is no Spider-Man 2, but neither is it Catwoman. It is nothing more or less than a fun-but-flawed comic book movie.
Ruben Fleischer’s take on the Venom character does the unthinkable: it imagines a Venom that never met Spider-Man. The mythos of the symbiotes, now one of the most iconic pieces of Spider-Man mythology, develops in a sort of superhero vacuum, with Eddie Brock as a hard-hitting journalist that morphs into an antihero. With this as its backdrop, the film is at turns comical and horrific, although it can’t decide which it wants to settle on. The result is an uneven script, especially in the third act, which has unexplained changes in motivation, and relies on a bombastic and somewhat erratic symbiotes fight sequence.
But when the film works – and it works a little more often than it doesn’t – it’s thanks to Tom Hardy. The actor’s commitment to the insanity of the role is overflowing, and he plays infected Eddie with a jittery, sweaty fervor that’s reminiscent of Peter Lorre in Fritz Wang’s M. But non-infected Eddie is also compelling. Hardy simply melds into the character with ease, giving the film the closest thing it has to a base. That’s all to say that on an aesthetic level, the film is tonally uneven and features half-baked mythology, but fun and entertaining, thanks to its star.
That brings us to the underlying themes of the film, and yes, there are some. Venom as a character has always represented an internal dualism; evil versus good. The answer for Peter Parker when he was in the black suit was not balance, but purge. Eddie, in the character’s original inception, gave into the darkness. You don’t give evil house rules. You kick it to the curb.
This incarnation does things differently. The dualism is still there – even in the trailer, Eddie says they will only hurt bad people, while Venom says, “The way I see it, we get to do whatever we want.” Venom’s character is not so much evil as equal parts amoral and ferocious, a dangerous combination as Eddie tries desperately to mitigate the damage. While Venom certainly revels in the carnage, most of his motivation is survival, the film’s true central theme.
This can be seen in three different ways. Carlton Drake, the film’s cliche Elon Musk-ish villain, is motivated by survival. He finds the symbiotes because he is looking for habitable planets, and hopes symbiosis will allow humans to survive on Venom’s home planet. Conversely, the symbiotes struggle to survive with a host, and many of the hosts die as a result. Eddie, while not fighting for physical survival pre-infection, is fighting for survival in a sense – his career is ruined, and he appears on the verge of being homeless as well as unemployed. The film is properly viewed not as the dualism that typifies most of Venom’s comic history, but as an alien invasion film from the perspective of the invader – a struggle for survival in an alien environment.
This does not explain away all of the film’s absurdities. When Venom himself requires a change of motivation in order to make the third act’s confrontation happen, he does so, but it’s unconvincing and poorly explained. This thematic focus on survival does not extend to the antagonistic symbiote Riot, whose world domination scheme feels invented so Venom can have a massive CGI brawl (though there are admittedly some gorgeous special effects shots in this fight). It also doesn’t deal with the film’s biggest problem – that it can’t decide if it wants to be a dark comedy or a horror/thriller. Director Ruben Fleischer knows a thing or a two about the former, for sure (his credits include directing Zombieland, for example), and that comes through in the film’s most effective moments. Unfortunately, those moments are not as many as one might hope.
But despite these flaws, Venom remains an entertaining comic book movie with the vaguest outline of an interesting theme. Given the woes that have plagued Sony/Marvel productions over the past decade, that’s probably the most we could have asked for. If you can enter the film without expecting Venom to be connected to Spider-Man (a high price of entry, I know), you come out with a decent antihero flick. Hardy’s Eddie Brock is admirable, though struggling with the consequences of his hubris, and tries to bring a balance between power and morality. That won’t be enough to save the film for many, but for this viewer, it brought some connection to what could have been a meaningless and vapid money-grab.