A wild man storms into a fancy schmancy restaurant to accost his ex and her new doctor boyfriend. His skin sags with exhaustion and its accompanied with a slick grease of sweat often associated with food poisoning. He’s crazed, angry, incoherent. He wants to talk-it-out, but he also needs to crawl into the vat of lobsters proudly displayed at the center of the dining room. That’s better, much cooler. Splash! Snatch! Munch! Live lobsters taste so much damn better than dead ones.
Watching Tom Hardy crash into the above scene from Venom indicates exactly what his initial appeal must have been for this latest comic book screenplay. As Eddie Brock, the destitute one-time journalist hijacked by a ravenous alien parasite, Hardy is gifted the opportunity to battle his own body. Here he can propel himself into slapstick physical hijinks never imagined by the likes of Buster Keaton or Benny Hill. The more the film allows him to bounce absurdly through the frame the easier it is to distract from the duller than dull screenplay we’re all trapped within.
Venom is made “in association with Marvel.” What the hell does that mean? Sony snagged the Spider-Man license eons ago when the comic book company was teetering on the edge of oblivion. With Sam Raimi’s wall-crawler trilogy, the studio was instrumental in launching the current superhero boom. That series sputtered out, and they relaunched with Marc Webb and Andrew Garfield’s The Amazing Spider-Man. That reboot collapsed, and a miraculous deal was struck with Marvel Studios, and suddenly Spidey is swinging with the Avengers in Captain America: Civil War. Yay!!!
No. Sony Pictures is now determined to spread Spider-Man’s supporting cast as thin as they possibly can. Venom gets a franchise! Black Cat gets a franchise! Morbius gets a franchise! Rocket Racer gets a franchise! But due to whatever contractual shenanigans occurred to bring Spider-Man to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Peter Parker cannot hang out with his own rogues gallery. WTF? Boo to that nonsense.
OK, ok. A Venom movie without Spider-Man is not impossible. Instead of Parker retrieving his alien costume from space, the screenplay by Jeff Pinker, Scott Rosenberg, and Kelly Marcel concocts the extraterrestrial retrieval during the Life Foundation’s return trip from reconning potential planets for humans to escape their rapidly deteriorating environment. An unseen accident occurs aboard their shuttle and the mission crash lands in Malaysia. Three of the symbiote samples they found living within a comet are recaptured, but one hitches a ride on an EMT worker. Uh-oh.
Tom Hardy’s Eddie Brock is not Peter Parker’s rival photographer. Instead, he’s a gotcha TV reporter who spearheads “The Brock Report” in an effort to expose institutionalized evil. He uses his fiancée’s (Michelle Williams) legal connection to the Life Foundation to sabotage his puff-piece interview with the company head, Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed). When Brock confronts him with allegations of human experimentation the chat is cut short, and Drake’s minions go to work on discrediting the journalist. His relationship shatters, his career is flushed, and a life as a dishwasher seems his only viable option.
Six months later and Brock is staring into the abyss, or is that his ex’s bedroom window? Oh, nope. That’s definitely the abyss. If not for the sudden emergence of a moral backbone by Dr. Dora Skirth (Jenny Slate), Brock would have wallowed into lonely, heartless obscurity. Skirth tracks down Brock in his favorite grocery mart and convinces him to reinstate his investigation into the dark dealings of the Life Foundation.
Since the crash landing in Malaysia, Drake has been paying the homeless to bond with the alien symbiotes in his laboratories. For whatever reason, the creatures suck the humans dry, and a proper joining cannot occur. Of course, not until Brock sticks his nose in it and one of the slimy beasts sets up residence “up his ass” (Brock’s words, not mine).
Venom is born. He’s the combined might of two losers finding purpose in each other. The symbiote begins his invasion of planet earth with the desire to do nothing but eat livers, pancreases, bladders, tongues, or whatever body part he can rip free. Brock is there to instill just a smidgen of morality, or to at least point that uncontrollable hunger towards deserving scumbags.
The film is passable when focused solely on their manic energy. Tom Hardy off-the-chain is an utterly watchable experiment. When he’s forced to buckle down and chat with actors that appear trapped within contractual obligation, Venom is the very worst kind of boredom. Painful, awkward, unpleasant.
The inevitable requirements that two CGI blobs must collide into each other for the last twenty minutes of the movie are met, but do very little to excite beyond their function. The symbiotes are a blur of morphing sharp instruments, slicing, hacking, and penetrating body parts that self-repair the instant they’re injured. Ripping alien and human apart for mere minutes does not create tension; it only extends the misery of our sit.
Venom is not your average comic book movie. In rooting its adventure around such a grotesque entity, the film frees itself from the mundane trappings of the origin story. “Golly gee whiz, aren’t these powers so nifty?” Uh-uh. The symbiote is a monster that feeds on us juicy morsels but becomes fascinated by the meal at the end of its fork. Eddie Brock is a pathetic runt of a human, but his inability to recognize just how pitiable he is makes him weirdly endearing to his parasite hitchhiker.
Tom Hardy fully committing to that duality is a hell of a thing. I never wanted him to leave that lobster tank. I could have watched that movie for three more hours. Unfortunately, Sony has a Spider-Man-less Spider-Verse to build, and these things need to follow punch-up formulas. If there was any hope for the future of the Venom franchise, it is the actor who appears during the mid-credits sequence. I won’t name names here, but that guy out-Tom Hardying Tom Hardy could be a truly mesmerizing experience and worth forcing other performing bystanders and audience members into a sequel.