The cheers of joy that you hear from insatiable fans of Marvel superhero movies will undoubtedly be amplified by the appearance of “Venom,” which in effect opens a second front in the comic company’s drive for global boxoffice supremacy. That sound will be met, however, with a groan from those who believe there are already too many of these movies around.
Ruben Fleischer’s picture stars the symbiote-human hybrid previously encountered in Sam Raimi’s overstuffed “Spider-Man 3” (2007), where the malevolent outer-space goo first took over Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) and then his newspaper rival Eddie Brock (Topher Grace). That disappointing movie, along with the failed Andrew Garfield attempt to reboot Spidey, resulted in Sony’s decision to sell the main character to the established Marvel Universe franchise—hence the new Tom Holland series—while retaining the rights to subsidiary figures from the title. Now Sony plans a secondary Marvel series based on them, with “Venom” the initial offering.
On the evidence presented here, the concept may prove to be as bad an idea as Universal’s plan to resuscitate its classic monsters in a Dark Universe. That scheme started off with Tom Cruise’s “The Mummy,” a catastrophe of truly epic proportions that probably deep-sixed the entire scheme. “Venom” isn’t as poisonously bad, but it comes perilously close.
In this Spider-Man-free version of an origin story (except for a blurb for the animated “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” after the credits), Brock (Tom Hardy) is the host of a cable news investigative program; he’s also happily engaged to beautiful Anne Weying (Michelle Williams). Both are rather implausible, since Hardy plays Brock like a punch-drunk palooka, presumably in a desperate effort to fashion a character out of a bland original (unhappily, he doesn’t take the slurred line-reading as far as he did when playing Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises”—here you can still understand the dialogue, which is utterly juvenile).
Unfortunately, when Eddie dares to challenge mogul Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed) during an interview on reports of his firm’s loose practices in pharmaceutical testing, he loses both his job and his fiancée. Still pining away for Anne, who’s now dating a surgeon, Dan Lewis (Reid Scott), the down and out guy moves into a fleabag apartment in what looks like San Francisco’s skid row.
His journalistic instincts are reawakened, however, when he’s approached by one of Drake’s assistants, Dora Skirth (Jenny Slate), about a spate of new deaths in their labs. It seems that one of the firm’s rockets (yes, Drake’s got an iron in that fire, too) returned to earth bearing a parasitic alien life form that needs to bond with a human being to survive, and Drake is treating “volunteers” as expendable guinea pigs in an effort to find a compatible host for it. Brock sneaks into the facility to scope out the place, and—wouldn’t you know it—he proves the rare person the symbiote can attach itself to without destroying his innards. He escapes Drake’s pursuers due to the incredible powers the alien, which calls itself Venom, endows him with.
It takes a while before Eddie accepts the reality of his new situation, but he’s persuaded when Venom takes out the army of thugs Drake sends after him—or them—and a battery of police as well. Anne and Lewis get involved with trying to help him, but new danger arrives when another symbiote called Riot, who has been jumping from body to body getting to San Francisco from the rocket crash site, arrives. He’s apparently an officer to Venom’s lowly private, and intends to take one of Drake’s rockets back to their home world to assemble an army of symbiotes and return to gobble up all humanity. Fortunately, by this time Venom has learned to like earth—and Brock—and decides to nip the invasion in the bud.
After a rather phlegmatic first half, “Venom” revs up and becomes positively frantic, with a major combat scene in Brock’s apartment, a long motorcycle chase that seems to destroy a good many of San Francisco’s streets, and a culminating face-off between Venom and Riot that’s a CGI featurette in itself. Throughout there are plenty of transformation sequences in which Hardy goes through hysterical contortions as Venom takes over his body, appearing as a grotesque black version of Spider-Man even though the web-crawler is no longer in evidence.
Along with the action is the emotional bonding that occurs between Eddie and Venom as accompaniment to their physical union. This is expressed through puerile banter between the human and Venom’s voice (which apparently was also done by Hardy, though tricked up technically to sound very much like—you guessed it—James Earl Jones; but at least it proves that Hardy can articulate properly).
Acting is of minor importance in this sort of flick, of course, but Williams makes an appealing heroine who can fight as well as advise (even getting a transformation scene of her own), and Ahmed chews the scenery adequately as the would-be world-conquering mad scientist. Everybody else does what’s required of them, and Woody Harrelson appears briefly in a final-credits interruption as a crazy convict who’s obviously been cast as the villain in a sequel that’s as inevitable as the obligatory Stan Lee cameo.
Technically the movie is okay, but not outstanding by contemporary standards; Matthew Libatique’s cinematography is appropriately gloomy, and the visual effects crew have done a good job with the slithering black goo that is Venom and Riot.
“Venom” will probably be a financial success—any Marvel-affiliated title seems invulnerable, whatever the quality. But this odd blend of buddy flick and superhero movie—sort of like “The Incredible Hulk” merged with “Upgrade”—proves as unpleasant to watch as Venom is to look at.