Venom: Turning a classic Marvel villain into my-best-friend-inside-me

By Jim Slotek

Rating: C

The scariest thing about Venom, the new screen iteration of Marvel’s alien mostly-villainous symbiote character of Spider-Man fame – is that the movie would be 40 minutes longer if star Tom Hardy had his way.

That’s how much of his favourite footage he claimed ended up on the cutting room floor, in a week where he gave interviews about the movie that arguably undercut the adjective “promotional.”

As it is, at a not-quite-tight 90 minutes, there is still a lot of fat in this origin story. There’s a car/drone/motorcycle chase scene through the streets of San Francisco that even the makers of the Fast and Furious franchise might suggest is too long. The movie opens with almost 40 minutes of exposition and silliness before what plot there is gets off the ground.

 A face only a human host could learn to love

A face only a human host could learn to love

On the other hand, it’s a blessing to watch a Marvel movie and not be constantly reminded that it’s a Marvel movie (this one’s from Sony, which still owns the rights to Spider-Man and his “universe”). Though Venom, the character, is from a toothy alien race that, for some reason, sort of looks like Spider-Man dipped in viscous oil, it wasn’t until that way-late mandatory cameo by Marvel founder Stan Lee that I even thought about the Marvel Universe.

On that level, Venom is a stand-alone alien-invasion movie that I would be kinder to if it were an indie film with a budget to match. But it’s not. It’s one of those “events” that has put billboards in our faces for weeks, and trailers in our social media feeds for months. It’s hard not to be underwhelming when you are supposed to be an event. 

And events usually know what they’re about. Venom’s marketing slogan, “the world has enough superheroes,” is belied by the fact that this is ultimately the introduction of yet another superhero (albeit one that bites bad-guys’ heads off), Hulk-like in his duality and constant threat of havoc.

In Venom, Eddie (Hardy) is a crusading TV journalist with the social skills of Geraldo Rivera, who has been fired everywhere he’s worked. True to form, he is fired again when he turns an interview with tech mogul Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed) into an inquisition over shady pharmaceutical practices - using info he stole from his fiancée, a lawyer named Anne (Michelle Williams). Eddie is a prince (and an ex-fiance at that point).

 Tom Hardy as a crusading journalist trying to outrun his fate

Tom Hardy as a crusading journalist trying to outrun his fate

(Though she gets somewhat more to do – and famously a lot more money – Williams has a constant blank look in Venom that suggests she’s taken female-Marvel-sidekick lessons from Gwyneth Paltrow).

As for Drake, he is the wrong guy to mess with, a sort Elon Musk/Martin Shkreli mashup figure, all youthful hubris, megalomania and casual cruelty. Seems his private space program is a cover for his real plan, to manage the introduction of alien symbiotes into society so that mankind can have the physiology to more easily escape to other planets as Earth degrades.

Trouble is, the test-patients who absorb these alien blobs keep dying. Until, that is, Eddie breaks into the Drake lab to photograph evidence and, being a good match, ends up with a new friend inside him that begins to talk.

The voice of Venom (which I first thought might be Batman), is the point in the movie where it approaches entertaining. Venom has absorbed human idioms, calls Eddie a “loser” and a “pussy” and generally ups the level of banter – which previously had been restricted to the New York (I think) dumb-mug “street” accent Hardy settled on. Hardy has a lot of skills, but his comic talents are meh.

Mostly I don’t listen to what hard-core comic-book types have to say about this kind of movie (they are shredding it, by the way), but I do share their criticism of the bloodless violence, tailored to achieve a PG-13 in the U.S. 

People’s heads get bit off and we never see blood? Did Deadpool not teach them anything?

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say the symbiote Venom has a character arc – from Exorcist-demon to best-friend-inside-me. Which necessitates an actual villain, another more powerful symbiote that escapes from a spaceship crash in Malaysia, absorbing hosts (a paramedic, an aged woman market vendor, a little blonde girl) until it ends up in San Francisco, to discover its invasion-force colleague has turned soft toward humans.

Inevitably, there is a showdown between the two amorphous, shape-shifting aliens. And here, director Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland) finally gives us some good eye candy, like a CGI-enhanced Ralph Steadman drawing. 

Otherwise, this remains a pretty Bowdlerized version of one of Marvel’s edgier characters. There’s an Easter Egg in the credits that suggests the introduction of something more hard-core in the sequel. Fat lot of good that does you now.

Venom. Directed by Ruben Fletcher. Starring Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams and Riz Ahmed. Opens wide Friday, October 12.