As with all review-caps, MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD! You’ve been warned.
I went into Venom with low expectations, having not been terribly impressed by the initial trailer. It looked like a hastily thrown-together project designed to capitalize on Marvel’s unstoppable box-office victories. In successfully introducing Spider-Man to their Cinematic Universe, Marvel did what Sony couldn’t. So all they can do now is try to ride alongside and hopefully catch some run-off with this – would it be a parallel universe? Alternate universe? Or is it considered “canon” somehow? I have no idea, but even though I wasn’t entirely wrong about the flick – to my pleasant surprise, I wasn’t entirely right, either.
For those who not familiar with the comics (like myself) and who didn’t catch the character’s appearance in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 in 2007, the basic deal with Venom is this: he’s a parasitic, shape-shifting alien that looks like a pile of black goo. In this version, he hitches a ride to Earth on an amazingly futuristic, Space Shuttle-looking rocket built by the Life Foundation – an all-encompassing business built by billionaire (but not playboy) philanthropist Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), who wants to save humanity by getting us back into space.
The flick wastes no time in jumping right in, starting with the rocket returning to Earth from collecting specimens off a comet. The rocket malfunctions during re-entry and crashes in Malaysia, killing all on board (except for J.J. Jameson, one of the only references to the Spidey-verse that I picked up on) and destroying all but four of the specimens. The one that escapes hitches a ride on Jameson and then jumps to an unsuspecting EMT (Michelle Lee), who crashes the ambulance and disappears into the night.
Cut to San Francisco – wait, San Francisco? Shouldn’t it be New York? I know, I thought the same thing. But they do give you a smidgen of a reason – when we meet reporter (not photographer) Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) and his fiancée, attorney Anne Weying (Michelle Williams). We find out that Eddie was run out of the Big Apple professionally for his in-your-face, no-holds-barred style of investigative journalism. Anne’s worried it might happen to him again if he doesn’t toe the line and do the interview assigned to him – a vanity piece on Carlton Drake. Eddie contends that Drake isn’t all he seems – he’s heard about shady, unethical methods beneath the social conscience. Anne begs him to play nice, which he agrees to but we all know it ain’t gonna go like that.
And it doesn’t – during his walk-and-talk with Drake at the Life Foundation the next day, Eddie wastes no time confronting Drake with confidential info he nicked from Anne’s e-mail. Drake kicks Eddie out and by the time he gets home, Eddie’s been fired from his job – and Anne’s been fired from hers too, since her firm works for Drake and they found out that’s where Eddie got his info. Humiliated and heartbroken, she breaks off their engagement and leaves him.
Meanwhile, the alien that got away – known as Riot – is busy host-hopping across Malaysia. During an impressive melee with some local punks in a village market, Riot imbues the EMT with incredible strength and morphing ability before jumping to an old woman (Vickie Eng), who then walks herself to the airport and targets another ride, a little girl (Zeva Duvall) who’s traveling to – of course – San Francisco.
By this time months have passed and Eddie’s hit rock bottom – living in a crappy apartment, no job, no friends, no fiancée. He’s about to start going for dishwashing jobs when he’s contacted by one of the research scientists at the Life Foundation, Dr. Dora Skirth (Jenny Slate). She’s witnessed Drake’s reckless and deadly methods firsthand – using homeless people as hosts for the alien “symbiotes.” Most have died in the process and she wants Eddie to expose the whole thing. She offers to get him into the labs to provide the proof he needs.
At first, Eddie refuses, citing the ruin Drake’s brought upon his life just because of one interview. But then during another sad attempt to reconcile with Anne he meets her new boyfriend, a surgeon named Dan Lewis (Reid Scott), who seems like a perfectly nice guy he can’t even get mad at. Anne reiterates that it isn’t Drake who’s to blame for their breakup – it’s Eddie. Ouch.
After the metaphorical kick in the ass, Eddie decides to take Dora up on her offer. She smuggles him into the labs and he sees the few remaining hosts in their cells – including a homeless lady he knows, Maria (Melora Walters). She begs him to get her out and while trying to figure it out, her symbiote goes suddenly wild and busts out of the cell, attacking Eddie and jumping to him.
As Eddie escapes the lab, we first see Venom in action as he uses Eddie’s body to take down the security guys. When he gets back to his apartment, poor Eddie can’t figure out if he’s coming or going, tearing around the place, eating everything in sight and then puking it all up. Then Venom starts talking to him, which makes him think he’s also going insane in addition to dying.
Meanwhile, Drake goes ballistic when he finds out what happened – he has poor Dora killed via symbiote and sends his security flunkies out to find Eddie. Then somehow or other, the little girl/Riot manages to find him in the lab and attacks him. Seems like everybody’s got their own symbiote.
In one of the best and funniest scenes in the whole flick, Eddie then finds Anne having lunch with Dan in a swanky restaurant. While the Eddie half tries to explain what’s happened and ask for help, the Venom half goes crazy eating everything he can get his hands on. Turns out he needs live food – so he makes Eddie jump into the lobster tank and start going to town. A horrified Anne and Dan decide they’d better get him to the hospital.
Eddie wakes up in an MRI machine. Dan wants to scan him to see what’s going on – but as soon as they start up the machine, we find out what Venom’s weakness is (if you didn’t already know) – high frequency sound. It forces Venom to separate from Eddie – and even though they manage to trap him inside the room, Venom manages to slip out through the vent in the ceiling.
Meanwhile, Drake’s guys nab Eddie and take him back to the lab – where Eddie discovers that Drake’s been taken over by Riot. Eddie’s no use to him without Venom so after some typical bad-guy monologuing, he lets his security guys “clean up the mess.” But when they march Eddie out into the woods to execute him, Venom suddenly appears and saves the day, having hitched a ride on Anne.
Venom jumps back to Eddie and the two realize they have a mutual interest in stopping Drake and Riot, who are about to launch another rocket. Their plan is to return with millions more symbiotes that will take control of Earth. Eddie wants to save the world and so does Venom – turns out in his extremely short time on the planet, Venom’s decided he likes it and wants to stay. He’s also decided he likes Eddie – and Anne too. Oh, and he’s also become quite fond of chocolate and tater tots, and if Riot takes over the planet, there’ll be no more of that.
So after a chaotic and confusing battle between Venom/Eddie and Riot/Drake on the launch pad – during which it’s almost impossible to tell who’s who with all the stretchy black and gray goo flying around – Riot gets in the rocket as it lifts off. Venom manages to blow it up. Riot and Drake buy it and it looks like Venom and Eddie might have too, as they plunge into the bay.
But then through the magic of editing, bam – it’s months later. Eddie’s fine and so is Venom, and the two are living a (ha ha) symbiotic existence, though they’re keeping it secret, even from Anne. The new BFF’s then have a conversation where Eddie tells Venom if he’s got to eat people, he’s only allowed to eat bad ones. Venom asks the all-important question of how one tells the difference and Eddie says he’ll learn to figure it out.
They visit Eddie’s favorite mini-mart run by the crusty-but-motherly Mrs. Chen (Peggy Lu) to pick up some grub. A local punk (Sam Medina) drops in to shake her down for “protection” money. Eddie points him out as the perfect example of a “bad guy” and Venom goes to town, grabbing the dude and giving him the now infamous “like a turd in the wind” spiel before taking his head off.
All seems like symbiotically-ever-after until the mid-credits scene where Eddie’s called to a prison to interview serial killer Cletus Kasady (surprise appearance by Woody Harrelson). Eddie asks what the deal is and Kasady says when he gets out “there’s gonna be…Carnage.” Gasp! Cut to black, the end.
Overall, the flick really is a hot, choppy mess – story and character take a clear back seat to the action sequences. Obviously, Hardy’s Eddie Brock gets the most time and development – but even though his dual-performance scenes as both Eddie and Venom are the hands-down highlights of the flick, we don’t really learn that much about either of them. Venom seems way too savvy about humans for having just dropped in from another planet – and he bonds emotionally with Eddie awfully quick for an alien that just wants to go around eating people’s heads and livers.
And how far in the future are we if Drake’s spacecraft are routinely taking off and returning from deep space – with people on them? And who the hell is Drake anyway, other than an evil Elon Musk? We only get the barest idea of his mad-genius character before he’s taken over by Riot, goes full bad-guy and then he’s dead. Michelle Williams is perfectly fine, but because she’s so accomplished as an actor she seems really out of place in “the girlfriend” role – same goes for Jenny Slate. Neither of them had anything meaty to do, and that’s just a tragic waste of talent.
Tonally the flick is all over the place, aspiring to things it then shies away from. Venom is one of the few Marvel villains (or anti-heroes) that has the potential to be truly frightening, like horror-movie-level terrifying – which would certainly make Venom stand out from the Disney/Marvel way of doing things. I would think that would be something Sony would want – but it seems they wanted a PG-13 rating even more. So the flick never goes far enough with the scares or the violence – people die but there’s no blood or gore, so there’s no sense of any real peril or high stakes.
Venom also plays far more to the comical side than the dark-and-scary side – which is great for laughs in the moment, but I think it’s a big mistake over the long haul. Instead of Eddie being seduced by the incredible power Venom gives him and delving deeper into that kind of rich inner conflict (which Sam Raimi did with Spider-Man 3, though it wasn’t that successful), Eddie ends up a straight-ahead hero and Venom ends up more like a pet he has to train – which works, I suppose – but it’s also kind of boring.
So the upside is that Venom does supply a good dose of fun and big action, and Tom Hardy’s all-in performance is awesome to watch. But the downside is that’s all that really holds the flick together – and that doesn’t bode well for the characters’ or the franchise’s future, especially if Spidey’s not going to be involved.
Directed by: Ruben Fleischer
Written by: Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg, Kelly Marcel
Release Date: Oct. 5, 2018
Run Time: 1hr 52 min
Distributor: Sony/Columbia Pictures