Sony wants to hop on board the cinematic universe bandwagon, ergo we have Venom, focusing on arguably the most popular adversary from Spider-Man’s rogue gallery in an anti-heroic capacity, the first entry in a proposed Spider-Man cinematic universe without Spider-Man. It’s not a terrible idea, the principle obstacle being Venom’s origins stem from his hatred for Spider-Man, but that can be resolved by having another character step in as a substitute.
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The story follows a failed reporter Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy), as he investigates a morally bankrupt bio-engineering corporation as they experiment with alien lifeforms called symbiotes that need to bond with a host to survive, but when Brock inadvertently bonds with one of the symbiotes called Venom, he must follow Venom’s directions to survive. This concept could work; however, I’ll admit that I didn’t have high hopes for Venom going in, considering the quality of the promotional material or The Amazing Spider-Man series.
The first half of the film is rather decent, evoking an appealingly self-aware monster schlock B-movie feel, interspersed with plenty of the oddly endearing dumb moments that were prevalent in Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy, setting itself apart in an irksomely crowded genre. Examples include an out-of-place montage of Brock riding his motorcycle and being at work that’s strung together like a YouTube video and accompanied by one of the several unfitting songs that bog down the soundtrack, and the unnecessary subplot involving another symbiote.
Despite what was established during the first half, the film really starts to fly off the rails in the second half. The supposedly intentional tone sadly descends into an identity crisis as the dumb moments manifest and consume the production. As the horror elements become subsidiary to the increasingly comedic tone and the mere three action sequences finally start to commence, it becomes unclear what the film is aiming for, done no favours by a plot that initially seemed subversive ends up playing it utterly safe, going against the nature of the comic’s character.
The film looks good, the varied environments feature appropriately muted colours while retaining the appeal of the flashing lights of San Francisco. The interior sets on their own are generically designed, but lighting keeps the scenes interesting enough visually. The CGI of the symbiotes is solid, the way they resemble a compilation of simultaneously moving tendrils is an unsettling sight, though occasionally are rendered unconvincing when latching to the actors. Unfortunately, there are issues with the editing and cinematography, the continuity of the opening sequence evidently got lost on the cutting room floor, the camera is only sporadically used in an inventive way, contributing little to bringing the characters to life, and there are instances where the camera moves so fast that it takes a couple of seconds to refocus.
My favourite part of the film is the dialogue for the wrong reasons, it tends to fluctuate between serviceable and belonging in a mindless action flick from the nineties, granted the former encompasses more of the script, it still has its fair share of lines that are worth mentioning. “My leg was broken, now it’s not”, “I’m kind of a loser, like you”, or “you know, for a smart guy, you really are a dumbass” to name a few.
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Brock is a refreshingly awkward every-man, diverging from the witty, muscular superhero archetype, he had the potential to be relatable, but this is hampered by several factors: Hardy’s performance, he’s frequently hunched over and appears half-asleep even before Venom bonds with him and skyrockets his metabolic rate, the dialogue that wrecks whatever chemistry Brock could’ve had with his fiancée Anne (Michelle Williams), and he makes such a stupid, terrible decision early on that I almost stopped rooting for him. Ironically, the supporting characters are predominantly hosts for plot devices, the greatest offender being Anne, who needlessly re-enters the narrative after the time-jump, usually to serve as a bridge for Brock to get to the next location, though it is satisfying that she does more than many other superhero love interests.
The only truly intriguing human character is the villain, Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), he has a passion for scientific progress and admiration of the symbiotes that I can respect, and has more depth than the evil scientist archetype would typically permit, but he ultimately falls short of being a worthy antagonist. There could’ve been a compelling contrast between Drake and Brock, they both believe they’re doing the right thing despite their unjustified actions, he could’ve also been the substitute for Spider-Man’s role, but these themes are barely given any attention.
Venom has a twisted sense of humour, the audience I was with laughed several times at the interactions between Brock and Venom, with Brock serving as the straight man to Venom’s chaotic lunacy. Hardy improvised many of the exchanges between himself and himself, and it shows, not just because it felt more organic than much of the prior dialogue, but because Venom sounds like that annoying friend from high school that can be genuinely funny at times, but is by no stretch the class clown he thinks he is.
Speaking of the character, whenever Venom is on-screen or influencing Brock’s behaviour off-screen, it’s pretty awesome. I really like his design, except for the absent spider emblem, he looks like he was ripped straight from the pages. The few action sequences aren’t great, the bright spots are how the scenes of Venom biting people’s heads off is laughably edited to maintain a PG-13 certificate, and the creative ways his powers manage to assist Brock, though he’s overpowered so there’s little tension. Without Venom, the action is rather standard and noisy, the only memorable feature of the second sequence is a Wilhelm scream, and the symbiotes dilute the climax, reducing it to a vapid, borderline incomprehensible CGI frenzy.
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All and all, unless you’re an adaptation purist, I doubt you’ll find anything offensively bad in Venom, it’s miles away from being one of the worst superhero films of all time, it’s just aggressively mediocre. What bothers me is that the premise is salvageable, I can see a good film inside the final product, it’s just buried under characters with promising traits that required further expansion, a tone that could’ve been more consistent, and action that should’ve been more competently executed. Nonetheless, I found enough that I liked, as the people surrounding me evidently did, for me to walk out of the cinema thinking to myself “yeah, I had fun”, but I’m certainly not instilled with eagerness for the next instalment in Sony’s series of Marvel films. On the topic of Sony’s future projects, how is someone supposed to write a script for a solo film about Kraven the Hunter?
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