“So, what’s this Venom movie about, anyway?”
“OK, uh, remember that black goop from Spider-Man 3?”
“Well, it’s a whole movie about that.”
When I was a very young boy, I thought Venom was pretty cool. I liked Spider-Man, and I liked dinosaurs, and I imagine this is why the idea of a carnivorous Spider-Man held some appeal for me. It is more difficult to pinpoint the source of the morbid curiosity that drove me to the theater this weekend, where I forked over twelve dollars to see Sony Pictures’ Venom under the pretense of “taking one for the FilmFisher team.” At my approach, the ticket taker looked up at me with a blandly polite expression, put a finger in his copy of Thoreau’s Walden, and amiably inquired, “You get a comic?”
“No,” I replied in a whisper choked with self-loathing. “I was not aware I was going to get a comic.”
He promptly handed me a comic book about Venom, which I placed on the empty seat beside me while the film played and, when it was over, crumpled and discarded with the gleeful proclamation, “You’re trash, Brock.” The film is similarly disposable. Before Venom even started, I was treated to trailers for no fewer than five different superhero movies to be released in the coming year. Abraham pleaded with God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah for the sake of ten righteous persons, and by the same logic, Hollywood has produced enough good superhero movies that I try to stay the hands of my fellow critics from condemning the genre wholesale. I count Spider-Man 2 and The Dark Knight among my favorite films, and there are many Marvel movies for which I will make excuses. Sitting through the bathos and banality of a Spider-Man: Homecoming or a Justice League, however, my resolve wavers.
Anyway, Venom is about a Spider-Man villain who has to pull double duty as a hero because of his foil’s conspicuous absence (licensing issues). The story follows the hapless exploits of Eddie Brock, a sad-sack journalist who bonds with the aforementioned sentient black goop and – well, as you might have guessed, it all boils down to saving the world in the end. Both Brock and the goop are played by Tom Hardy, a talented performer who is often one of the first to come to my mind when I consider the best actors working today. Hardy’s performances often have an expressive, larger-than-life physicality – in Bronson and The Dark Knight Rises, he plays burly thugs with a penchant for shows of theatricality. To my mind, however, Hardy is at his best when he has to rein in this tendency. In Locke, he spends the film’s entire runtime confined to a car seat, speaking to other characters over the phone with quietly mounting desperation. Similarly, he spends all of Dunkirk in the cockpit of a Spitfire, voice garbled by his flight mask, commanding our attention with little more than his eyes.
None of this restraint is to be found in Venom. Hardy plays Brock as such a bizarre bundle of tics that when his body is taken over by a puddle of living tar from outer space, it’s hard to spot the difference. When the film begins, we are apparently supposed to accept that Brock is a normal human being, judging by the fact that he has his own news series – “The Eddie Brock Show,” naturally – and is engaged to Michelle Williams, with whom he shares an apartment and a cat named Mister Belvedere. As Brock, Hardy is a total doofus whose accent shifts inexplicably from scene to scene. He mumbles every line in an unrecognizable slur even while speaking to his employer and exchanging what seems meant to be flirtatious banter with Williams. On date night, he drives her around on his motorcycle and she wears a massive white helmet that wouldn’t look out of place on the set of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
One of Venom‘s great mysteries is the way no one bats an eye at its hero’s outlandish behavior, at least not until Eddie hacks his lawyer girlfriend’s computer and uses her confidential information to run afoul of Carlton Drake, some sort of evil billionaire industrialist played by Riz Ahmed with the kind of twitchy, unhinged menace you expect from someone whose name sounds like it came from a Supervillain Name Generator. Drake’s sway over society is such that Eddie loses his job, Michelle Williams loses hers, and Eddie loses her. The story meanders for a surprisingly long time before the titular black goop makes its entrance, leaving room for such tangents as a scene where down-on-his-luck Brock enters a Chinese grocery and, when queried, jovially tells the proprietor he is experiencing “Aches and pains, y’know, aches and pains.” Brock glumly hangs around outside Williams’ apartment, staring longingly at Mister Belvedere in the window, and eventually meets her new boyfriend, who cheerily pumps Brock’s hand, seeming utterly delighted to meet his girlfriend’s ex. (The film treats this, too, as completely normal human behavior.) Drake, meanwhile, is experimenting with the alien goops to some vague nefarious purpose, and when Brock tries to investigate, he gets stuck with one.
This is where Venom really makes good on its commitment to being the one-man Tom Hardy Show, as Brock converses with a growly, modulated voice in his head that constantly berates him for being a loser and commands him to eat. Brock yelps and spasms and traipses around San Francisco bickering with the alien body-snatcher, whose ravenous hunger forces him to bake whole trays of Tater Tots and hop into a seafood tank to eat live lobsters in front of his ex-fiancée and her new boyfriend, who nevertheless continues to regard him with complete affability and genuine concern. Though Brock is initially freaked out to have his body inhabited by a goopy entity, he acclimates to the idea surprisingly quickly – understandable, perhaps, because it is convenient to have goopy black tendrils doing all the fighting and running for you when you are being chased by goons. For his part, though Venom gloats that his kind will take over Earth and eat all the humans, he also performs a surprisingly abrupt about-face after a little while, deciding Earth is all right after all. Apparently Venom is a loser compared to all the other alien goops, so he and Brock bond over their shared loserhood and affection for Michelle Williams. “I like her,” the symbiote growls in Brock’s mind before proceeding to give him relationship advice, and the plot later contorts itself to bring about a truly odd threesome. The bond between man and alien parasite, it turns out, is emotional as well as biological.
The story culminates, unsurprisingly, in a big action climax even more visually dull than usual, and while my eyes glazed over watching two alien blobs fight each other, there’s something amusing about watching Tom Hardy and Riz Ahmed feebly trade a few blows while their shapeshifting computer-generated avatars pummel each other in an explosion of sound and fury. Venom appears to be destroyed in the conflagration (he’s not, of course) and Michelle Williams dispenses words of earnest comfort like, “I’m sorry about Venom.”
I, for one, am not as sorry about Venom as I thought I would be. This year I have been dragged to Tag, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, and The Meg, and though you should not really take this as a recommendation, I will tell you that Venom is the best bad movie I’ve seen in a long time, because it is bad enough not to be boring. Joshua Gibbs once wrote, “If you have to see Suicide Squad, enjoy it and then feel guilty about it. There’s no need to defend it.” I enjoyed the meager diversions Venom has to offer, felt vaguely guilty about watching it instead of the David Lean films I’ve been meaning to get to, and have no intention of devoting further thought to it. Venom is Brock’s Jungian shadow and the film’s message, insofar as it has one, is about getting in touch your dark side; that’s that. More than anything, Venom feels badly dated, as if it was made in the early 2000s, and its willingness to own its goofy stupidity saves it from the homogeneity that afflicts most films of its ilk, though it’s not quite enough to cover its multitude of other sins. Still, in an age where all superhero movies are sequels and spin-offs of each other, it comes as a mild relief that Brock and Venom aren’t slated to show up in Avengers films anytime soon. Of course, if one sits through the credits and Eminem’s Venom theme song, there’s another scene inexorably threatening us with the continued adventures, which is a shame. Enough is enough.