Venom strikes an imperfect balance between two extremes – sticking too close to, or straying too far from, Marvel’s source material. And that’s a testament to Sony’s belief that audiences are going to want to watch a charmingly-dishevelled Tom Hardy murder and eat people in the name of twisted justice in this movie and any potential sequels.
Drifting away from the source material is always a risky gamble when it comes to comic book movies, especially when a film is trying to establish a character who’s meant to carry a franchise. Roam too far, and comics purists will dismiss a movie as fundamentally inauthentic. Come too close, and a movie becomes dense to the point of being a drag – and in Venom’s case, run into all kinds of legal complications that Sony’s probably trying to avoid.
Venom’s status as one of Marvel’s most popular and immediately-recognisable characters is precisely what makes Sony’s new standalone film about the complicated antihero such a curious puzzle to mull over. Of course Sony put him front and centre in a film all about him – the studio would have been wildly irresponsible if it didn’t. At the same time, though, it’s undeniably odd to imagine a Venom story that doesn’t at all feature everyone’s favourite webhead.
All that said, Venom is a movie for the masses. It’s largely uninterested in delving too deeply into the character’s lore and instead takes its time to explain things as if you’d never known about Eddie Brock, the symbiotes, and all that jazz. While it’s more than likely going to turn some off, there’s something kind of refreshing about sitting down to watch a good, old-fashioned superhero origin movie that has literally no connective tissue to a larger cinematic universe you’re meant to recall in order to get the full effect of what’s happening.
In this world, Eddie Brock’s still got ties to New York City, but the film picks up at a point in his life when he’s made it out to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he works as a relatively well-known investigative television reporter at a major network. Much like his comics counterpart, Eddie revels in speaking truth to power and using his platform to expose corruption, and the film uses its setting as the ideal place to tell a story about a reporter rallying against the kinds of income and class inequalities that plague the Bay Area.
Eddie’s ego and cavalier attitude are some of his greatest professional strengths, but they also wreak havoc on his personal life and blind him to the importance of taking time to nurture his interpersonal relationships. His fiancé Anne Weying (Michelle Williams), a lawyer in the midst of an ongoing legal battle involving the Life Foundation, is supportive of Eddie’s drive in a way that he isn’t of hers and it causes an organic friction between them. Though Eddie fancies himself a champion of justice, he’s also very much a self-absorbed taker, and that puts him on a path to his fateful encounter with Venom’s titular symbiote.
All you really need to know about Venom’s symbiotes is that a handful of them are discovered by the Life Foundation – a multi-billion dollar company that works in everything from pharmaceuticals to rockets – during a research mission in space. Because Venom is meant to be a world seemingly devoid of superheroes or anything fantastical like that, no one exactly knows what to make of the symbiote specimens when they’re first recovered from the site where a Life Foundation ship transporting them crashes. But Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), the Elon Musk-y head of the organisation, recognises them as having the potential to change the world.
Even though Venom’s larger story brings in mentions of far-off planets and a number of settings across Earth, the movie actually feels rather small once its central plot kicks in. Yes, there’s a missing symbiote out in the wild killing and eating anything foolish enough to get in its way, but the film really, really focuses on how Eddie and the Venom symbiote come to understand one another as people and equals. Because the version of the symbiote doesn’t have any sort of interaction with Spider-Man, Venom gets a little creative in terms of the way it goes about fleshing out his personality.
The symbiote is deadly and compels Eddie to kill once they’ve bonded to one another, but it’s also rather charming and – surprisingly – very polite. Going into Venom, you fully expect to see them rip people apart and munch on their guts, but it’s legitimately shocking the first time you see Eddie and Venom saying “thank you” and “you’re welcome” to one another. So much of Venom’s identity in Marvel’s comics is tied up in themes of torture and trauma and there are definitely elements of that all throughout Venom. But at the same time, the movie is also much more concerned about having fun with its central characters and the wildness of their dynamic.
Even more pleasantly surprising about Venom is how – forgive me – highkey fucky a movie it is. At multiple points, Eddie mentions how the symbiote, which materialises through his skin over whatever else he’s wearing, may or may not also literally be “up [his] ass” at all times, and there are a couple of sequences with decidedly Freudian overtones that gel with Eddie and Venom’s current relationship in the comics. The film doesn’t exactly delve into the undeniable queerness of Eddie and Venom’s bond, but there’s just enough of that energy running between them to give the story a titillating edge that will be readily apparent to the Venom thirst crowd.
That all being said, Venom is not without its flaws – it’s absolutely full of them. The first 20 minutes or so move at a brisk, confusing clip and it feels like a haphazardly cut together opening that could definitely use some reworking. Drake’s ultimate evil plan involving the symbiotes isn’t at all well-thought out or articulated in a clear way, and Jenny Slate is woefully underutilised as Dr. Dora Skirth. There’s also Hardy’s American accent which, while not exactly annoying, is inconsistent from scene to scene and hits the ear wrong on more than one occasion.
If anything, Venom’s greatest weakness is actually the way Sony’s marketed the movie. Like Hardy’s accent, it’s seemed as if the studio hasn’t been quite sure just what kind of tone it wants to strike with its advertisements, which send mixed messages about what kind of movie really Venom is. It’s not nearly as dark and bloody or brooding of a film as Sony could have made. Rather, it’s a loud, kind of silly action/buddy cop movie that just wants you to kick back with a bucket of popcorn and have a good time while a space monster licks his chops at you.
Venom opens in cinemas on October 5.