Director – Ruben Fleischer
Screenplay – Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg and Kelly Marcel
Cast – Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, Scott Haze and Reid Scott
Plot – Alien life forms (symbiots) which can mutate and inhabit a human host are detected in space by the probe of the multinational Life Foundation and brought back to Earth for intense research by CEO Carlton Drake (Ahmed). However, investigative journalist Eddie Brock (Hardy) while uncovering the story is infected with the Venom symbiote and given superpowers while also trying to thwart the species from invading earth.
The Marvel Studio films (the MCU, basically) have set the standard for great comic-book cinematic storytelling, multi-film character arcs and cross-franchise plot development. This year, even, we have had one of the best of the entire output (Avengers: Infinity War) and Black Panther was no slouch either.
Of course, there will always be detractors that have had enough of the ‘superhero’ film, often complaining about the reliance of CGI (valid point), the relatively formulaic nature (fairly valid) and lack of real substance or consequence (much less valid, see Infinity War). So, it’s only when other studios try to join in and capitalise on the superhero wave that we can see where it can go wrong – DC’s woes are fairly well documented – and with the amount of studios all copying the Marvel formula of shared universe storytelling, it is fair to see why some fatigue is setting in with the superhero genre. And it’s further compounded when a comic-book film misses the mark and potentially tars the entire collective.
And it is here we reach Sony Pictures’ latest, Venom, which is an attempt to open up their own shared cinematic universe with the characters they still hold to licence from Marvel. Those with comic-book knowledge will be aware that the character is a main villain in the Spider-Man pantheon (one of the best, arguably) however at no point does Spider-Man appear (Sony released the character back to Marvel Studios, hence his inclusion in the MCU recently). It’s a bit strange as the only main tie to Spider-Man (aside from Venom) is a few mentions of the Daily Bugle. Otherwise, this is its own origin story, for better or worse. Probably worse.
Fleischer’s film has smartly ditched the back-story element which existed in the comics (Spider-Man was the first host of the symbiot, which he rejected before it consumed Eddie Brock) and focussed on Brock and his girlfriend Anne Weying (Williams), an attorney preparing a lawsuit defence for the Life Foundation.
We follow reporter Brock as he lands a big interview with ‘dodgy’ businessman Drake (Ahmed, an overblown sinister Elon Musk type) and his challenges on the rumoured symbiot research result in both Brock and Anne losing their jobs. The film skips six months to show him single, unemployed and living in a run-down one-bedroom apartment. However, a disgruntled employee of Drake’s contacts him and they seek out to prove that the millionaire is using human beings as tests for the symbiot research. Unfortunately, this goes awry and Hardy’s character is infused with the symbiot, becoming Venom. Now super-powered, he must deal with Drake and another enemy symbiot which has escaped from the research labs.
On the surface, there is some potential for an intriguing story: a great cast assembled, an interesting dual-character performance from Hardy (seen before with Legend) and some decent action scenes (although sub-par CGI does detract). However, the script feels half-baked; plot inconsistencies abound, character dialogue is uninspired and the tone shifts radically throughout. Fleischer seems unable to decide between creating a dark and gritty action film or an offbeat and unorthodox comedy, and hitting neither tone sufficiently.
Hardy, not entirely convincing as a reporter, excels in unhinged moments of psychosis and the second act allows him to really let loose with one particular scene in a high-class restaurant being a standout. As Venom takes over, he succumbs to the will of the symbiot, with the duality and bickering between Brock and the parasite lending to some moments of occasionally bizarre humour, which does feel at odds with the aesthetic and otherwise menacing tone.
These tonal shifts are coupled with lacklustre dialogue that even heavyweights Williams and Hardy struggle to make compelling. The screenplay also suffers from a plot which feels like it needed at least another revision, with one particular mid-credit reveal feeling shoehorned and cynical.
For the beginning of a new cinematic universe, this film needed to demonstrate why we should care about another comic-book shared universe. However, Fleischer and Sony Pictures have failed to do that as Venom feels about 15 years too late (especially the CGI) when it may have been hailed a decent action film. To arrive months apart from Infinity War, the differences are staggering. Where Marvel’s film was layered with gravitas, meticulously crafted and successfully connected an astonishing number of varied franchise storylines into one cohesive plot, Sony’s Venom is a confusing, tonally messy affair which fails to utilise its strong cast or generate any excitement for its inevitable sequel.