First, a clarification. Venom is a Sony property, produced in association with Marvel. It is not, technically, part of the MCU, as it isn’t a Marvel Studios production. Yet it is the first spin-off from the latest iteration of Spider-Man, which is, vicariously part of the MCU. The studio politics are as confusing as Venom is confused. A curious mix of horror, buddy-cop-comedy and more standard superhero fare, this Tom Hardy vehicle nevertheless does show glimpses of promise.
Hardy plays Eddie Brock, an investigative reporter whose perseverance is his undoing. The object of his suspicions is Carlton Drake, the owner of the Life Foundation, (played by a scene nibbling Riz Ahmed). The spectre of Peter Parker and Oscorp, unsurprisingly, does not feel far away. Yet when Drake’s scientific pioneering goes awry, it is Brock who becomes the unsuspecting host to a Symbiote. The result of this unholy alliance is the titular character, a superhero who shies away from the conventionally heroic. By which I mean, of course, he constantly wants to eat living people. Hardy plays a much more outwardly charismatic lead than you may be expecting. So often a superb executor of the grim and intense, he instead brings a refreshing buoyancy to Eddie. Much of this is necessary, as the draw of Venom is his anti-heroic tussle between doing right and wrong. A good guy doing good things can be a bit twee (unless you’re Captain America).
In a film centring on the difficulties which arise when combining two, seemingly incompatible things, you can’t help but smile coyly at its attempts to smash multiple themes together. The first half, in particular, struggles to focus on a direction. The villainous nature of Venom, its corrosive and draining effect on a principled man, could lend itself to a darker, more horror-inflected take. Yet as soon as the film follows this instinct, it flits viciously to comedy with as much vigour as the Symbiote’s sinuous limbs. It’s this latter, almost buddy-cop-comedy approach which the film plumps for in the end, and it is better for this brief moment of conviction. As the Symbiote and Brock grow more accustomed, the film does a good job of giving them space to riff off each other.
But taken in sum, there’s something quite paint-by-numbers about Venom’s whole premise. From the shady corporation to the paper-thin female companion (Michelle Williams doing her best with not a lot), and through to a third act which strays into a quagmire of CGI soup, you feel like the film turns its eponymous character into something shoulder-shruggingly normal. It’s this growing feeling of frustration which creeps under your skin as you walk out of the cinema. There’s a cleverer, frankly more interesting movie hidden deep within Venom, but it struggles to break out.
From scene to scene the actors seem to struggle to know what type of film they’re in, and there’s a definite mid-noughties sensibility at play. It feels like something which was created pre-MCU, pre-Dark Knight and yet simultaneously lingers uncertainly in their collective shadows.
There is fun to be had; in the latter stages, the film slots into a solid comedic rhythm, and Hardy gives a fizzing performance. Plus, Venom’s design, for the most part, captures the formidable yet impish aspects of its character. There is potential for more, but this kernel of a good story lacks the vehicle to really drive it home. Above all, it’s a Symbiote struggling to find the right host.