As a superhero movie, Venom, the first installment of the Sony Universe of Marvel Characters, is a dismal failure. The script is laughably bad, the action sequences are...fine, I guess, and the stakes feel stale. It makes the much-mocked Spider-Man 3 Topher Grace version look impressive, and that's something I never imagined myself writing.
But as a buddy comedy? Well, that's where Venom really hits its stride.
I'm fairly confident that is not what director Ruben Fleischer had in mind when he picked up the script by Kelly Marcel, Scott Rosenberg and Jeff Pinker about an alien-life form that achieves symbiosis with a human host, giving him otherwordly powers. And yet, Venom's tone feels more in line with say, Bad Boys, or Due Date, than Ironman. The relationship between Venom, and bad fake investigative journalist (seriously — even by Sharp Objects standards) Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) is hilarious, imaginative, and even endearing. It's a surprising twist that almost redeems what would otherwise be a terrible, terrible movie into something akin to an inadvertent cult classic.
The film opens with a rocket crash-landing to Earth (Malaysia, to be specific), carrying living, creepy-crawly-oozy specimens from space, known as symbiotes. The rocket belongs to a company known as the Life Foundation, run by an Elon Musk-type CEO named Carleton Drake (Riz Ahmed)who, despite his reputation as a charitably-minded world-savior, is actually up to no good, and will stop at nothing to achieve his somewhat murky end goals. Reporter Brock learns this first hand when an interview with Drake goes awry, and he loses his job, and his fiancée, lawyer Anne Weying (Michelle Williams), in the process. I won't get into the details, but basically this triggers a series of events that lead Brock's body to be taken over by one of the symbiotes, named Venom.
Hardy's performance as Eddie is baffling, a slurring tough boy with tattoos and a heart of gold, but who's also deeply uncool. He has no real personality to speak of, other than his catchphrase, "no such thing as can't," which he employs liberally even as he wallows in his filthy bed, hiding from his neighbors' loud music. He pines for Anne, who's already moved on to a nice, stable doctor (played by that guy from Veep ), and can't get hired anywhere because he's earned a reputation as an unreliable journalist who makes up his facts (which is pretty fair). So, he drinks, and he stumbles, and he buys tater tots at the corner store. Until Venom.
Nothing can quite prepare you for the first conversation between Eddie and his alien invader, whose voice is a ripoff of Christian Bale's Batman. It starts with Venom shouting for food (causing a frenzied Eddie to bite into a live lobster), and evolves into a courteous friendship of mutual understanding and respect. We never really quite understand why Venom chose Eddie as a host when he rejected so many of Drake's other candidates, but hey — who cares? Maybe it's simply their undeniable chemistry. Or maybe it's that Venom, who loves to point out that Eddie is a loser, sees a bit of himself in him. (As it turns out, Venom was also a loser on his own planet, so they are meant to be.) In any case, Eddie's "I" becomes a "we," and the movie is much more enjoyable for it.
Hardy's performance aside however, the film doesn't have much in the way of real characters. Ahmed and Williams are both phenomenal actors, but they are given almost nothing to work with, and are content to sit back and watch this movie happen to them. As Dr. Donna Skirth, an associate of Drake's who suddenly grows a conscience, Jenny Slate appears to also embrace the inevitable, delivering her lines with an earnestness that veers on parody.
The action scenes, a superhero film's bread and butter, are just okay. Like most of this movie, their worst crimes is being unmemorable. Whether or not you will enjoy Venom fully depends on your attitude going into it. If you're a die-hard Marvel fan who is expecting a dark anti-hero in the style that Hardy, who memorably played Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, has adopted in the past, don't bother. This is not the movie for you.
But, if you're in the mood for some absurdist comedy, and don't mind abysmal dialogue that includes Venom waxing poetic about "a turd in the wind," then by all means, enjoy yourself. I have to admit, I did.