Is Venom a hero or a villain? Neither? Both? If you rummage through the Marvel back catalog where the piranha-toothed “symbiote” was first fully introduced in The Amazing Spider-Man #300, he’s clearly up to no good — at least as far as Peter Parker is concerned. But in Zombieland director Ruben Fleischer’s flashy-but-tonally jumbled new origin story, he’s painted as a tortured good guy, a victim of a bad Jekyll-and-Hyde break.
Played by the always-interesting Tom Hardy, albeit with a distracting New Yawk palooka accent and a fidgety swagger, Venom feels like a second-tier Marvel player prematurely called up to the bigs. Comics aficionados will be pre-sold, of course, but will anyone else care? Hardy is best known for getting all Methody behind a stifling muzzle as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises and for being the second or third most interesting character in Mad Max: Fury Road even though he played the title character. He has integrity, but he’s not too pure to traffic in blockbusters. But after watching his performance here, I still can’t tell if he’s too good for a movie like this, or if maybe we’ve been overestimating him all along.
Before Hardy fuses with Venom in a Cronenbergian body-horror metamorphosis sequence that has a slithering space parasite invade his body (it’s neither gory enough nor silly enough to be the showstopper it should be), he’s Eddie Brock – a tattooed investigative reporter who zips from one assignment to the next on the back of a motorcycle wearing a leather jacket. He’s like a cross between a young Marlon Brando and the sort of TMZ pest who hangs out at the LAX arrivals gate with a camera and a barrage of provocatively invasive questions. It’s a wonder his girlfriend (played by Michelle Williams in a nothing of a role) doesn’t wise up to what a jerk he is sooner.
While doing a gotcha interview with a megalomaniacal Elon Musk-ian tycoon (The Night Of’s Riz Ahmed), he stumbles onto a gooey, alien symbiosis experiment and becomes its latest victim. And before you know it, Eddie’s sharing his body with a monstrous alter-ego who has a nasty appetite for living flesh and a deep death-metal voice egging him on with badass Deadpool attitude. It’s hard to say which works least — the comic devil-inside-me shtick or the bloated, dark-lit action scenes that take up most of the film’s second half as Eddie/Venom is chased and chased and chased by Ahmed and his interchangeable goons.
Venom isn’t quite bad, but it’s not exactly good either. It’s noncommittally mediocre and, as a result, forgettable. It just sort of sits there, beating you numb, unsure of whether it wants to be a comic-book movie or put the whole idea of comic-book movies in its crosshairs. It never rises above bombastic and busy — which is something I never thought I’d say about a movie starring three aces like Hardy, Ahmed, and Williams. Visually, which is the only thing really going for it, Venom has a stylishly gloomy Nolan-does-Gotham vibe. But Venom, the character, never comes into focus until the last five minutes, when it finally, at long last, starts to get interesting. Until then, he’s just another bit of secondary Marvel IP who scowls and growls, and never shows us why he should be headlining his own movie. C+