[This review contains spoilers]
Comic book movies have been around for a while now—long enough for filmmakers to more or less hone the craft to a science. This means that even the worst comic book movies these days are somewhat enjoyable, however bland and directionless they might be. That’s why Venom, Sony’s latest attempt at kick-starting their own cinematic universe to rival Marvel’s, was so shocking in its sheer incompetence. While watching it, I felt as though I had been transported back to the early 2000s, before Marvel showed everyone how to make compelling narratives out of intrinsically silly concepts. In terms of quality, Venom feels more at home with the likes of 2003’s underwhelming Daredevil than any major release in the past decade.
Venom’s baffling incompetence starts with its plot, which somehow manages to be both mind-numbingly simple and completely incoherent. Tom Hardy (Mad Max: Fury Road, The Revenant) plays reporter Eddie Brock, who loses his job, fiancée (Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea), and apartment after digging too deep in an interview with big-bad businessman Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed, Nightcrawler). Drake’s company performs unethical trials attempting to bond humans with amorphous creatures called Symbiotes, which they found in space. Through a series of improbable events, one of the Symbiotes bonds physically and mentally with Brock, turning him into a monstrous antihero called Venom. Drake wants to capture Venom, believing that human-Symbiote bonding is the only way for the human species to escape global warming on Earth and survive on Mars.
The film, however, never sufficiently explains Drake’s plans to bond humans with Symbiotes, instead focusing on scenes of Drake using the aliens to senselessly murder medical trial patients. What personal stakes drive his motives? The plot further loses bearing when Drake’s already shaky Mars plan is completely dropped after a Symbiote named Riot bonds to him, giving him the ability to transform into a Venom look-alike. Does Riot convince Drake offscreen to start a Symbiote invasion of Earth so they can kill all humans? Who knows?
Venom’s character arc in the movie is similarly confusing. As in the comic book, Venom (the Symbiote) has a separate consciousness from Brock, so that they don’t always agree despite being in the same body. For around half of the movie, Venom does not care about humanity, seemingly aware of, and indifferent toward, Riot’s plan to exterminate humans. It is thus inexplicable why Venom later changes his mind and decides to help Brock stop Drake and Riot. The film’s theme of characters behaving without appropriate motivations, changing their minds unprompted, and acting irrationally makes watching Venom an arduous and surreal experience. In light of rumors that the movie suffered heavy cuts in post-production (although its runtime still ended up being 140 minutes long), I honestly wonder if there was an entire second act of the film that was simply cut. Attempting to follow what should be a simple plot becomes maddening to the point where it is impossible to be invested in what happens onscreen.
Even if an audience member managed to get over the disjointed plot, there are very few moments that they could enjoy. The action scenes are lit too dimly, so that Venom—a huge, black monster—is barely discernible. Even the grandest action scene in the movie is shrouded in smoke, such that most of the action goes unseen. I imagine this is the result of a studio decision to make the movie PG-13 instead of a more fitting R rating; Venom speaks a lot about biting off people’s heads but we never actually see it. The climactic battle is a similarly incomprehensible mess of black and grey CGI muck flying everywhere as Venom and Riot fight with their nearly identical power sets.
In fact, the only remotely enjoyable moment during this movie is from Tom Hardy’s mental conversations with Venom. Hardy is clearly doing his best with the material he’s given, and he manages to extract somewhat amusing campiness from the script (he voices both Brock and Venom inside his head). Everyone else in the movie, however, is bland. Michelle Williams’s character (Brock’s ex-fiancée) is utterly inconsequential. It is clear she was phoning it in the whole time, and Riz Ahmed is neither imposing nor frightening enough to sell his evil businessman character.
Don’t see this movie at the theater. Its campy, fun moments are not worth the confusion that pervades the plot. Watch Blade II if you want a campy comic book movie that seems like it was made in 2002. Sadly, Venom made a strong showing at the box office, so we’re guaranteed to see more movies like this in the Sony Cinematic Universe. We can only hope that Sony doesn’t decide to take back a certain webbed superhero from Marvel so that they can ruin his story by delivering movies of this caliber.