by Patrick Greene
Before I get into the meat (eyes … lungs … pancreas) of this review, I want to be up front about a few things.
My love affair with comics started with a love affair with Venom. When I was eight, I snagged a copy of The Amazing Spider-Man #378 with my allowance money. It was the third issue in the massive awesome-fest that was Maximum Carnage, and it starts with Eddie Brock returning to New York City to team up with Spider-Man to defeat Carnage.
Venom wasn’t supposed to be a hero. We all know the story by this point: Spidey comes back from Secret Wars wearing a crazy badass black symbiote. He realizes the suit is a) alive and b) not exactly trustworthy and ditches it with help from the Fantastic Four, whereupon Eddie Brock, disgraced reporter (and ex-Peter Parker colleague), encounters it during a dark night of the soul. United in their hatred for Spider-Man and Peter Parker, the two outcasts merge together and become almost unstoppably powerful.
But things start to change during the Maximum Carnage-palooza, and suddenly Spider-Man and Venom are reluctant allies. Venom starts moonlighting as a vigilante. He gets his own limited series, which I absolutely love and upon which the film is loosely based, titled Lethal Protector. Venom becomes a (ruthlessly violent and sadistic) champion of the downtrodden and disenfranchised. And before you know it, Venom goes from villain to antihero to straight-up hero. But a hero who still looks like a monster and has no problem gleefully disemboweling bad people.
At the heart of all this is something very simple and very important: Venom is, and always has been, a love story. Eddie Brock and the Venom symbiote are two rejects who found each other across vast reaches of space and realized they were soulmates. The best Venom stories have always put that relationship front and center (including the wonderful First Host limited series by Mike Costa and the ongoing horrifying/beautiful/insane rebooted series helmed by Donny Cates).
And this humble Venom fan is happy to say that Sony’s Venom absolutely nails that love story.
Directed by Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland) and starring Tom Hardy (Mad Max: Fury Road), Venom is the first installment in “Sony’s Marvel Universe.” To be completely honest, I don’t really have any idea what that means at this point—I know Sony is creating a shared universe for its Marvel properties to inhabit that runs parallel to the juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and that the thoroughly delightful Spider-Man: Homecoming is in a liminal third category wherein Spider-Man is part of the MCU but also still owned by Sony, so he could theoretically appear in an upcoming Venom sequel (or this Venom could appear in a future Spider-Man film).
I don't know, it’s complicated.
This was something of a source of stress in the Spider-Man/Venom fan communities leading up to the release. The lack of a chest symbol, the absence of apparent ties to the world of Homecoming, confusion over the symbiote’s origins, etc. were all discussed ad nauseam. Then there was the trailer where Jenny Slate’s Dr. Dora Skirth says “sym-BAI-ote.” Then the news that the expected “R” rating was dropped to “PG-13.” Then the Tom Hardy interview where he says his favorite 40 minutes were cut from the film. Then the bizarre controversy with A Star Is Born. Then the alarming Rotten Tomatoes score. Then the doomsday prophesiers announcing the film would have to gross a highly-unlikely $200 million to turn any sort of profit.
And then we saw the movie. And it was absolutely wonderful.
I don’t normally deviate from critics’ scores as much as I have on this one, so part of me wonders if my love for this movie stems from the experience of being a Venom fan since my childhood. It’s possible that I’m overlooking serious cinematic flaws because some fundamental things were done so right. But you know what? I’m not a professional movie critic, and I’m going to be subjective as hell. So buckle up.
It’s impossible to talk about this film without talking about Tom Hardy. He just completely owns this thing from top to bottom. His portrayal of Eddie Brock is crazy. I mean that in the best possible way. I have no idea how he came up with this characterization. He’s so full of tics and idiosyncrasies that you just can’t take your eyes off of him; yet he’s such a gifted actor—and has such insight into who Eddie really is—that you never lose sight of the actual character underneath. Even before things turn to shit, he is just a complete mess. Shuffling around with slumped shoulders, mumbling with a genuinely strange accent, stop-starting every time he tries to string a thought together. And yet these qualities make him a brilliant investigative journalist. He’s able to become unassuming. He comes across like a child. You don’t notice his intellect or his athleticism. And then, when the moment is right, he pounces.
But Eddie’s got some pretty deep character flaws. He’s not a bad person—his Lethal Protector arc, the one that basically redefined him as a hero in the nineties, hinges on him saving a community of homeless people—but he’s not always a great one. He wants to do the right thing, but he can’t always figure out how to.
But after the shit hits the fan, Hardy’s performance goes from a ten into This Is Spinal Tap 11. It is just bonkers. And so much fun. I don’t want to give much away, but I’ll say that I’ll never look at tater tots the same way again.
The rest of cast is largely set-dressing, but it’s not their fault. And it’s also not a problem. This is Eddie’s story, and Eddie’s story has never really been about other people. Eddie sucks with people. Eddie makes the wrong decisions. He’s divorced. He can’t keep a job.
Eddie’s story is about his relationship with the symbiote.
And in Venom, the symbiote is PITCH-PERFECT. By turns hilarious and utterly menacing, the Venom symbiote shines as its own complex, flawed character. We understand why Eddie falls in love with it. It’s not just a monster costume; it’s an animal. An animal stranded on the wrong planet who is literally just a sentient puddle in the absence of a host. And in Eddie, he finds the perfect partner. They are mirrors of each other—two failures who come together to become something special. Hardy’s vocal performance as the symbiote is wonderful: even with all the garbled (but very effective) processing, he brings out layers of depth in the character.
Think for a second about how impressive that is. He is playing an alien parasite communicating internally with himself. And in the midst of that, the parasite manages to be both reminiscent of Eddie (since he’s bonded to him, after all) and yet its own entity. The symbiote’s booming lines are just fantastic. You’ll remember them after you leave the theater.
But to touch on the rest of the cast: Michelle Williams (My Week with Marilyn) plays Anne Weying (who goes on to become She-Venom in the comics), Eddie’s ex-fiancee (ex-wife in the comics); Riz Ahmed (Rogue One) plays Carlton Drake, CEO of the Life Foundation and basically this universe’s Thanos; and then there are a bunch of other people doing some things.
No one’s bad. Williams and Ahmed do fine jobs in their roles, even if the roles themselves are a little dopey. They’re both committed, and they both bring out the best in the material. But again, the material makes no illusions that it’s about anyone but Eddie.
And I think if you aren’t watching the movie through that lens, you’ll be a bit let down.
Fleischer turned out to be a great fit as a director. There’s a difficult tonal balance you have to pull off with Venom to make the character work: you have to set up a paradigm in which your hero gleefully bites the heads off security personnel and the audience laughs and recoils and still likes him. That’s genuinely tough.
And for the most part, Fleischer walks that tonal tightrope and succeeds. There are some pacing issues: the beginning is a little slow-fast-slow, and the climax comes and goes a bit quickly. In a movie about Venom, you need to really understand Eddie first—and if you don’t like Eddie, you will probably hate the first third of the movie. But if you’re open to embracing him as a distinct (and distinctly weird) character, by the time he joins up with the symbiote it’s just a tremendously gratifying thrill ride all the way to the end.
Matthew Libatique (Black Swan), best known for his (incredible) collaborations with Darren Aronofsky, shot the film; Ludwig Göransson (Black Panther) scored it. Both turn in solid—if perhaps a little underwhelming—work here. Venom’s theme is pretty freakin’ badass, though, and I look forward to hearing more of it if they manage to get a sequel made.
Speaking of which: stay through the credits. Trust me. There are a couple of scenes back there, and both will make you squeal with joy if you’re a Spidey fan.
Again, critical reviews of the film have been largely awful. I honestly don’t understand why, but I’m assuming a lot of it has to do with what kind of movie you go in expecting. Is it a horror film? No. Is it a sci-fi thriller? Not really. Is it a super hero movie? I guess it sort of eventually becomes one, but not really. Is it a Deadpool-style comedy? It’s frequently hilarious, but it’s not built around the idea of being self-aware and risqué.
So what is it?
It’s a love story.
Rating: 4 Klyntars (out of 5)