What’s Up at the Movies: Review of “Venom”

When Marvel comics first created Venom in the 1980s, the liquid-like alien was a kind of living suit for Spider-Man, taking over Peter Parker while he slept to violently fight crime. When the superhero managed to escape Venom’s control, it bonded with Eddie Brock, a disgraced journalist that blamed Spider-Man for destroying his career. Combining the powers of its former host with the boiling hatred of its new one, Venom corrupted the friendly neighborhood hero. Its black and white suit resembles the original, but vicious claws, sharp teeth and a long, curling tongue make it monstrous.

This origin for Venom debuted on screen in 2007’s Spider-Man 3, the bloated conclusion to Sam Raimi’s trilogy that miscast Topher Grace of That 70’s Show fame as the bitter Brock. Since then, Sony has been looking to tap into the character’s full potential with a solo film. They decided to give the whole series a fresh coat of paint with The Amazing Spider-Man in 2012, and they announced an upcoming Venom spin-off in 2013. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 underperformed, however, and Sony jumped ship, sending the young hero off to Marvel Studios (where he has since found massive success). But they continued to dream about his villainous counterpart, and with the release of Venom earlier this month, their vision was finally realized.

Sony’s top priority was clearly the title character itself. By casting Tom Hardy, an actor with proven physical presence, and pouring money into the special effects, the studio avoided the mistakes of their previous attempt — the Eddie Brock-Venom actually looks the way he should. They also gave the alien a voice that growls in Brock’s head, and the biting banter between the two is by far the film’s best feature. The action set pieces are not spectacular, but they get the job done, demonstrating Venom’s abilities in an entertaining way. But the absence of Spider-Man, now part of another studio’s universe, is a major hurdle. Venom’s comic book origin story is no longer accessible, as is the dualism that made the character so compelling in the first place. Sony needed to tweak Venom into something capable of carrying an entire film, eventually an entire franchise.

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The good news is that they succeeded, more or less. Unfortunately, Sony forgot that they have to make a worthwhile film in the first place.

Ten years of development should have produced a better script than this. The film opens with renegade journalist Brock (Hardy) living the good life in San Francisco. He has a nice apartment, a good job and the beautiful, successful lawyer Anne Weying (Michelle Williams) for a fiancé. All is well until Brock questions wealthy genius Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed) about troubling allegations during what was supposed to be a puff piece, and then everything falls apart almost instantly. Brock and Anne, whose firm worked for Drake, are both fired. Fed up with Brock’s need to rebel, Anne dumps him. He also loses that nice apartment. The writers really don’t want you to forget that, for some reason.

After spending only minutes with successful Brock, we’re expected to emotionally react to his abrupt fall. Choppy editing makes it unclear how much time has passed when Brock is shown drinking away his sorrows — I initially assumed it was later that day, but when Brock goes to see Anne again, she has already started another serious relationship. Giving set up for what is already an origin cripples the storytelling, and the movie would have been much better if it had started with Brock already down on his luck. Show-don’t-tell, the basis of all good fiction writing, doesn’t mean staging a mini-tragedy before starting the real story.

The clichéd plot that follows is passable, but the dialogue is unnatural and rushed. The supporting characters are woefully underdeveloped, to the point where quality performers Williams and Ahmed seem wooden and awkward. The two halves of Venom have the most to work with, but their relationship is raced through to get to the quippy stage, when their process of discovery could have been so fascinating. Director Ruben Fleischer is not blameless here — Brock is introduced with a slick montage resembling a social media feed, but nothing similar ever happens again. Thanks to the lead character, the movie entertains, but it is so devoid of creativity that it can only be classified as a major missed opportunity.

WhatsUpRI Rating: 2 out of 5

WhatsUp Ratings Guide
5- Excellent – Don’t miss it
4- Very Good – Well worth your time
3- Good – Solid, but not earthshattering
2- Fair – Not quite ready for prime time
1- Poor – Don’t waste your time or money