“Venom” — a daunting trudge through haunting sludge

By Cody Willoughby - cwilloughby@aimmediamidwest.com

Provided photo A symbiote reigns terror on nameless baddies in “Venom.”

Provided photo A symbiote reigns terror on nameless baddies in “Venom.”

I couldn’t have been the only one curious as to how Sony would pull off a film about this character.

An early confirmation that Spider-Man wouldn’t be involved cast doubt that the movie could ever be any good, but the hiring of Tom Hardy (!) as the lead and director Ruben Fleischer, of Zombieland fame, ignited hope that the movie could at least be watchable. The project seemed odd through pre-production, due to the constant push-and-pull of public interest it maintained.

With the film’s release, two things are certain: a.) the film certainly is not objectively good, but b.) the film somehow still manages to be somewhat interesting.

“Venom” chronicles the tale of down-and-out investigative journalist Eddie Brock, who in an investigation of the seedy practices of a mysterious foundation, becomes inextricably bound to cosmic symbiote, Venom. While initially seeming like a sinister presence, darker forces cause a relationship between Brock and the symbiote to prevail (not so much for the greater good, but mostly because the story’s got to go somewhere, right?).

Obviously, nailing Tom Hardy to helm this picture was a get that Sony didn’t deserve. Hardy is bigger and grander than this movie, and he feels like it the entire time, outperforming all the other actors AND the special effects team by a wide margin.

The middle 45 minutes of the film, in which Eddie Brock struggles to cope with suddenly being infected by sentient goo, is easily the film’s most entertaining section, due to the bonkers, going-slightly-insane performance Hardy is delivering in every scene (which, in context, is completely appropriate). There are many moments when no visual effects are being used to indicate Venom’s presence, but he feels present anyway due to the symbiote’s manipulation of Eddie Brock’s body, and that’s a testament to Hardy and his physical control as an actor.

It should be emphasized, though, that the rest of this film constantly, in a very tangible way, struggles to keep up with Hardy. The last few years of cinema have presented this actor in “Mad Max,” “The Revenant,” and “Dunkirk,” so “Venom” at this juncture feels a bit below the man’s station.

This relates to another common criticism that emerged from early reviews — Venom feels like a film from 15 years ago.

Few elaborate on that point, but the movie does harken back to a more antiquated time for comic book cinema, before the idea of cinematic universes and connected franchises were ever viably imagined. Considering all that filmgoers have seen, the narrative of “Venom” is extremely isolated — there’s not even a mention of Spider-Man in the film — and easily could’ve been an original script unrelated to comic book source material to the lesser informed viewer.

It doesn’t help that many of the film’s visual effects appear half-heartedly rendered, or that none of the characters in the film, outside of Brock and Venom, are given any interesting goals or arcs to see through. There’s at least half a dozen archetypal supporting characters in this, including a corporate villain and female love interest, but all of them feel like placeholders.

The basic, square-one nature of the script that “Venom” is founded upon feels like it’s borne of a world devoid of comic book movies, or otherwise brand new to it. In 2018, our world is certainly not that. We even get an original song by Eminem in the credits, which is the cherry on the sundae of dated blockbuster fare.

Worst of all, “Venom” is guilty of sinking into a sub-standard, man-against-man boss fight in its third act. Some of the story beats in “Venom” are admittedly unconventional, and therefore engaging, but rather than push those beats toward an equally unconventional (and therefore refreshing) final 30 minutes, the screenwriters opted to simply have Venom fight another Venom, which is disappointing if only because we’ve seen such a climax dozens of times before.

For all these criticisms, “Venom” did have some surprising positive qualities. At a reported $55 million budget (low for a comic book film), “Venom” smartly chooses to focus on the character building of its protagonist(s), and does a mostly clever job at finding ways to show-not-tell. There are many moments done through action that involve Venom’s hunger for live meat, Brock’s fear of heights, Venom’s displeasure with high-frequency sound waves, and the common ground both characters reach in the realization that they’re sort of the same.

“On my planet, I’m a bit of a loser, Eddie — much like you,” Venom says. “But together here, we can be something more.”

I admire that the film treated both Brock and Venom as full-fledged individuals thrown haplessly together against a greater threat. Despite the genre, the film plays very much like a darkly comedic buddy adventure, bearing more similarity to “The Mask” than “Spider-Man.”

The marketing team did the film a disservice by misrepresenting its tone in trailers; the film does have laugh-out-loud moments, and is sporadically humorous. It’s a shame the production team didn’t realize how well those moments would play prior to production, or else the film as a whole might’ve carried that tone with more pinache.

I’d argue that “Venom” displays a decent case for why budgets should actually be lowered on blockbuster films sometimes, because it can force filmmakers to be more resourceful in their creativity and find ways to engage audiences that are as stimulating and less difficult to render than CGI spectacle. Aside from Hardy himself, the dynamic between the two primary characters is the movie’s strongest attribute, and I believe that could easily be the result of ingenuity in the face of limited money.

There are set-ups near the end that tease planned sequels (as there are in seemingly all studio films based upon existing IP these days), but it’s unclear to me how much of that is going to come to fruition. It’s been confirmed that Kevin Feige of the MCU had zero involvement with this film, and Sony has proven in past years they aren’t exactly competent at handling their franchises without assistance from outside sources (which doesn’t just apply to Spider-Man, but also Ghostbusters, Hellboy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, anything involving Adam Sandler, and the list goes on).

Even with some redeeming qualities, “Venom” is not a very confident display of studio-mandated cinema in the long run. It’s a film that maintains momentary entertainment but no lasting impact, because, despite its unique main character, it doesn’t actually have much to say.

My hope is that if Sony chooses to feature Venom moving forward, they do so in the Spider-Man films only, keeping Venom as a foil to heroes as he was always meant to be. As a solo outing, “Venom” is pretty thin, even if the character himself is not, and that’s a cheap trick you can only get away with once.

Provided photo A symbiote reigns terror on nameless baddies in “Venom.”
https://www.tdn-net.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/21/2018/10/web1_Venom1-4.jpgProvided photo A symbiote reigns terror on nameless baddies in “Venom.”

By Cody Willoughby