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Venom Movie Review

Venom (2018) movie poster Venom

Theatrical Release: October 5, 2018 / Running Time: 112 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Director: Ruben Fleischer / Writers: Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg (screenplay & screen story); Kelly Marcel (screenplay)

Cast: Tom Hardy (Eddie Brock/Venom), Michelle Williams (Anne Weying), Riz Ahmed (Carlton Drake/Riot), Scott Haze (Security Chief Roland Treece), Reid Scott (Dr. Dan Lewis), Jenny Slate (Dr. Dora Skirth), Melora Walters (Homeless Woman Maria), Woody Harrelson (Cletus Kasady), Peggy Lu (Mrs. Chen), Malcolm C. Murray (Lewis Donate), Sope Aluko (Dr. Collins), Wayne Pιrι (Dr. Emerson), Michelle Lee (Malaysia EMT/Riot Host)


It looks so easy. Marvel Studios makes two or three superhero movies a year and each is a well-reviewed crowdpleaser that turns a profit. You assume with a big enough budget, you nail the technical aspect of it,
because visual effects people know what they're doing. Then as long as the directors, writers, and cast suit the material (and there's an endless supply of all three that would love to get involved), what could go wrong? Enduring popular comic book characters, action sequences, jokes, conflict, resolution, long credits scroll, and teases of what is to come. When done right, these movies can make upwards of a billion dollars worldwide and that kind of money, with the prospect of more, would inspire anyone to do their job and do it well. The range on the Marvel Cinematic Universe's twenty and counting movies only ranges from "pretty good" to "really good", so it seems almost more of a science than art at this point.

But, still it can go wrong and outside of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, superhero movies have gone plenty wrong before. Ghost Rider. Daredevil. Justice League.

Until now, Spider-Man's universe has largely avoided a misstep. You can give Sam Raimi's original 2002 film some credit for the ongoing superhero movie renaissance we're still experiencing. Yes, Blade and X-Men were active franchises then, and Batman was on what now seems like a short hiatus between Joel Schumacher's Batman & Robin and Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy. But Spider-Man took the genre to new heights commercially with a domestic gross that only eight films over the past sixteen years have surpassed adjusting for inflation. It put Sony on the superhero movie map. It's no overstatement to say that Raimi's movie was a landmark for the studio; until Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle crept past it by less than a million dollars last winter, the original Spider-Man stood as Sony's top-grossing movie domestically, without adjusting for inflation.

The studio has made five other theatrically released Spider-Man films in the years since: two more Raimi sequels, the hasty Amazing Spider-Man reboot and sequel, and last summer's enjoyable Spider-Man: Homecoming. People crap on Spider-Man 3 and the two (not so) Amazing efforts directed by Marc Webb and starring Andrew Garfield. But none of those three nor the other three Spider-Man movies has ever felt like a trainwreck.

It's a little bit of a stretch to say that Venom does, but it certainly is the weakest film to emerge from Spider-Man's universe. On the up side, Spidey doesn't really get dragged through this. There's no mention of him and no appearance by him, until the end credits' savvy/shameless plug for the upcoming animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is prefaced by "Meanwhile, in another universe...". Unlike Homecoming, this doesn't earn Marvel Cinematic Universe classification. So even though it sets up a sequel with its first end credits tease, this will probably stand as a one-and-done enterprise, with cast and crew moving on. But before we dwell on this apparent death, let us reflect on how it came about so suddenly and rather surprisingly.

Disgraced former investigative journalist Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) finds himself still clashing with wealthy, powerful, unethical Life Foundation CEO Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed) in "Venom."

Venom opens with a spaceship crash in Malaysia that involves the transfer of four extraterrestrial symbiote lifeforms. The symbiotes are headed to a San Francisco bioengineering corporation named The Life Foundation. Its forward-thinking CEO Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed) envisions a future where the symbiotes are the key to human survival outside of our apparently dying planet. Drake has foresight, but not many scruples and his company's scientific advances come at the expense of poor people they lure into signing up for dangerous clinical tests.

When our protagonist, stubbled Oakland-based investigative television journalist Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy), questions Drake about his ethics, his interview is brought to a sudden end. Brock soon loses his job, his fiancιe, lawyer Anne Weying (Michelle Williams), and his home. Brock has nothing left to lose when he is approached in a convenience store by
Dr. Dora Skirth (Jenny Slate), one of Drake's most trusted and most disgusted colleagues. Dr. Skirth sneaks Brock into her workplace, where he confirms that Drake is indeed testing out volatile extraterrestrial organisms on destitute human beings, including Brock's homeless acquaintance (Melora Walters).

In trying to help an escape, Brock ends up getting linked with the symbiote. Suddenly he has an insatiable appetite for all kinds of food. He also has a dark voice talking to him from within (also Hardy, with some modifications). With this apparent parasite inside him, Brock can run fast, climb high, dodge bullets, and avoid danger, even when he is outnumbered by a lot. Sometimes, the symbiote will just take over some of his limbs. Other times, they take over Brock's whole body, transforming him into this frightening, toothy, predominantly black creature (who looks a bit like a deranged dark Spider-Man, but let's not go there).

While Brock tries to get acclimated to his new existence, with help from Anne and her new doctor boyfriend (Reid Scott, "Veep"), and also thwart Drake's evil plans, Drake tries to see his plans through and eliminate Brock.

When the alien symbiote takes over, Eddie Brock becomes the freaky looking Venom.

There is a distinct lack of complexity and intrigue to this outing, which spares us the standard Venom origin story, one of several threads explored in Spider-Man 3, but doesn't come up with anything too interesting in its place.

Hardy is an actor whose instincts you trust. Since he became familiar to the masses via Christopher Nolan's Inception (2010), he has mostly chosen projects of substance and worth. This Means War was simply a mindless paycheck, but beyond that, he's twice reunited with Nolan and worked with other directors and actors who seem passionate about their craft. You kind of assumed this casting was all Venom needed for respectability, the way that Ant-Man couldn't possibly be all bad with Paul Rudd playing the character. But Venom isn't particularly respectable and Hardy seems as much to blame as anyone else. His performance isn't relatable or charming or heroic. He's a conscientious journalist who loses everything and then gets saddled with a bloodthirsty alien organism taking control of his body. When you put it like that, why was this movie ever made?

Hardy never seems fully at ease in the role. Unlike many of his recent credits, his face is not being covered by anything and his voice (an iffy adopted New York accent) is not obscured. And while he is believable enough at occupying some moral grey area, he doesn't elevate the film's action, drama, or comedy to the heights he is supposed to.

Williams is one of the best actors of her age group and it's kind of surprising she hasn't really done this kind of movie before (the closest she came was Disney's Oz the Great and Powerful). It's another instance where her presence should function as some kind of blanket of security; this is a major movie with talented Oscar-nominated actors! But she never looks comfortable with the underwhelming material that is clearly beneath her. Her closing scene, which begins with a clumsy off-camera line suggesting some kind of last-ditch post-production patching, sets up a future for her character with all the conviction of an empty promise made by someone who has no intention of ever seeing you again.

Although Marvel's consistently entertaining signature movies rarely have villains who make a huge lasting impression on you, the Spider-Man films have been pretty strong on this front, from Willem Dafoe's Green Goblin and Alfred Molina's Doc Ock to Michael Keaton's Vulture and even Jamie Foxx's Electro. Ahmed is a good actor, whose presence and energy is not that of a standard issue antagonist. But his material is among the film's worst and that keeps any stakes or serious threat from lurking over the proceedings. No character outside of those three gets enough time to make an impact. Slate's doctor comes close, but disappears soon.

Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) finds his life in danger, but his new symbiote parasite protects him against armed assailants led by security chief Roalnd Treece (Scott Haze).

With superhero movies, there is a tendency to be overdramatic in assessment.
Avengers: Infinity War still bizarrely stands in the all-time Top 50 on IMDb. When critics thoroughly trashed Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad, fans insisted there had to be some far-reaching conspiracy against the DC Extended Universe. Sony hasn't helped matters by scheduling critics' screenings a mere 24 hours before the movie opens, a move that's almost as big of a red flag as not screening at all for critics. We've already seen overreaction, namely in hyperbolic copy-and-paste tweets that supposedly are the work of Lady Gaga fans wanting A Star Is Born to succeed when the two open at the same time.

I'm trying to avoid the extremes that might make this review more click-baity, but even in measured, level-headed reflection, I have to confess there aren't a lot of superhero movies that I have enjoyed less than this one. Not any of the Fantastic Four movies (okay, the Corman one is way more terrible but that barely counts). It's not as offensive and bland as Justice League or as ludicrous as the two uniquely bad Ghost Rider episodes. Judged against new major studio movies as a whole, it's far from the worst thing out there. But following past triumphs both at Sony and Marvel makes the shortcomings glaring, as does the fact that this arrives at a time when the year's awards contenders are opening.

I would be remiss if I didn't acknowledge other people responsible for Venom falling short. Director Ruben Fleischer made one of last decade's best movies in Zombieland, but he's now followed it up with three disappointments in 30 Minutes or Less, Gangster Squad, and this. Story and screenplay are credited to Jeff Pinkner and Scott Rosenberg, who collaborated on last year's aforementioned Jumanji sequel and whose separate credits include Amazing Spider-Man 2, The 5th Wave, The Dark Tower, Con Air, Gone in Sixty Seconds, and Kangaroo Jack. Kelly Marcel (Saving Mr. Banks) also gets a screenplay nod, though I would bet she is less culpable.

I suspect Venom opens big, fades fast, gets declared a failure and then finds itself metaphorically erased from any canon, like The Incredible Hulk but to a greater degree. Sony will revisit the character, or Disney will should they hand over the reins. But I suspect that the only time we ever see Woody Harrelson play Carnage is in the mid-credits scene here.

Related Reviews:
Directed by Ruben Fleischer: Zombieland • 30 Minutes or Less • Gangster Squad
Spider-Man • Spider-Man 2 • Spider-Man 3 • The Amazing Spider-Man • The Amazing Spider-Man 2 • Spider-Man: Homecoming
From the Writers: The Fifth Wave • The Dark Tower • Saving Mr. Banks
Now in Theaters: Bad Times at the El Royale • The Old Man & the Gun • The Predator • The Sisters Brothers • White Boy Rick
Justice League • Fantastic Four (2015) • Ghost Rider • Suicide Squad
Tom Hardy: The Dark Knight Rises • Dunkirk • The Drop • Lawless • Mad Max: Fury Road • The Revenant
Michelle Williams: Oz the Great and Powerful • Manchester by the Sea | Riz Ahmed: Nightcrawler • Rogue One: A Star Wars Story • Jason Bourne

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Reviewed October 4, 2018.

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