Back in the summer of 2008, I absorbed all the terrible advance notices that the Wachowskis’ Speed Racer was racking up, saw it on opening night, and was delighted to discover that I loved it. I became somewhat evangelistic about the movie, telling everyone I knew that the cranky critics and indifferent audiences were wrong, seeing it several more times before it disappeared from theaters during what was also the inaugural summer of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Ten years later, the world seems finally to be catching up with Speed Racer, and every time I see another article about how the movie is being rediscovered or how ahead of its time it was I try not to shout, “I told you so!”
Venom is not a movie hill to die on, like Speed Racer (and really, Speed Racer wasn’t one either, even if at the time it kinda felt like it), but you may decide not to see it based on what you’ve heard from the aggregate opinions on Metacritic or Rotten Tomatoes, and if you remember Speed Racer fondly (or insist that it’s a masterpiece, like I do), then passing on this new picture could be a similar mistake. Some of the bad reviews this new Marvel creation has been getting may be due, in part, to simple Marvel/superhero burnout, which admittedly some of us (me) are more inclined to than others. And if Marvel burnout is not understandable, then what would be? But whatever the reason may be, Venom is an odd duck, a rousing, rude, crude, at times flat-out dumb blockbuster that at times feels constrained by the mandate of its PG-13 rating, and one that also feels truncated on the story level, but maintains a perhaps unlikely level of fun nonetheless.
Crusading TV reporter Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) gets wind of sinister goings-on involving a corporation devoted to space exploration that is in fact experimenting with matching alien “symbiotes” to human hosts in order to create the perfect interstellar pioneers. The somewhat reasonable-sounding but inevitably sinister and megalomaniacal company CEO Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed) doesn’t have a problem using societal outliers, like the homeless or the mentally deranged, as his guinea pigs, while the strain of symbiote invaders have a decidedly more Earthly plan of decimation as their ultimate goal. Eddie breaks into the facility one night and ends up merged with a symbiote himself, one who goes by the moniker Venom. (No movie if he doesn’t, folks, so no spoiler alert necessary.) Once symbiotically enhanced, Eddie turns out to be what Drake has been shooting for all along—the perfect human host, a physical and psychological match, one whose organs are not consumed from within by the invader, who can coexist with the symbiote’s unusual strength and transformative powers. It’s an interesting tightrope walk for a Marvel movie to attempt—just how much of Eddie/Venom is hero, and how much villain. Eddie’s main conflict, besides saving Earth, is walking down the street, having a conversation with a deadly creature that no one else can hear and struggling to fend off the desire to bite the heads off innocent bystanders. (The PG-13 disappointingly ensures that things don’t get all Deadpool-graphic in this department.)
The movie at time feels like it’s missing some crucial connective tissue, like it’s been cut down considerably– Tom Hardy has claimed that 40 minutes of his best stuff, presumably character material relating to Eddie and Eddie/Venom, ended up on the cutting room floor, and if that’s true it’s a shame, because Hardy is the main attraction here. On top of his usual magnetism, the versatile actor proves himself to be a limber physical and verbal comedian, and the first 45 minutes or so, before the picture is overtaken by its B-movie CGI aesthetic, are its strongest. But Eddie’s interior monologues when Venom literally gets inside his head are a hoot too, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, and for as clunky as it sometimes is, Venom does the balance between gruesome DC-style darkness and Marvel lightness better than could have ever been expected, given the claims of its worst reviews.
Venom’s story wobbles most when Venom himself does an about-face on the genetic alien imperative to decimate the human race and decides instead to take up resistance against other less sympathetic symbiotes, all on what seems on a dime’s turn, because he sees in Eddie something worth saving in the human race as a whole– perhaps those missing 40 minutes might have shored up this crucial story point as well. But that gap of logic isn’t a deal-breaker. The movie is just too much fun to get hobbled by common sense, and it never makes the mistake of taking itself too seriously, despite dealing in all-too-real planetary consequences and dropping hints of its timely political awareness. (At one point, Drake refers to rumors of nefarious dealings within his organization as “fake news.”)
In addition to Hardy’s playful charm (and that hilariously enhanced Venom voice) and Ahmed’s seductive unctuousness , Venom sports an appealing and surprisingly well-used supporting cast as well. There’s Michelle Williams playing for real in what could have been a dull stand-by-female role as Eddie’s wronged ex-fiancée, a corporate lawyer who ends up as his closest crusading ally; Melora Walters in a small but crucial role as a homeless woman who ends up on Drake’s list of doomed test subjects; and Jenny Slate as a scientist whose moral code causes her to reach out to Eddie and, unfortunately, seal her own fate. Slate, it should be noted, does nothing funny in the movie, leading some to conclude that she’s been wasted in her appearance here. But she’s a good dramatic actress too and, as she was in Hotel Artemis earlier this year, she’s solidly believable, and presuming she didn’t show up on the set for free, she has no more reason than anyone else in the cast to be ashamed about appearing in a somewhat cheesy, completely enjoyable Marvel movie.
And I did enjoy Venom, a lot more, in fact, than something like the overstuffed Avengers: Infinity War, a movie which got much better notices than certainly I thought it deserved. Some critics seemed to defer too easily to that movie’s bloated self-importance, as if to resist the movie, and its fan base, would have been a bridge too far. Biting the head off of Venom’s relatively meager ambitions and its clunkier filmmaking, however, was apparently irresistible. So, don’t listen to the symbiote inside you who may be telling you you’re too good for it. Thanks largely (but not entirely) to Tom Hardy, Venom is a violent, absorbing, even charming hoot. See it, and then perhaps you’ll join me and the rest of the yahoos who were there in force this past Saturday night in the hope of eventually seeing those extra 40 minutes somewhere down the line.