REVIEW: Venom [2018]

Score: 6/10 | ★ ★ ½


Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 112 minutes | Release Date: October 5th, 2018 (USA)
Studio: Marvel Entertainment / Columbia Pictures Corporation / Sony Pictures Releasing
Director(s): Ruben Fleischer
Writer(s): Scott Rosenberg & Jeff Pinkner and Kelly Marcel /
Scott Rosenberg & Jeff Pinkner (story) / Todd McFarlane & David Michelinie (comic)

“Have a nice life”

If you really think about it, Venom was never going to be R-rated. I don’t care what director Ruben Fleischer alluded to in an interview before production began or that star Tom Hardy currently believes the best forty minutes of the film were cut. As soon as Sony decided to move ahead with this long-gestating spin-off title despite Spider-Man himself making his way to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (and seemingly rendering it impossible to ever put the two onscreen together), the reality was cemented for Eddie Brock (Hardy) to be sympathetic. Any hope for the character of Venom to seriously be considered as a villain were therefore dashed, its popularity now forced to sustain a necessary transition towards antihero. Like it or not: the studio made its choice.

So while this symbiote does bite a few people’s heads off, the gruesome Todd McFarlane flair is absent. The camera cuts away, the body falls or disappears completely, and Venom retreats back into Brock so the investigative journalist can wear a look of disgust at what “he” just did. It’s this remorse that lends the character a much-needed soul for audiences to get behind potential sequels (if the critical drubbing its taken doesn’t impact the box office). By allowing a relationship of compromise wherein Brock can set ground rules as far as what types of people Venom can eat, this otherwise malicious villain is tamed. The two can bicker like an old married couple, make us laugh, and then go to work for the good of the world.

In this way I genuinely look forward to more installments—especially if more unhinged antics from an actor you already know appears in a mid-credits sequence fulfills his tease. Unfortunately our path towards that inevitability must be paved with laborious exposition rendering the first half of this film a drag. There’s no other way to describe it. Everything is colored in a dour atmosphere of futility wherein the forthcoming villain (known as Riot) body jumps between expression-less actors in Malaysia, Michelle Williams is obviously out of her element trying to sell emotion in a movie that also asks for her to have fun, and Elon Musk stand-in Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed) shifts between pr-ready smiles for children and sociopathic God-complex with homeless “volunteers” in behind-the-scenes experimentations.

Until Brock and Venom merge together around halfway through, the script by Scott Rosenberg and Jeff Pinker with a credited rewrite from Kelly Marcel is woefully by the numbers. Brock’s idealism-warped hero-complex pushes him to cross an ethical line with lawyer fiancée Anne Weying (Williams) in order to confront Drake’s business world criminality despite his editor (Ron Cephas Jones) vehemently demanding a puff piece rather than this star reporter’s penchant for ambushing. In one fell swoop Eddie reveals his selfish ambition while losing the girl and Carlton reveals his ruthless power by blacklisting him from ever working as press again. It should end there, but instead we skip six months to watch this kicked puppy feel depressed until proof of Drake’s monstrousness serendipitously falls in his lap.

I get why the filmmakers make us slog through an hour of this stuff, but it’s wholly unnecessary. They want us to feel for Eddie and all he’s lost. They want us to watch him be humbled by needing Anne’s new boyfriend Dan’s (Reid Scott) help. And they want us to hate Drake more than what the two-dimensional antagonist he’s blatantly drawn as deserves while also allowing his top employee Dr. Dora Skirth (Jenny Slate) the crisis of conscience she foreshadows in the very first scene she’s in. It’s all so overwrought because it’s simply here to feed us what’s already implicit to the characters’ roles themselves. To then shift the tone from this suffocating severity to physical comedy only reveals how self-seriously bloated it was.

It’s too bad because the second half is fun … and not ironically. I truly believe it earns its praise as the verbal slapstick yin and yang we receive the entire time Brock and Venom are merged provides exactly what I wished Upgrade (from earlier this year) had leaned into harder. Hardy shows some expert comedic timing with a full range of expressions, movement, and line readings—assisted by Fleischer’s decision to have the actor record Venom’s dialogue first so that it could be fed to him in the moment for authentic reactions. We’re watching Brock’s fear gradually transform into begrudging acceptance and eventually the full-blown enjoyment of this symbiote’s powers. Fighting Riot becomes superfluous once his schizophrenic pep talks prove enough to keep our attention.

So little actually happens that the dynamic between Brock and Venom becomes crucial to the film’s success. For some (apparently most) that won’t be enough. It was for me. I only wish everyone involved realized that they were stealing a best-selling wheel from much better cars than their own rather than reinventing it. You don’t have to spoon-feed us common tropes ingrained in the superhero genre if you aren’t willing to do anything new with their marriage to plot progression and character motivation. Doing so anyway risks losing your audience because it feels as though you’re talking down to them. Cut out the middleman (Slate’s Skirth) and get Brock and Drake at each other early. Prolonging inevitabilities like that this long with such humorless rigor moves beyond dull.

There was a lot of talk about “horror” and yet the finished product never approaches it. Maybe the tonal shift is therefore a product of leaving those aforementioned forty minutes out. While a little horror would have darkened the ending up, though, what if it’s removal wasn’t actually about a PG-13 rating? What if Hardy’s comically elastic torment made the tonal disparity worse with it? If that’s the case, it’s too bad they couldn’t conversely inject extra laughs into the beginning to match his later mania because the start desperately craves personality. Desperate enough to warrant the derisive mocking the film has received thus far? No. But my enjoying myself doesn’t turn Venom into a winner either. It merely reveals the surprisingly intentional mirth we hope will return.


photography:
[1] Venom (2018) © 2018 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved. **ALL IMAGES ARE PROPERTY OF SONY PICTURES ENTERTAINMENT INC. FOR PROMOTIONAL USE ONLY. SALE, DUPLICATION OR TRANSFER OF THIS MATERIAL IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED.
[2] Tom Hardy and Michelle Williams star in VENOM. PHOTO BY: Frank Masi © 2017 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved. **ALL IMAGES ARE PROPERTY OF SONY PICTURES ENTERTAINMENT INC. FOR PROMOTIONAL USE ONLY. SALE, DUPLICATION OR TRANSFER OF THIS MATERIAL IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED.
[3] Riz Ahmed stars in VENOM. PHOTO BY: Frank Masi © 2018 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved. **ALL IMAGES ARE PROPERTY OF SONY PICTURES ENTERTAINMENT INC. FOR PROMOTIONAL USE ONLY. SALE, DUPLICATION OR TRANSFER OF THIS MATERIAL IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED.

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