“Look around at the world. What do you see? A planet on the brink of collapse. Human beings are disposable. But man and symbiote combined, this is a new race, a new species… a higher lifeform.” ~ Carlton Drake
“You have no idea how much you’re scaring me right now.” ~ Anne Weying
“We cannot just hurt people.” ~ Eddie Brock
“Look in my eyes, Eddie. The way I see it… we can do whatever we want.” ~ Venom
Venom is a long standing character in the Marvel comics universe, an antagonist to Spider-Man turned something of an antihero with a very convoluted history. A combination of human host and alien symbiote, the character is a darker sort, given to brain eating (but not in the zombie sort of way) and mass mayhem, but still possessing a distorted kind of ethical code. The character has turned up before on the big screen, as played by Topher Grace (a bad casting choice) in Sam Raimi’s final part of his original trilogy. Now the character turns up in a solo origin film in theatres, with Tom Hardy taking the role and bringing it in a different direction.
A bioengineering corporation is exploring space, discovering and capturing four symbiotic life forms and bringing them back to earth. One of them escapes in transit, causing a crash, but the company retrieves the other three. Its head, Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), has obsessions about the impending collapse of humanity and the ecosystem, plans for the symbiotes, and little in the way of scruples about what he does to achieve his aims. Eddie Brock (Hardy) is an investigative journalist looking into his operations and balancing a life with his girlfriend Anne Weying (Michelle Williams), who happens to be an attorney affiliated with Drake’s company. Events ensue that throw Brock’s life into mayhem, including being infested with one of the symbiotes, which includes superhuman powers.
Adapting Venom to the movies has been in the works for a long time, dating all the way back to 1997. The character in the comics has roots into the mid-eighties, fully established late in that decade, and turned out to be so popular that writers started shifting his perspective to give him more of a sympathetic stance. The character finally did make it onto the big screen in Spider-Man 3, which while visually speaking got the character generally right, did not work, as the script was heavily problematic and Topher Grace was miscast in the role. With Spider-Man finally in the Marvel cinematic universe proper, something of a sharing relationship between Sony and Marvel Studios, a decision was made to develop other films based on characters of the Spider-verse that could be left to their own devices. The result is a standalone film that doesn’t need to tie into the Marvel cinematic universe. Whether or not it does is something left to the viewer to decide, but there aren’t references or asides to the MCU.
The script and story are credited to three writers- Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg, and Kelly Marcel, establishing the character’s origins in a way that’s different from the comics universe, where the symbiote was first thought to be a responds to thought new costume for Spidey before it was revealed to be something alive. Its alien origins are still preserved in the film, and multiple small touches of Venom’s comics history make it to the story- the relationship with Anne, other symbiotes, Eddie’s general personality and sense of fair play, and the Jekyll and Hide back and forth between symbiote and host all feel familiar to those with a sense of the comic book history. The weakness in the script, however, tends to fall in its tone- there are times the film can’t decide if it’s a horror film (symbiotes biting the heads off of people would qualify) or a bizarre sort of buddy comedy.
Ruben Fleischer directs the film, and he has an eclectic list of films already to his name. His debut was the zombie comedy mashup Zombieland (Woody Harrelson, who starred in that film, has a key cameo in this film). He followed that up with the black comedy 30 Minutes Or Less before moving into the gangsters and cops crime drama Gangster Squad. The eclectic nature of his resume continues now with the superhero genre. He paces the film fairly well- it doesn’t seem to drag. And he knows how to stage the frantic energy of an action sequence, keeping the audience in the mix of things without being overwhelmed.
There’s a fair bit of CGI involved in this- the way symbiotes behave, for instance, body jumping or sliding on or off their hosts for a bit of a direct conversation, for instance, is heavily CGI, and much of what we see of them is more CGI than motion capture performance. And yet the CGI doesn’t feel artificial, but blends into the real. The look of Venom mostly fits what you’d expect out of the comics, the menacing bulk of black and white with a long tongue. That also applies to other symbiotes seen along the way- mostly seen in a symbiote referring to itself as Riot.
Riz Ahmed came to the attention of many filmgoers with his role as Bodhi Rook, one of the band of misfits in the Star Wars tie in Rogue One. His character this time out is much less sympathetic, a corporate tycoon who’s one of those ends justifies the means sort of guys. He thinks humanity’s pretty much backed itself into a corner and that the only means of salvation is something that happens to come from beyond the solar system. And he doesn’t care about the methods he has to use to achieve those goals, nor realize the full truth of what the symbiotes are. The role gives the actor a chance to thoroughly chew the scenery- even literally before it’s all said and done.
By whatever chance, I have never seen Michelle Williams act. I wasn’t into Dawson’s Creek, her breakout as a television actor, and I just haven’t seen any of the various acclaimed movies she’s been in. So this was an introduction for me to her as an actor. Anne Weying is someone of divided loyalties as the story plays out- initially a love interest who happens to work as a lawyer for the guy who turns out to be the big bad of the story. That changes as the story goes along, and while she plays the role sympathetically and with spirit, the part is more or less underwritten, a fault of the screenplay and not the actress.
Tom Hardy is an actor with an eclectic background and a lot of talent- unlike the first actor to bring Venom to the big screen. Topher Grace has generally been on the shallow side of talent as an actor, and his take on the character in Spider-Man 3 felt completely off. Here Hardy moves into his second comic book character (after playing Bane in The Dark Knight Rises) and gives the character an appropriate tone in how he plays him. Eddie is determined, occasionally given to making rash decisions and mistakes, but has a moral code- one that has a positive effect on his symbiote. Hardy also voices the symbiote itself in cross conversations between the two, creating a distinctly different tone in that vocal performance from Eddie. I like Hardy’s take on the character (in part out of respect for the actor and in part because his take is so much better than Topher’s, and what kind of name is Topher?), and want to see him in the role again.
Venom takes a character familiar to comics readers and gives him a chance to shine on the big screen. It’s largely successful in doing so- the inconsistent tone and the underwriting of a major character aside- and it gives an antihero rising to the occasion the right touch as it goes along. It’s not as violent as it could be- imagine this with an R rating- but it entertains as it goes along, establishing a place for itself as a different kind of comic book adaptation.