“Venom” is a Symbiotic Mess

Venom

I can say with some degree of certainty that Venom is not the worst Marvel film of the decade.

It’s not as labored and boring as Thor: The Dark World, or as bloated and pretentious as X-Men: Apocalypse. And while I’ve never worked up the nerve to watch Fant4stic, multiple folks have assured me that it’s a film worth avoiding.

So no, Venom is not the worst Marvel film of the decade. It may, however, be the most haplessly confused.

Directed by Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland), Venom centers on Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy), a down-and-out reporter who stumbles upon a series of secret lab experiments conducted on a species of formless alien blobs, or “symbiotes.” One such symbiote bonds with Brock, turning him into a hulking black mass with a dripping tongue and a razor-toothed smile – the super-non-hero called Venom. Brock must learn to keep the alien within him under control, all while reconciling with his fiancée (Michelle Williams) and battling the sinister mind behind the symbiote project (Riz Ahmed).

The broader points of Brock and Venom will be known to anyone familiar with the comics, or with Sony’s last attempt at bringing them to the big screen (the woefully inept Spider-Man 3). But other details have been mixed and matched and reinvented for this film, largely out of necessity. Having sold the Spider-Man rights to Marvel Studios in 2015, Sony still retains many alums of the web-slinger’s rogues’ gallery. But origins like Venom’s must now be rewritten to scrub away any trace of the Spider.

And that brings up the first problem: Can a character like Venom convincingly support an entire film? The character is not a “good guy” in any traditional sense (even as recent comics have tried to redeem him, to mixed effect). We’re talking about a character who’s totally fine with biting off the heads of those who oppose him. That’s a tough sell on a general, non-comics-bred audience.

The producers of Venom seem to recognize this issue, although they’re not entirely sure how to reconcile it. While the film portrays Venom’s human-flesh appetite as dark and disturbing, it tries to alleviate the tension by giving him a series of goofy one-liners, all delivered in the character’s sinister, gravelly voice (also supplied by Hardy). Have you ever wanted to hear an eight-foot, flesh-eating alien monster refer to itself as a “loser”? Have I got the film for you.

The tonal inconsistencies are nothing short of jarring, particularly when compared to more successful MCU efforts. Films like Guardians of the Galaxy and Spider-Man: Homecoming did an excellent job of balancing character drama with laugh-out-loud comedy; Venom toggles uneasily between the two modes, never striking a comfortable balance.

But perhaps some tonal inconsistencies could be forgiven if Venom featured a coherent story. Alas, the film is more interested in setting up future films than focusing on the here and now. The symbiotes are not given much of an explanation or backstory, but the film indicates that the inevitable sequel will take care of that front. (There’s also a mid-credits scene featuring a “surprise cameo” that anyone familiar with Venom lore will see coming a mile away.) The time that should be used to build and develop character is instead used for long, loud action sequences, as well as multiple head-bitings (offscreen, but just barely).

So Venom lurches formulaically from one plot point to the next, as if controlled by a screenwriting symbiote of its own. Brock and Venom eventually learn to work together, simply because the script says so. Michelle Williams pops up only when the film needs her, and apart from one intriguing scene, she remains stuck in “worried girlfriend” mode. The climax is essentially a battle between two CGI effects, as emotionally investing as a Transformers film.

And yet despite all of this, it’s hard to say I actively disliked Venom. Sure, the film is a mess. But it’s at times a captivating mess, the sort of slapdash hodgepodge I’ve come to associate less with Marvel than the DCEU. (More than once did Venom’s dim lighting, scattershot story, and chaotic fight scenes drudge up Suicide Squad flashbacks.) We’ve come to see MCU films as reliably entertaining, if not always brilliant. Venom provides an interesting contrast – a film in search of an identity, and largely failing to find it.

No, Venom is not a good film. But as the MCU enters its second decade, it’s almost refreshing to see a new Marvel Universe attempt to take hold of cinema. Sony has already begun work on films centered on Morbius the Living Vampire and Black Cat, with other second-string Spider-Man characters reportedly on the docket. Venom is not an especially promising start to this alternate MCU, but it should be interesting to watch the experiment unfold.

Venom is currently playing in theaters. Parents of younger children should note that the film pushes the limits of its PG-13 label, and its violent content occasionally borders on R-rated territory. You may wish to think twice before letting little Jimmy tag along.

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