As the Batman supervillain Bane in 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises, Tom Hardy hid mostly behind a mask and muddled voice, to mixed reviews at best. So why not try another comic book baddie and get above-the-title billing this time? Jumping from the DC world to Venom, an attempt by Sony to launch its brand of characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Hardy takes on conflicted soul Eddie Brock, a San Francisco-based investigative reporter who meets his alter ego when a gooey alien lifeform successfully invades his body and creates Venom, a yin to his yang and partner in crime and grime.
As I say in my video review above, Venom turned up before in 2007’s Spider Man 3, with Topher Grace taking up the villainous role, though it didn’t make a huge impression. This time it’s an all-out attempt to make a darker Marvel character the center of his own film, superheroics be damned. I didn’t find this take on Venom all that evil, and in fact it comes off more as a comedy act between Brock and Venom, who barks instructions and offers advice from the inside once the film hits its groove.
It all starts with a rocket crash-landing in Malaysia that carries a creepy goo alien that soon becomes the subject of experiments in the Marin County lab of Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed). He’s a tech genius with ambitious plans to merge aliens and humans to create a sort of super form of intelligence, or so it seems. Brock loses his TV job after a disastrous interview in which he insults Drake on the air, sending the complicated reporter on a downward spiral. He does have a plan to expose Drake’s operation with the help of an inside source (Jenny Slate), who gives him the secret info and confirmation of these experiments that start with rabbits but leads to failed attempts with human guinea pigs who die in the process. But Brock is the one who connects with his inner alien, and it’s off to the races as he tries to stop all of this before it’s too late.
In some odd ways I kept thinking of the 1980s Steve Martin comedy All of Me, in which the personality of Lily Tomlin’s character is ingested into Martin’s body, controlling his every movement. That was a different premise, of course, but there are echoes of it here as Brock/Venom almost becomes its own comedy act. In order to make this all palatable to audiences, Brock insists that the ugly Venom resist many of his worst impulses and only emerge to bite off heads of bad people, not good. In that sense this film, directed by Ruben Fleischer and penned by a gaggle of screenwriters, is trying to have it both ways by putting a so-called villain as its star but making him a force against evil, or at least his definition of it. It’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde-lite.
This largely is Hardy’s show and he’s amusing as far as it goes, but he’s stuck in minor Marvel here — a movie that can’t settle on the right tone. Michelle Williams turns up as his fiancée but soon becomes his ex-fiancée when she accuses him of costing her a job. She’s underused, as are Slate and even Ahmed, who has to stand in as the actual villain of the piece. Special effects are excellent as you might expect, and if you are wondering when the credited appearance of Woody Harrelson happens, you will have to wait until a third of the way through the end credits. A sequel obviously is being set up here, but I won’t offer more in the way of spoilers. Stick around until the very end for an extended preview of Sony’s animated holiday attraction Spider-Man: Into the Spider Verse. That looks very cool.
Producers on Venom are Avi Arad, Matt Tolmach and Amy Pascal. Stan Lee is an executive producer and has a larger cameo this time around to continue the tradition of Lee sightings in these movies. Sony opens the Columbia Pictures release Friday.
Do you plan to see Venom? Let us know what you think.