Review by C.J. Bunce
For a movie that had some pretty rough previews, including Tom Hardy as a journalist with some indecipherable dialogue and a scientist who mispronounced a key word in the story, the end result may come as a surprise: Venom is actually a pretty good movie. Do we credit a great post-production and re-shoots, including a complete redo of the strange “symbiote” explanatory scene, or does Sony need to simply work on improving its movie trailers? Frankly all that matters is what made it to the screen. Fans of the comic book anti-hero and villain, of alien invasion movies, of that unique character design from co-creator artist Todd McFarlane, of Tom Hardy, and non-traditional superhero movies, you’ll have to work to find anything wrong with this movie. It’s a good Halloween month monster movie and you don’t need to know anything about the character or Marvel Comics to jump right in. But you just might want to check out the comics after you see it. Like Frank Miller caused Daredevil to become popular, McFarlane made Venom big in the 1980s. Unlike McFarlane’s movie Spawn, an R-rated film that was too dark for mainstream audiences, the PG-13 rating for Venom makes this movie accessible to everyone.
A mix of the classic alien invasion flick, the horrifying McFarlane character look, with the grimy city vibe like the Detroit of Robocop, Venom has elements that make it feel like it belongs in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, regardless of its origin as a Sony film. As for quality and delivery, it falls somewhere above Blade, Iron Man 2 and 3, The Fantastic Four, the Hulk movies, and Spawn, X-Men 3 and X-Men: Apocalypse, and somewhere below Hellboy and Deadpool. For most fans of adaptations of comic books on the big screen, that will be enough. Full of good humor moments, the film doesn’t take itself seriously. We meet the archetype from 80 years of superhero comics with Tom Hardy’s Eddie Brock, an Everyman, a down-and-out guy who can never get a break who gets caught making a few mistakes. Usually this archetype ends up captured by Batman (or insert other superhero here) and thrown into the slammer, but this time he encounters a body shifting alien presence that merges with him, blending the best and worst of both beings. Beginning with a crash landing as a SpaceX-inspired ship returns with some specimens from outer space, we eventually meet four alien beings, the lowliest of rank who calls himself Venom. Merged with Eddie, Venom needs to eat living lifeforms to continue on and he doesn’t grasp the subtleties of only killing bad guys just yet. Audiences will get to watch these aliens, the symbiotes, body-shift through several random characters (like Denzel Washington’s character in the movie Fallen), including the key cast and an animal or two–and it’s mostly great fun.
Venom is probably a rare time audiences will see Michelle Williams in a stock role. Usually every part she takes on results in an Oscar-worthy performance, but it’s nice seeing her do something less dramatic. And she gets some great scenes directly with Venom (including an Easter Egg scene that points straight back to the origin of the character originally discussed between Marvel Comics editor Jim Salicrup and writer/co-creator David Michelinie). This may be Tom Hardy’s best role since Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (where he was the only good thing in the movie), as he at last gets to play a spectrum of emotions and demonstrate a broad acting range. Despite what we heard in the movie trailers, his regional American accent is spot on in the final cut and his dialogue is delivered clearly–none of that crazy speech we saw him bring as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. Not hiding behind make-up or masks as in Mad Max: Fury Road, Dunkirk, or Star Trek: Nemesis, Hardy again proves he’s one of the best actors around. The sound department gets it just right–Hardy’s voice is also the voice transformed into the monstrous, demonic sounding Venom, and it’s unique and effective. No doubt some elaborate work went on behind the scenes for Hardy-as-Eddie to be arguing with Hardy-as-Venom. Some of the best lines, and laugh-out-loud moments come from Venom, reminiscent of Gollum and Sméagol.
Tropes you can check off your scorecard include the shoulder-to-shoulder combat climax between our (anti-)hero and his symbiote Venom vs. an Elon Musk-inspired villain (played by Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’s Riz Ahmed as truly despicable mastermind and his symbiote Riot), nice use of the streets of San Francisco in Hollywood’s latest and greatest street chase scene, a high-rise-based angry publisher boss played by Marvel’s Luke Cage actor Ron Cephas Jones, and some web-slinging, wall-climbing and other Spider-Man parallels that rise well above the original five Marvel Spider-Man movies (including Spider-Man 3’s weaker attempt at bringing Venom to life). The villain’s lair is similar to so many other Stan Lee creations (like exposure to Gamma rays or spider venom), and Ahmed’s baddie is well-conceived but one of those B-level villains that doesn’t outshine the fantasy elements of the story, like Alexander Pierce, Darren Cross, Senator Kelly, Obadiah Stane, Bolivar Trask, or General Ross. Backing all this is an easy to digest comic book story, straight-forward and maybe even simple, it delivers a good introduction for the character with dazzling effects. It’s a new take on a familiar Marvel story, too–two self-proclaimed losers (Eddie and Venom) working together to try to save the world, joining the League of Losers with the Guardians of the Galaxy, Scott Lang, Wade Wilson, and yes, Peter Parker.
Listen for an exciting musical score provided by Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, Creed, Riverdale, and Community composer Ludwig Göransson.
For Woody Harrelson fans who thought he was in this film, take note: He only appears in a mid-credits coda as a set-up for a possible sequel. A final coda includes an extended preview for the holiday release Into the Spider-verse–an animated Spider-Man movie.
If you’re a fan of Hardy or Williams, alien invasion movies, non-traditional superhero stories, Todd McFarlane, or just love the character Venom, this movie is worthy of the character and Marvel Comics, despite its contribution by Sony and not an “official” Marvel Cinematic Universe film.
Venom is in theaters everywhere beginning today.