Venom is a notable part of Marvel’s Spider-Man universe, acting as both a part of the web-swinger’s rogue’s gallery and an occasional anti-hero. Comprised of an alien “symbiote” that needs a host to achieve a full physical form, Venom initially bonded with Peter Parker (aka Spider-Man) before finding Parker’s enemy Eddie Brock.
Ruben Fleischer’s 2018 Venom has plenty of alien symbiotes bonding with hosts. It has an Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy), the rueful journalist hungry to bring down the corrupt Life Foundation. But beyond that, it is difficult to tell that the film exists in the same universe as Spider-Man. As someone with a functional knowledge of comic book characters, I could follow the story. However, the average filmgoer unaware of the ins and outs of Marvel (both the comic books and Marvel films as a business arm) could easily watch with tacit confusion as Tom Hardy becomes an inky, gooey monster.
With Sony and Marvel Studios having a complicated contractual agreement involving the Spider-Man IP, it is unsurprising that the film bears no resemblance to the last Spider-Man film. Perhaps because the film is limited by its lack of access to the larger Marvel world, it feels as if the story exists in a tight vacuum. When Venom is rampaging through the streets, San Francisco as a setting is used nicely. Otherwise, the film takes place in a compact research facility or Brock’s apartment.
The stakes of this research facility are somehow simultaneously presented as dire and lacking in larger stakes. Villainous CEO Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed) recovers the symbiotes, somewhat successfully, and quickly forces human trials. Homeless test subjects die rapidly as the symbiotes search for adequate host bodies. Clearly, these alien lifeforms are dangerous, yet the goals of Drake and the symbiote creatures are muddy. When it comes to these forces finally moving outside of the facility, it is confusing as to what the purpose of the climactic action is.
This is particularly true with Venom. The symbiotes want to destroy humanity, and Venom says this to Brock as if they had planned on being involuntarily shipped to Earth via the Life Foundation’s space program. Somehow, Venom learns to empathize with humanity through Brock and decides to try and stop who he describes as the symbiote “team leader,” Riot. This change is never really convincing, as most of the film treats his blatant disregard for human heads, which he loves to munch on, as a morbid joke.
This humor comprises most of the film’s midsection, and it is baffling. This is not to say that it is not funny. But I am not sure whether I laughed with the film or at it. Either way, it does not mesh well with the alleged existential threats that are Carlton Drake and Riot.
Ahmed is given no favors with this cliched antagonist, who is written to constantly be grimacing or flashing devilish grins. He speaks venomously (no pun intended), but his character is flat as a board. Same goes for pretty much every character that surrounds this narrative that doesn’t have a title-character bonded to his physiology. Michelle Williams plays Brock’s ex-fiance, to what end it is not clear. Her character has no personality and little influence on the plot. At one point she kisses Brock. This is the most active her character is allowed to be in the narrative, and it is also one of the grosser depictions of a kiss on screen.
More gross than this, though, is what immediately follows. The climax of the film is the ugliest superhero showdown since Fant4stic. It can best be described as…goopy. Beyond the lack of visual appeal in the effects work—the entire sequence is, more or less, two giant piles of goo ramming into each other—the climactic fight is rapid and not particularly inventive. For those who dislike the superhero movie trope of the hero facing off against a villain with a similar look and power set, this will be infuriating.
More infuriating: the post-credits scene. The film proper may be boring and bland (inexplicably, the plot is paced too frantically and is too exposition-heavy). But the mid-credits stinger is the real insult. The final line of the scene, and thus the final line of the film, is a cringe too far, and it also exemplifies the strangeness that is Venom. The mid-credits scene acts as if this film is the same as any other Marvel movie. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, narratives are tied together using these end bumpers, which link seemingly disparate storylines and get fans excited for what’s coming next.
In Venom, there is no direct connection to the outside universe. The insular story must remain insular, even in its post-credits moment. So it may set up a sequel, but will this sequel come to pass? Will Venom 2 take place in the proper MCU? Or will the slate be wiped clean on this portion of the Spider-Man world, because none of it fits tonally into what is taking place in the other films. Venom as its own standalone franchise could potentially work. But it is more likely that this route will lead to more bland, flat films. It would yield a world where the only thing Eddie Brock could come up against is other symbiotes, most of which look and act similarly to Venom.
The best case scenario would be to cherry-pick Hardy out of this film and plant him into the same Spider-Man universe that houses Tom Holland’s Peter Parker. Hardy is one of the few redeeming qualities here, his grumbling charm somehow able to link the distressing and comic elements of his character’s conundrum. His performance and character could be utilized more effectively as a second fiddle to Spidey a few films down the line.
As the star of its own franchise, Venom has no room to grow. Not as the character is written in Venom. The potentially brutal psychological effect the symbiote has on Brock is rendered a moot point, given how quickly both the human and alien halves are to joke about their bond. But this humor doesn’t function correctly in one film; letting it continue into future films won’t make it any funnier.
Venom houses a stagnant world. That is the bottom line. The sequel-baiting at the end of the film is proof to it, as it is clear a Venom 2 would be essentially the same film, minus the evil corporation. Even if there are moments in Venom where Hardy’s performance makes the character a decently fun one to watch, the film hits a roadblock quickly. Instead of swerving around it, it rams straight into it.
Watch Upgrade for a version of this story that is more fun.
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)