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It's What's Inside That Counts

Tom Hardy
Tom Hardy
Columbia Pictures
 112 Minutes
Directed by: Ruben Fleisher
Starring: Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams   

Before I begin this review, I have a confession, actually, two confessions, to make. I was already predisposed to like the latest Marvel superhero movie, Venom, because it filmed in part in the building where I work (which doubled as the headquarters of the villainous Life Foundation) and because it starred Tom Hardy, one of those actors who always seems to bring out the best in whatever project in which he’s involved. So, my enjoyment of this movie, despite its very evident flaws, may be a bit biased. But, gosh darn it, my building looks great, and the film is a lot of fun once it hits its stride.


The character of Venom is a part of the overall Marvel universe, but whose rights as a Spider-Man character still belong to Sony, although Spidey himself is now under the Disney umbrella. What’s left for Sony may be rather slim pickings, but the studio is determined to make the most of it, envisioning the film version of Venom as the tentpole for its own film universe. To do so, the character required considerable reworking from the version in the comic books, which Topher Grace subsequently played in Spider-Man 3.


In all the various versions of the character, Venom is a symbiote, a parasitic creature resembling a cross between a lump of tar and the Blob. It enters the body of a human host and bonds with it, giving the hybrid organism great strength and other powers but a rotten disposition. In the current movie, a deep space probe returns to earth with four symbiotes that the crew had picked up during the voyage. Three of these symbiotes, including Venom, are taken to the Life Foundation laboratories, where scientists working for the foundation’s CEO, Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), try to bond the symbiotes to various human guinea pigs, homeless people shanghaied by Life Foundation goons. The fourth symbiote escapes from the space probe and occupies a variety of human hosts as it makes its way from Malaysia to the United States.


Like most villainous industrialists in superhero movies, Drake tries to maintain a public image as a benefactor of humanity, so he grants an interview to investigative reporter Eddie Brock (Hardy). Eddie knows that Drake is involved in shady dealings because the reporter was able to look at secret files on the computer belonging to his girlfriend, Anne Weying (Michelle Williams), one of Drake’s attorneys. Eddie’s interview doesn’t go well, he is kicked out of the Life offices (right around the corner from my own office), and, subsequently, he and Anne both lose their jobs and she dumps him.


Later, Eddie gets a second chance of sorts when one of Drake’s scientists, Dr. Skirth (an underutilized Jenny Slate) blows the whistle on the foundation and helps Eddie break into the labs at night to gather evidence against Drake. Unfortunately, Eddie winds up in the same laboratory with Venom, which then takes over his body. Eddie flees the lab, but Drake orders his goons to follow and capture Eddie. Except… it’s not really Drake doing the ordering; it’s the fourth symbiote, Riot, which arrived at the Life labs just in time to bond with Drake.


The plot of the first half of Venom, as recounted above, sounds much like a lot of superhero origin stories, with a lot of backstory before the action really kicks into gear. The only really interesting aspect of this part of the film is the character of Eddie, as interpreted by Hardy. He’s a screw-up, a loser, and a whiner, who might be insufferable but for the fact that Hardy imbues Eddie with a sort of scruffy, puppy-dog charm. That characterization sets the stage perfectly for the more entertaining second half of Venom.


What Eddie soon discovers is that the symbiote inside him is wreaking all sorts of havoc on his body, giving him cravings for rotting food from the garbage and frozen tater tots. The symbiote also talks to Eddie, in a deep, internal voice (also supplied by Hardy). And, when Drake’s goons show up in the clip below, the results are rather brutal, even as Eddie struggles to regain control of his body.


The relationship between Eddie and Venom is the highlight of the movie. The two start out as enemies battling over the “territory” of Eddie’s body, but they gradually become friends of sorts, with Venom offering relationship advice to Eddie, while the increasingly frazzled Eddie tries to keep Venom (who has about 100 razor-sharp teeth when he emerges) from biting people’s heads off. Needless to say, this sort of material could become completely silly very easily, but Hardy and director Ruben Fleischer (best known for a similarly offbeat film, Zombieland) drop enough hints to let the audience know that they are in on the joke.


Tom Hardy’s performance in Venom brought to mind his recent work on the British Peaky Blinders TV series. His Jewish gangster character there verged on caricature, but Hardy managed to play most of his scenes with his usual intensity, but also as if he were subtly letting the audience in on the fact that he knew how ridiculous his character might appear but was going along with it. Playing opposite the far more serious Cillian Murphy, Hardy’s scenes worked perfectly (and he was one of the most popular actors on the show). Here too, from the first, he appears to be having a lot of fun with the role while not wholly going overboard as Ryan Reynolds often does in Deadpool.


Viewed as a traditional superhero action film, Venom is only marginally competent. The movie’s major set piece is a lengthy car and motorcycle chase through the streets of San Francisco (which actually were often the streets of Atlanta), during which Venom helps Eddie elude capture by emerging from Eddie’s body frequently to wreak havoc on the various bad guys. This scene is nowhere near as effective as was a recent similar one in Ant-Man and the Wasp, which incorporated its CGI work far more effectively. And the final showdown between Venom and the other symbiote, Riot, just isn’t very exciting. Ruben Fleischer is just not that effective an action director.


Still, enough scenes work in Venom so that the film is often a lot of fun to watch, despite the slow start and merely passable superhero action. Needing a character they could build a franchise and, essentially an offshoot Marvel universe around, the producers realized that the type of creature seen in Spider-Man 3 just wouldn’t work. Instead, they figured out a way to keep Eddie sympathetic and, when combined with his Venom symbiote, powerful enough to make a likable antihero. And since the inevitable sequel will be freed from the origin backstory baggage that slowed down the current movie (and features Woody Harrelson as a villain as well), the prospects for an entertaining series are quite bright. Venom isn’t the best Marvel movie out there, but it probably makes the most effective use of its source material and unleashes Tom Hardy in a perfect role as well.

In this clip, Tom Hardy and his "guest" defend themselves from some people who want to abduct him.

Read other reviews of Venom: 

Venom (2018) on IMDb