Film Review | Venom

Gleefully free from the over-curated Marvel Studios rigmarole, this solo outing for the fan-favourite Spider-Man villain packs adolescent energy a welcome dose of silliness

High-energy crowdpleaser for the inner teenager: Tom Hardy is in thrall of a murderous alien symbiote in search of a host
High-energy crowdpleaser for the inner teenager: Tom Hardy is in thrall of a murderous alien symbiote in search of a host

“Why so serious?” Heath Ledger’s Joker memorably exclaimed in Christopher Nolan’s record-breaking and – for better or for worse – trend-setting The Dark Knight (2008). Sadly, the mocking question has largely been met with a po-face from both Nolan himself and a large swathe of the Hollywood blockbuster behemoth.

Even putting aside the DC Cinematic Universe’s staunch inability to lighten up, and making allowance for the fact that yes, Marvel does inject most of their films with no small amount of levity (Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor: Ragnarok, please stand up)... the fact that we now cannot sit down to watch a superhero film on its own merits without following a chart does put a damper on proceedings.

Enter Venom.

The long-awaited solo outing for the Spider-Man villain-turned-anti hero – first given a disastrous airing in Sam Raimi’s franchise-destroying Spider-Man 3 (2007) – was given a critical drubbing upon release, but the blow is dampened somewhat by impressive box office takings (nearly $400 million in 10 days) and an enthusiastic response by the general filmgoing public.

So... watch me betray my profession and join the plebs, I guess.

Admittedly generic as can be from start to finish, Venom kicks off with a shot of the starscape; a spaceship pulls up with an important delivery. ‘Not-Elon Musk’, or Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed) has financed this operation on behalf of his ‘Life Foundation’, in a bid to explore alternative habitats for humanity after climate change renders the earth all but uninhabitable. A noble pursuit, to be sure, but in true mad scientist fashion, Drake takes this a step too far by opting to test these black, squishy alien ‘symbiotes’ on human subjects.

The move puts him in the cross-hairs of hard-hitting journalist Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy), who despite being asked to play nice with Drake by his network, prods him about his past, present and potentially future indiscretions. Brock’s insistence on journalistic integrity costs him not just his job – but his relationship too. As it happens, the legal firm his fiance’ Anne (Michelle Williams) works for represents Drake, and Brock’s hardball questions end up getting her fired by proxy.

Down in the dumps and holding on to a grudge, Brock decides to go solo on exposing Drake after he’s contacted by a conscience-stung employee of his. But when he breaks into the lab, he is attacked by one of the symbiotes.

And ‘Venom’ finds a perfect match in Eddie.

For non-fans of the source material, this franchise-starter directed by Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland, Gangster Squad) and written by Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg and Kelly Marcel, will feel like Gremlins crossed with Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Luckily, Fleischer directs it all with tongue firmly in cheek and with no modicum of seriousness – answering Ledger-Joker’s question with a middle finger and a raspberry – so that a film about a mischevious, psychotic alien entity bent on wreaking havoc and causing a bipolar moral conundrum for his put-upon host pans out with precisely the kind of manic energy it deserves.

Much has also been made about its nature as a ‘PG-13’ take on Venom – understood by many loyal fans to be representative of something of a darker and gorier side to the comic book milieu it stems from. But I’d argue that letting early teens in is a good idea here – tonally, it walks a tightrope between edgy and cheesy that should appeal perfectly to that demographic... and it likely the main contributor to its box office success.

Having ‘overqualified’ actors helps too, though, certainly. While Michelle Williams largely phones it in, Riz Ahmed channels a mercurial menace that makes him one of the better antagonists of superhero cinema thus far.

Hardy, on the other hand, can join the hall of fame occupied by Hugh Jackman, Ryan Reynolds and Tony Stark – i.e., the ranking of actors who meld with their superhero (or anti-hero) with such casual aplomb, you’d think they’ve been waiting their whole lives for this. Convincing as both a schlubby, down-and-out reporter and an alien-powered, car-smashing force of nature, he makes Eddie Brock into someone we can both pity and root for.

As a veteran of the Nolan School of Superheroics (he appeared as the villainous Bane in The Dark Knight Rises), Hardy must have found such a comparatively humane gig to be a relief.

The verdict

Coated with a layer of cheese as thick, sticky and gloppy as the black symbiote that suffuses our protagonist, and paced and plotted with as much anarchic flair as our half-human, half-alien antihero on overdrive, Ruben Fleischer’s film may not be the most refined example of genre cinema you’ll see this year... or any other year, for that matter. Still, it’s as fun a ride as they come – and doesn’t for a second take itself more seriously than it should. Sit back, forget about your worries and about the mores of cumbersome.