“Co-operate, and you just might survive. That is the deal.“
Sony has had some mixed luck in relation to their on-going Spider-Man license. After revolutionising the very idea of superheroes on film with the Tobey Maguire led, Sam Raimi directed Spider-Man trilogy, and the unexpected fall from grace that came with the two Amazing Spider-Man films; the deal struck with Marvel Studios to bring Peter Parker into the Marvel Cinematic Universe left Sony Pictures with the license to a character they no longer 100% controlled; but a cast of supporting characters that they had free reign with.
Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) is an investigative journalist in San Francisco, whose life and career are brought to a halt after asking difficult questions of Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), owner of the Life Foundation, whose exploratory rocket crashed back to Earth after the crew collected samples of alien symbiotes they discovered as they passed an asteroid. When one of the Life Foundation’s scientists reaches out to Eddie for help regarding the symbiote experiments, Brock is bonded to one of the symbiotes…
Making Venom at all was a reasonable risk for Sony. As one of Spider-Man’s most iconic antagonists, introducing the character outside of the MCU in a separate universe that stands to have no contact with Tom Holland’s Peter Parker raised a few question marks from Spidey fans, but Sony did something unexpected – they made a Venom movie so outrageous that, for many, there was no real choice but to enjoy it. Despite being pretty much panned by critics, audiences mostly enjoyed it; with a 30% critic’s score on Rotten Tomatoes being heavily outweighed by the 80% audience score. So… how did that happen?
A lot of the joy of Venom comes from Tom Hardy’s performance. Those who criticised his performance of Bane in The Dark Knight Rises as being too silly had no idea what Hardy was capable of doing in terms of silly comic book movie performances. Playing both Brock and Venom, Hardy juggles two distinct characters expertly within one body, despite a lot of them essentially being that he has to talk to himself. His characterisation of Brock is a fascinating departure from the type of central role we’re used to from superhero films; Eddie is a real loser (a fact which the film hammers home at various points); and his often depicted as being in a state of distress, often dripping with sweat and covered as a consequence of his increasingly dangerous actions – escalating wildly once he bonds with the symbiote. It’s a refreshing take to see a man who is truly on the edge, bringing a manic-depressive energy to a man who is totally unprepared to face the challenges and events that lie ahead of him.
While Eddie Brock is our hero, but Venom very much is not; and Hardy does a great job of delivering the dialogue of an alien anti-hero while director Ruben Fleischer (ZombieLand) leans on classic sci-fi horror framing to turn Venom into a recognisable cinema monster. The influence of the likes of Alien and Predator are clear, with direct nods to both of those films at various points (one sequence featuring a SWAT team switching their goggles to infrared to try and track Venom screams of both franchises), while the body horror of the likes of The Thing (albeit toned down for an M rating) helps maintain the horror tone. The combination makes Venom (and the other symbiotes) a compelling monstrosity to watch; the other-worldly movements of the symbiotes activates a primal sense of discomfort. The colour palette also leans into sci-fi horror tropes; once Brock encounters Venom, we don’t see natural daylight again, and the daytime environment takes on a cold blue colouring, as if the action were taking place on an alien planet; though the majority of the action takes place at night, with the lights of San Francisco’s cityscape creating a parallel with dark alleyways and quiet buildings; such as the Life Foundation’s cold, stainless steel labs.
Hardy isn’t doing all the work here, of course; and while the rest of the cast can’t match the chaotic energy which Hardy brings, they help hold up his performance in a more grounded way. Riz Ahmed channels all your favourite modern billionaires through Carlton Drake, one in particular (no spoilers); and the juxtaposition of the Life Foundation’s public mission statement against Drake’s brutal attitude towards experimentation with the symbiotes establishes the character background solidly, allowing Ahmed to pour cold charisma into every aspect of the character, slowly turning up the aggression as the narrative progresses. Michelle Williams also has a great showing as Anne Weying, Eddie’s love interest, and demonstrates a much-needed stability both in terms of Eddie’s life, and in terms of story direction; she becomes a pin for the narrative to move around, with each act swinging its way around and through her involvement, and her appearances on screen work to drive the narrative forward to the next set piece. Williams features in some of the most memeable moments of the film too; which is refreshing to see from an actor with such a serious back catalogue of performances. She seems like she is also having a lot of fun making this film, and has great chemistry with both Hardy and with Reid Scott, who plays a comedic foil and Anne’s secondary love interest in Dan, bringing the kind of comedic timing and vaguely arrogant swagger that he honed during his time on Veep.
It’s a strange movie to analyse, because while it’s a big-budget, big studio action movie based on a property and starring a character that is known across the world; Venom leans into b-movie and sci-fi horror tropes that it pulls from so heavily that it unapologetically allows itself to be goofy, to be ridiculous; and its charm lies within the fact it allows itself to go to the weirder places that the comic-book version of Venom has gone to in the last 30 years. I don’t think there’s any iteration of the MCU that would conceive to have scenes featuring any of their characters eating live lobsters while sitting in a lobster tank; nor do I think they would have brought in a version of Venom that eats people alive; but Sony took the risk of putting that version of Venom on screen, and trusted Hardy to bring that goofy side of Brock and Venom to the fore. The result is incredibly silly and also just a lot of fun, even when it is at its most serious or most frightening.
If you’re bored of the MCU way of doing things in their films, and if you’re struggling to keep up with whatever DC is doing with their properties but you still want to watch a modern superhero film that looks like it was a lot of fun to make; then Venom could well be the movie for you to watch.