Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

"In an era of almost infinite possibilities for entertainment, Venom isn't one to recommend." | Photo: 2018 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Venom is a Spider-Man villain, at least originally, and without that lightness cast by a sort of journalist with super-powers the shadow of great power and great responsibility gets a little woolly. Though The Punisher was also originally a Spider-Man villain, and there have been three attempts at making that a film, and let's not even start to talk about The Joker. Though it's been ten years since Marvel hit upon a relatively solid formula in Iron Man, with plenty of variation and less successful DC counter-programming, Venom, for all its occasional sparks, seems a film that has not learned any positive lessons from what came before.

In a sort of nearly near future San Francisco a crusading web journalist (pun perhaps intended), Eddie Brock, stumbles across a big story. As with the markedly similar (and slightly better) Upgrade, he's romantically involved with someone connected to an odd and oddly wealthy figure (bank balance definitely large enough to make it eccentricity, not pathology), though (mild spoilers for both) at least here she doesn't end up dead.

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Eddie is Tom Hardy, trying very hard to be a likeable loser, and later is also the voice of Venom. Michelle Williams is Anne, his long-suffering and (soon to be former) lawyer fiancée, and her boss is Carlton Shaw, Riz Ahmed channelling pharma-bro Martin Shkreli and bay-area rocket-tycoon Jeff Bezos. It's his space-plane with its nagging ventral fins that crashes in the opening sequence, prompts a suspiciously rapid and well teleconferenced response from the local government, leads to the arrival of some tubes of alien goo. Goo that's remarkably quickly identified as 'symbiotes', wiggly-mcguffins with shades of craft glue and ferrofluid, as scientifically credible as kyrptonite and the x-gene and radioactive spider-bites. No matter, or at least a special form thereof, as it's pursuit of symbiosis that drives what follows.

Ahmed has a difficult task. Venom suffers from what you could call the Hannibal problem - by the time a villain has become protagonist, conventions of anti-heroism would seem to demand that their villain is even worse. Though he's got a cyberpunk lair, Carlton Shaw doesn't sport mirrorshades but he does have scientists who seem to have an abject disregard for protocol and a 'control room' full of folk whom one suspects signed up for rocket science but frequently seem quite blasé about instead coordinating motorcycle chases through San Francisco's city-centre. That sequence is alright but pales in comparison to the one in the most recent Mission: Impossible or, more firmly within genre, Elastigirl's in Incredibles 2.

There's a Wilhelm scream, a street car sequence, some gut-churning visceral moments that bear the air of Sam Raimi, and as if trying to demonstrate with a glass hand how it has palmed off what it has stolen, I suspect that James Cameron is already lining up the ghost of Harlan Ellison to sue, so heavy and numerous are the debts to his ouevre. From flashes of The Abyss to clashes of Aliens, splashes of the T-1000, thrashes of tone are apparently one of Venom's weaknesses and the same is true of his film. His indeed, even if sexy version (more to be found on tumblr) manages to find gender issues in ways the Alien franchise has somehow managed to steer clear of as it careens widely between the sublime and the liver-peckingly awful. There are some female characters, indeed, almost reasonable representation, but this doesn't (I think) pass either the Riz or the Bechdel tests, and that's just some of the ways it falls short. Tonal variation is one of Venom's issues, at a bit under two hours its pacing seems off, and there are suggestions that there's been a lot left in the cutting room's recycle bin.

There's a general rule that the quality of a film is inversely proportional to its number of writing credits, and while Ruben Fleischer's got tonnes of comedy credits it seems there wasn't the bravery to make this an actually comic outing. As with Todd Macfarlane's other great contribution to the canon, Spawn, Venom is a character that one always suspects looks better on the page that the screen. That stark black and white shadow/reflection of Spider-Man is as a photographer's negative, and while the licky-tongue seems a pretty glaring parallel to Giger's xenomorphs' inner mandibles, the icky-sticky ichor of Venom just seems a little goofy.

At one point Venom says "you've seen nothing like this" except it's, like, a big knife, and this is a fight that is taking place on the launch platform for a reusable space plane which does rather suggest that a sharp stick is within the grasp of the species that went to a comet to fetch not one but several creatures, two of whom then engage in a fight that has its moments but devolves from two plates of brooding spaghetti kicking each other in the meatballs to two minimally differentiated masses of tissue punching the snot out of each other.

That foe is itself a reflection of Venom ('Riot'), and continuing the tendency of the best villains being a version of opposites in this we're stuck with a cameo from Woody Harrelson to carry a wig that is somehow more ridiculous than Waluigi, where the opposite of an opposite is not the thing itself. The axes being ground here (another thing we've apparently never seen) make up a multi-dimensional truth table of trouble, but that kind of geometric triangulation seems to inform some of the cynicism of this exercise in movie-making that may itself be a reflection of my own.

There's product placement for a Sony Phone that appears to be predicated upon it being sufficiently insecure that a third party can extract its contents. This is just one of at least a couple of plot points that could have been resolved by sending an email, but does give an excuse for a rooftop set-piece. There are some other neat set-pieces, but there's also a firefight in an office lobby where aesthetic considerations have trumped tactical choices to an extent that makes Gareth Edwards' Godzilla's flare-lit HALO jump seem a quotidian practicality. Firing the flares and then switching to thermal imaging is a particular low-light, and the climactic battle is similarly inchoate.

Tom Hardy would seem to be having fun, and there are some good moments. There's a sequence where he seems to be channelling helpless rage by attempting to go Super Saiyan, and there are moments where, like Ang Lee's Hulk, a big budget comic book movie feels like a stagy two-hander about relationships, but that film is also a reference point for why Venom doesn't seem to work. Ethan Hawke might have a point when he suggested that superhero films aren't necessarily great, but I think he did Wolverine a disservice because its borrowings from Shane are more and less obvious than its literal quotations and shown sequences. Intermediation carries its own weight, but perhaps the biggest disappointment of Venom is that though it is about hybridity and synthesis it never seems to let its own parts gel, nor to have an agenda more meaningful than filling time and setting up a sequel.

In cinematic release, Venom is followed not only by the obligatory scene within the credits but by a snippet of 'Into The Spider-Verse', and I must admit I enjoyed that more than the film that preceded it. It's entirely possible that this Venom movie takes place within that continuum of continuities, but in an era of almost infinite possibilities for entertainment, Venom isn't one to recommend. There will be fans for whom it is a perfect draught, but as versions go it isn't enough to envelop those not already susceptible. Origin stories can be tedious, Stan Lee credits his own boredom when trying to engineer them with inventing the X-gene. While Lee's cameo is amusing, that lesson is one that Venom could perhaps have borne.

Surprise at newly acquired powers isn't new, and its played to better comic-horror effect in Upgrade. Revenge is better played elsewhere, and there's no shortage of journalistic crusades that don't end in punching. Perhaps that's the saddest thing about Venom, that it is so run of the mill despite its edgy origins and intentions. The antidote, of course, is likely to be another reboot, but until then be aware that for all Venom's notional power (and perhaps from some mild toxicities) it lacks bite.

Reviewed on: 25 Oct 2018
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Venom packshot
A man has to release his alter ego to save his life.

Director: Ruben Fleischer

Writer: Scott Rosenberg, Jeff Pinkner, Kelly Marcel, Will Beall, Todd McFarlane, Scott Rosenberg, David Michelinie

Starring: Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Woody Harrelson, Jenny Slate, Riz Ahmed, Marcella Bragio, Ron Cephas Jones, Sam Medina, Reid Scott, Michelle Lee, Scott Haze, Mac Brandt, Sope Aluko, Donald K. Overstreet, Christian Convery

Year: 2018

Runtime: 112 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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