Comic Book Hits and Misses
Of all the rarities sought in the modern comic book film (Infinity Stones, kryptonite, any number of magical objects), the rarest of them all is novelty. As each successive franchise has tried to one-up those before it, comic book films have been forced to branch out, innovate, and find new identities in an increasingly flooded marketplace.
This superhero arms race has delivered legitimate surprises like Deadpool, an R-rated success in a PG-13 world, as well as belly flops like 2015’s Fantastic Four, an ill-fated attempt at body horror that made the studio lose its nerve halfway through and turn the film into a generic puddle of clichés and reshoots.
Out of this battle royale emerges Venom, a comic book movie so desperate to stand out that it hands the franchise’s keys to an actor and director who seem determined to deliver the most outrageous and offbeat film imaginable. It’s surprising that this tactic was ever given studio backing. Even more surprising — it actually works. Kind of.
Tom Hardy’s Performance
Tom Hardy stars as Eddie Brock, a washed-up investigative journalist struggling to take down Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), a space-exploring billionaire industrialist whom the script may as well have called “Elon Musk.” When a symbiotic organism from outer space named Venom melds itself with Eddie, the two of them form a relationship upon which the entire film hinges.
There is always pressure on huge franchises to cast its lead roles correctly. Luckily for Venom, the studio made the right choice. To put it plainly, Tom Hardy is unquestionably the only reason this movie works. Along with director Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland), Hardy turns in one of the strangest and riskiest performances of his career, and how much you buy into Venom will rely almost entirely on how much you buy into the character.
One reason so much of the film relies on Hardy is there isn’t much else that stands out in Venom. Ahmed struggles (and fails) to stay on the same wavelength as the rest of the film, and Michelle Williams, as Eddie’s love interest, Anne, is given almost nothing meaningful to do.
You don’t have to squint too hard to see the forgettable mess Venom could have been had it not handed so much of the heavy lifting to its star. But Hardy, almost through sheer force of will, carries this film across the finish line with one of the most remarkable comic book movie performances in recent memory. It’s hard to make the case that Venom must be seen, but it definitely must be seen to be believed.
How Venom Will Succeed or Fail
The past decade’s explosion of comic book movies has been both an exhilarating and a mind-numbing experience. Yes, there have been jolts of electricity like The Dark Knight and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. But there have also been films like Green Lantern, Thor: The Dark World, and the aforementioned Fantastic Four reboot — films that mistake sound and spectacle for character and plot, hoping to win the audience over through sheer scale and volume. Even the Marvel formula of combining snappy banter with likable actors, which is still a winning one with audiences and critics, is beginning to feel episodic and slightly predictable.
Maybe that’s why its so hard to hate Venom. It’s not the smartest kid in the class, or the cutest, or the most well-behaved. It’s often sloppy and uneven, filled with scraps left over from its years of development. You can practically see the stitching holding it together at the seams, trying desperately not to burst. But at its core, it’s also funny, and weird, and hilariously off-kilter, and it really really wants you to like it.
Like the title symbiote, this movie bonds itself to your brain and waits for you to either let it in or reject it like a virus. It’s very easy to see why so many people will likely reject Venom outright. But if you’re on just the right wavelength, if the object ridiculousness of what Tom Hardy is doing in this film appeals to you, and if you find yourself giving your heart to the gonzo spirit at the core of this movie, you may discover that you enjoyed this junk food, and that you’re hungry for more.