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Film Review: Venom

Venom (2018; Directed by Ruben Fleischer)

You’d probably have guessed going in that a movie focusing on Marvel Comics’ Venom – a chaotic evil alien Symbiote who possesses the bodies of helpless human hosts and has mostly served in the past as an antagonist (ans sometimes ally) to Spider-Man – would be a dark, brooding, graphically violent, horror-tinged affair (Venom was co-created in the 1980s by Todd McFarlane, who later created that most oppressively goth of superheroes, Spawn). What we get instead from Zombieland director Ruben Fleischer is one of the most deliriously bizarre buddy comedies ever made, bursting unbidden out of the limp body of a fairly average Hollywood action blockbuster. Venom‘s star Tom Hardy veritably possesses this movie like the titular Symbiote, his dual role as both Venom and Eddie Brock, the down-on-his-luck Bay Area investigative reporter whose body and mind is parasitically occupied by the ravenous extraterrestrial creature, turning an unremarkable vehicle into something altogether more entertaining and singular.

Venom comes to Earth as a glob of black-coloured sentient goo, transported onboard a rocket shuttle sent on a scientific exploratory mission to deep space by the Life Foundation and its founder and CEO, Carlton Drake (a miscast and wasted Riz Ahmed). A visionary medical and tech boy-wonder zillionaire in the mould of Silicon Valley bro-tycoons and preening, spaceship-building Tesla CEO Elon Musk, Drake claims to have as his aims the curing of cancer and improvement of overall human health, but his true goals are more sinister. Brock, a maverick muckraker who rides a motorcycle and dresses like he never got out of college, is for some reason tasked by his boss (Ron Cephas Jones) to lob softballs at Drake in an interview. Of course, Brock instead asks Drake hard questions about rumours of dangerous human trials at the Life Foundation, armed with secret info gleaned from legal documents stolen from his lawyer fiancée Anne Weying (Michelle Williams on autopilot), whose firm is representing Life Foundation in a wrongful death suit. Brock’s actions get him fired, cost Anne her job as well, and end their relationship.

Drake’s spacecraft with the Symbiote samples has meanwhile crashed in Malaysia, and although most of the samples have been recovered, one gets loose and hops from host to host on its way to San Francisco. Months later, Brock can’t get work and is in a bit of a downward spiral when he gets a call from the morally conflicted Life Foundation scientist Dr. Dora Skirth (Jenny Slate), who wants to give Brock an inside view of the horrifying things going on in Drake’s labs. Inside the facility, Brock has a meet-cute with the Venom Symbiote, and the fun really begins.

Clawing his way above the expensive morass of silly plot leaps, dodgy CGI, and unremarkable action sequences, Hardy makes Venom something notable with how he plays Brock as a frantic and frustrated passenger driven by Venom’s boundless, socially-unacceptable appetites. Hardy also voices Venom (though he does not motion-capture the creature, a pure CG creation), characterizing him a leering, every-hungry id lurking beneath Eddie’s ego and often bursting violently to the surface (Hardy claims to have drawn inspiration for their interactions from Ren & Stimpy, which is really funny). After compelling Brock to devour frozen tater tots and garbage-bin chicken pieces in a frantic search for sustenance, Venom’s oily black goop-tentacles thrust out of his host’s body to subdue the armed thugs Drake has sent to retrieve the Symbiote, while Hardy plays Brock’s reactions as amazed and alarmed and apologetic to the Life Foundation minions.

This scene is utterly hilarious, by the way, in the comic interplay of the helpless Brock and the confident-in-violence Venom, who acts as a sort of ever-present devil on Brock’s shoulder. Hardy’s Venom voice is strange and twisted and side-splittingly funny as it bursts unbidden into Brock’s head, especially when stating his mutilating intentions towards hapless humans: “Pile of bodies, pile of heads!” Brock/Venom flee Drake’s henchmen on his motorcycle through San Francisco’s hilly streets afterwards, the movie’s best action scene due to the continued developing relationship between Symbiote and host. Brock and Venom’s scenes together remain the movie’s highlight, Hardy’s performance one supremely quirky and kooky decision after another: seeking out the help of his ex Annie and her new doctor beau Dan (Reid Scott) at a gourmet restaurant, for example, an overheating Brock cools down in the live-lobster tank and snacks on a live crustacean.

Venom is, as mentioned, pretty unremarkable and even below-average outside of whatever the heck it is Hardy is doing at any given moment, but the symbiotic double-act overcomes the film’s paint-by-the-numbers thematic messages (Drake lectures about environmental degradation) with unexpected metaphorical possibilities. The most compelling and entertaining internal two-selves tug-of-war in a CG blockbuster since Andy Serkis played conniving Gollum and pitiful Smeagol in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Hardy’s Brock/Venom invokes everything from Sigmund Freud’s id/ego/super-ego psychological theories to bipolar disorder to schizophrenia to pervasive queer coding, the latter which sparked an enthusiastic Symbrock shipping community that is convinced (largely because of a scene in which Venom possesses Anne and kisses Eddie to re-enter his body) of a homosexual attraction between Venom and Brock.

It’s hard to say definitively if Venom is fully behind this last angle or not. Certainly, it shouldn’t be put past Hardy, often a gleeful trickster figure of an actor, to lean into such a subtext. The movie does openly state that Venom’s embrace of Eddie Brock as his preferred host on Earth is down to the Symbiote feeling a kinship with Eddie as a fellow loser. The script (by Jeff Pinker, Scott Rosenberg, and Kelly Marcel) develops their relationship as a process of growth and acceptance of each other and of mutual moral behaviour: Eddie learns that he can have a world-improving purpose after his journalistic career implodes due to his own ethical lapses, and Venom is converted to a certain fondness for Earth and humankind while being convinced to only treat certain bad people as a ready source of food.

Venom, then, is perversely a species of novel of education as well as a buddy/romantic comedy, albeit with more biting off of heads. Given the general level that comic-book superhero movies have managed to ascend to on an artistic level, it’s far too hacky and formulaic in most of its elements outside of Hardy’s work to be good enough. It’s a movie that seems not to have learned any lessons from nearly two decades of superhero movie successes and failures. Indeed, especially as the credits roll to the strains of Eminem ridiculously rapping out the plot of the film in the title song, one comes to feel that the ghost of 1990s big-budget B-movies is undeniable. But Tom Hardy, in his audaciously eccentric split performance, makes Venom something weirder, grander, funnier, and infinitely more interesting.

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