It’s safe to say that Venom wasn’t my most anticipated film of the year. After a superhero renaissance of sorts in recent months – with films like Thor Ragnarok, Logan and Spider-Man: Homecoming representing the heights the genre was capable of – Venom looked like a throwback. A cash-in. Its trailer featured ropey CGI, conventional action and a seemingly-disengaged lead performance from Tom Hardy as the Eddie Brock, the investigative journalist inhabited by the titular alien symbiote.
I’ve got good news and bad news, in one sentence: Venom is, in fact, a throwback. It feels like a superhero film from over a decade earlier, akin to Daredevil, Ghost Rider or Hulk. Films without the inkling of a cinematic universe, where setting up a sequel was seen as success enough. Films made in the era before Iron Man and The Dark Knight took the superhero genre to the big-time, back when superhero movies were glorified, action-packed B-movies made with little investment in the comic book history gone by.
Venom’s small-scale idiosyncrasies will surely disappoint serious-minded critics and comic book fans alike …but the good news is, if you’re looking for a goofy film that recalls the aforementioned superhero one-offs and a trashy genre film from the ‘80s, you’re in luck. While I’d hesitate to describe Venom as a traditionally ‘good’ film, I did have an awful lot of fun with it.
First and foremost, that’s thanks to Tom Hardy. If you’ve followed his career at all – particularly his contentious experience filming Mad Max: Fury Road – you’d be aware that he takes an unconventional approach to acting. That doesn’t always play on screen (he somewhat disappears into Fury Road, for instance), but here he’s given free rein to tear the scenery apart with his teeth and he enthusiastically obliges. Once he’s inhabited by the symbiote, he embodies both twitchy reluctance – suggesting meta-layers of Hardy’s own reluctance to slide into the superhero subgenre – and outright mania, as when he vigorously tears apart a fancy restaurant while drenched in sweat.
As the film progresses, the interplay between Hardy-as-Brock and Hardy-as-Venom progresses from goofy to outright hilarious. Both Hardy’s performance and Ruben Fleischer’s direction recognise that the key to a successful B-movie is escalation, allowing the premise’s inherent ridiculousness to ramp up over the film’s runtime. This makes for a rushed, unconvincing introduction, but by the time Venom is ranting about ‘turds in the wind’ by the film’s climax, you’re either entirely on-board or decidedly disinterested. (I was the former.)
Hardy’s shares the screen with a few other players – an underused Jenny Slate as a well-intended scientist, a henchman (Scott Haze) who looks like Billy Corgan as a professional wrestler – but the main two are Michelle Williams, as love interest Anne, and Riz Ahmed as an Elon-Musk-esque villain by the name of Carlton Drake. Neither Williams nor Ahmed are on the same level as Hardy …though that’s true of most actors, to be honest. I enjoyed Ahmed’s snarling, over-enunciating baddie, however; like Venom, he reminds me of an era of superhero filmmaking where, more often than not, the villains were the real star of the show. He just has the misfortune of appearing in a movie where the main ‘villain’ also happens to be the protagonist.
Venom’s main failing, for me, were its uninspired action scenes. They lack the spark of humour and silliness that elevates the scenes that surround them; Fleischer knows his way around comedy and actor interplay, but doesn’t quite have the knack to turn a stock action sequence into something memorable. And I’ll be honest, the combination of ordinary action and goofy plotting is going to turn a lot of audiences off. But if, like me, you’re a fan of B-movies that don’t take themselves too seriously, you might just find yourself enjoying this trashy superhero throwback.