For over twenty years, producer Avi Arad has tried and failed numerous times to get a solo film featuring the character of Venom, one of Spider-Man’s most popular and definitive villains, produced. The earliest attempt was back in 1997, with Dolph Lundgren playing the role of Eddie Brock and a pre-Blade David S. Goyer penning the screenplay, which would’ve seen Venom going up against the psychotic Cletus Kasady, also known as Carnage. Further attempts by Arad and executives at Sony, when the acquired the rights to the character from New Line Cinema, to spin the character off from his shoehorned-in Topher Grace-portrayed appearance in the infamously botched Spider-Man 3 and from the then-planned but later cancelled The Amazing Spider-Man cinematic universe also failed to come into fruition.
It was only until the surprise critical and commercial successes of films such as Deadpool and Logan that gave Sony the confidence to move forward with a solo Venom film, with Tom Hardy playing the character. For a while, things looked surprisingly quite promising for this particular project. Ruben Fleischer, the man behind Zombieland, was attached as the director. The script was being partly penned by Scott Rosenberg, the screenwriter of Con Air and the critically acclaimed High Fidelity. Joining Hardy in the cast were Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, and Jenny Slate, all of whom are amazing actors. It was when Sony began marketing the film earlier this year that worries began creeping out of the shadows of privacy. It was when I saw the film in theaters that those worries were completely one-hundred percent justified.
To say Venom is a terrible film wouldn’t be giving it nearly enough punishment. This is easily one of the most embarrassing comic book films in a long, long time, and easily the most disgraceful piece of hackdom to ever take inspiration from the classic Spider-Man characters and mythos, even moreso than the aforementioned Spider-Man 3. This was such a colossal trainwreck of insane proportions that I immediately wanted to write the sincerest, most well-worded apology I can think of to Sam Raimi and everyone else who worked on Spider-Man 3 for every single harsh criticism I have ever given that film, a power that no film should have and yet somehow, Venom does indeed have that power, and Hollywood is now much sadder because of it.
This absolutely goes without saying, but Tom Hardy is a wonderful actor. He’s proven that many times before and will more than likely prove it many times again in the future. But unfortunately, not even an actor of his caliber is immune to popping up in steaming, sweating defecations like Venom. As much as he tries to get something, anything, out of this utterly dreadful material, he completely fails. This is easily the most humiliating performance I’ve ever seen from Hardy. It’s so bizarrely awful you have to see it with your own very eyes and hear it with your own very ears to believe it.
Speaking his lines with a poorly thought out and often unintelligible Brooklyn accent that sounds like Saturday Night Live’s absolute worst Woody Allen impersonator (Hardy himself admitted he took inspiration from Allen’s neurosis for his performance, a profoundly ill-judged move considering Allen’s disturbing history of sexual assault), Hardy fails at making his character relatable or sympathetic. Of course, the absolute trash that is this jumbled mess of a script doesn’t help matters in the slightest. Supposedly, this was the script Sony was initially going to use when they were making a Venom film set in the universe of The Amazing Spider-Man films, and knowing that makes me especially thankful for that franchise never kicking off.
What makes it so frustrating is that you can so obviously tell that he was written by people who couldn’t care less about the character. For a quote-unquote “respected” journalist, he proves to be not just incredibly terrible at his job -- why yes, Eddie, please do read a confidential e-mail from your love interest’s computer and confront the head of the Life Foundation about what it has to say without any physical evidence to back yourself up -- but also one of the biggest idiots in San Francisco, so when he eventually loses everything from his job to his girlfriend, you find yourself struggling deeply to give a damn. The film’s attempts at having you feel sorry for Eddie because of his lack of self-confidence also fail at doing so because it’s so poorly realized on-screen, and its attempts at manipulating you into believing this character has an actual arc also fall flat because when you really sit there, observe it, and think about it, nothing about the character changes from the first moment you see him to the very last moment you see him.
I’m well-aware that complaining about inaccuracy to the original source material is petty and superficial at best, especially since filmmakers and screenwriters should have the freedom to develop their own interpretation of the characters they’re translating into film, but sometimes, there is a limit to my patience. There is absolutely nothing in this soulless, gutless catastrophe that captures the essence and nuance of the character. Eddie Brock’s backstory -- involving cutting familial ties, divorce, cancer, thoughts of suicide, and begging God for forgiveness -- is famously one of the most bleak and depressing in the history of comic books. That sense of tragedy is entirely absent and it’s nothing short of frustrating.
The symbiote being an animal driven by pure instinct as well as being a metaphor for hardcore drug addiction, which adds a great deal of thematic meat to the splash panel bones, have been chucked straight out the window to make way for moronic comedy routines -- serving as yet another desperate and pathetic attempt at trying (and failing) to copy the successful formula of the Marvel Cinematic Universe -- such as Eddie eating rotten chicken from the garbage and violently vomiting it up shortly afterwards, or him jumping into a tank filled with live lobsters, or Venom calling itself a loser on its own home planet, a revelation that comes completely out of nowhere and contradicts what we already know about it from previous scenes. Everyone who said that The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a committee-designed corporate cash-grab that has zero interest in thematically engaging its audience should be required by law to take that criticism back and immediately reapply it towards this film.
Venom is also one of the most remarkably tone-deaf films of the year, constantly switching back and forth between being a generic superhero action film and a painfully unfunny buddy comedy while also occasionally dabbing into bleak and gritty David Cronenberg-inspired body horror. This is literally the second recent mainstream comic book film after FOX’s disastrous Fantastic Four reboot that claims to take inspiration from Cronenberg’s works, such as Videodrome and The Fly, only without any understanding of why Cronenberg is such a master at the sub-genre and why those body horror elements tie so well into the stories, characters, and themes of those particular films.
One minute, we see Venom chastising Eddie for using an elevator instead of jumping out a window (admittedly, the closest I came to laughing at the film’s intentional humor), and then the next thing you know, Venom is biting off people’s heads and acting menacing towards its victims. But because it’s rated PG-13 and isn’t rated R, we don’t actually get to see these brutal deaths happen on-screen thus any information about heads being eaten is relegated to clunky exposition. Fleischer initially claimed he wanted to make an R-rated film, but Sony changed their minds and decided to lighten it up because they idiotically really want the possibility of this film tying into Spider-Man: Homecoming to become a reality, seemingly forgetting that Deadpool and Logan -- the two films that encouraged them to move forward with Venom in the first place -- are two R-rated comic book films that made massive amounts of money at the global box office.
There’s really nothing to say about the performances from the rest of the cast because they’re wasted in thankless roles that give them absolutely nothing to work with. Michelle Williams admitted she only took the part of Anne Weying, Eddie Brock’s girlfriend, because she wanted to work with Tom Hardy, and I can’t say I blame her. Williams’ character is simply the typical love interest character. That’s literally all there is to her, which is an absolute shame given Williams’ status as one of the finest actresses working today and the rich source material.
Still, I must admit it was kind of cool seeing Anne and the symbiote bond to become She-Venom for a little while in the third act, even if it does lead into two of the film’s more unintentionally amusing moments, one where Eddie starts making out with the symbiote as a means of having it bond with him again and another where Anne literally says to him, “I’m sorry about Venom.” Also, for a romantic coupling, I’d be lying if I said I was invested. Both characters are written incredibly poorly, especially Eddie, and because of both bad writing and mediocre direction, Williams and Hardy simply don’t share much chemistry with one another. There’s really not much of a spark there on-screen, and it doesn’t help that Williams looks embarrassed -- one can hardly blame her -- any time she has to spew out poor dialogue.
Riz Ahmed plays the film’s primary villain, Carlton Drake, the head of the Life Foundation. Like Williams’ Weying, Ahmed’s Drake is a character that has no absolutely nothing to him other than he’s generically evil because reasons. He also seems to be desperately lacking in security guards and cameras considering that Eddie is easily able to enter his laboratory and yet this is a multi-billion dollar corporation and Drake is supposed to be a genius. Jenny Slate is one of the funniest and most effortlessly likable actors to ever grace theaters and television and she’s stuck in a worthless part that only exists just so this badly conceived, nonsensical story can have an excuse as to why the Venom symbiote attaches itself to Eddie Brock, an event that occurs almost an hour into this film which is over an hour and a half long.
Arguably the most egregious example of wasted talent is that of Woody Harrelson popping up in a post-credits scene as Cletus Kasady, a character fans have waited a very long time to see on the big screen only to find Harrelson embarrassing himself with silly facial tics, a horribly cheap ginger wig taken straight out of Party City, and a cringe-inducing sequel-baiting final line of dialogue that’s exactly what you think it is and exactly as dumb as you think it is. The fact that Avi Arad, Matt Tolmach, Amy Pascal, Tom Rothman, and the rest of Sony’s corporate stooges all honestly think a character as famously brutal and sadistic as Carnage would work in a bland PG-13 environment is utterly laughable.
Even on a technical level, the film fails to impress. Ruben Fleischer’s direction is flavorless, even with Academy Award nominee Matthew Libatique -- DP’ing on his second Marvel film after Iron Man -- on-board as his director of photography, and simply goes through the motions in such an uninspired way that screams “work-for-hire.” Libatique’s photography offers the occasional striking moment here and there, but for the most part, it’s disappointingly basic and boring, just as much as Ludwig Goransson’s especially disappointing ho-hum musical score and the film’s uninspired action sequences, all of which are easily forgettable and nothing we haven’t seen before in other and much better comic book and body horror films.
The action sequences also mostly take place during nighttime, which is an incredibly misguided environment to put Venom -- a character who’s pitch-black -- in because you can barely tell what is happening. It’s when Venom battles another symbiote, Riot, who has bonded with Carlton Drake, that the action begins reaching the point of no return. It’s an uninteresting duke-out between two badly rendered globs of computer-generated gobbledygook that’s ugly as sin to look at and gives you no reason on this Earth to care. Sure, sometimes there’s an impressive-looking effect here and there, but a lot of time, it’s just so incredibly sloppy. Just as sloppy is Maryann Brandon and Alan Baumgarten's choppy editing that bafflingly cuts off scenes before they start to end and feels the need to rush through everything in a pigsty-esque fashion that never allows scenes to have any breathing room.
Venom had all the potential in the world to be a hardcore, unrelenting, no-holds-barred thrill ride but it’s instead a limp, punch-pulling, unintentionally hilarious misfire that represents one of the most embarrassing films of the year and Ruben Fleischer’s worst film to date, with cringe-inducing comedy and dialogue, poorly written characters, lazy and nonsensical storytelling, jarring tonal shifts, sloppily put together action sequences, uneven visual effects, terrible pacing, and a jaw-droppingly awful lead performance that’s worthy of Razzie consideration. The fact that this has made over $500 million worldwide disgusts me. Honestly, if you want to see a much better-realized Venom film, I highly recommend Leigh Whannell’s Upgrade. It’s a much smarter and more satisfying experience.