When reporter Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) investigates rumors that tech bro billionaire Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed) is running human experiments with alien symbiotes, Brock is infected by the symbiote named Venom (voiced by Hardy), which [battles him for control of his own body] [gives him a serious case of alien limb syndrome]. Drake’s security chief Treece (Scott Haze) pursues Brock through the streets of San Francisco in an attempt to recover Venom. Meanwhile, Drake is infected by another symbiote named Riot, which wants to use one of Drake’s private spacecraft to travel back to the symbiote homeworld and return with an army of symbiotes that will feed on all of humanity.
Arley: It’s up to Venom and Brock to stop them!
Josh and Arley (together): The beginning was so boring.
Arley: I wrote down the time when they finally showed Venom.
Josh: Me too. I checked my watch. We’d been in the theater for an hour.
The immediate flaw of this film is the pacing of the first act. The movie thoroughly establishes: how much of a piece of shit Carlton Drake is; how evil it is to experiment on the homeless; how great Eddie Brock’s life used to be, and how terrible it is now. It’s a fair bit of information to present, and it’s understandable why the first third of the movie is such a standard setup, but Venom could have employed a number of shortcuts to speed things along or novel narrative techniques to generate more interest, instead of sticking to generic storytelling tactics.
There are frequent and heavy-handed infodumps about the aliens, sometimes to redundancy (Arley: How many times do we have to be told that the symbiote is vulnerable to high-pitched sound?), which most of the characters tend to ignore. For example, supposed genius Carlton Drake repeatedly sends his corporate security to recapture Venom, yet none of his henchman take along the necessary equipment to neutralize or contain the symbiote, even though there have been repeated scenes in Drake’s lab demonstrating that they have both the knowledge and the equipment to do so.
Josh: Tech bros make terrible villains—they’re not physically intimidating and they’re just kind of assholes.
Arley: They talk too much.
In most regards, this is one of the most generic superhero movies to have come out in a long time. The stakes are vaguely extinction-level. The villain is about as one-dimensional as they come. The transformation of the everyman Eddie Brock into the superpowered Venom looks like it came pre-canned from any number of Marvel’s previous origin stories.
Josh: Venom reminded me a lot of Hulk (2003). Both set in San Francisco, both have sections where multiple scenes are playing out on the screen in different panels like they’re in a comic book, and there are several shots in the final fight between Venom and Riot that look almost exactly the same as the boss fight in Hulk.
Arley: Venom and the Hulk are kind of similar characters, too—they’re both these guys who have powerful internal monsters that they’re struggling to control.
Josh: At least the CGI is better in this movie.
Similar to problems we’ve seen in movies like The Predator (2018) and Deadpool 2 (2018) Venom is too unstoppable for there to be any risk to our bulletproof antihero. Even though the dialogue specifically mentions Venom’s main weakness, going so far as to call sound his “kryptonite,” the weakness is never actually used against him in fights. Without risk, there are no stakes.
Arley: He runs when he doesn’t really have to and fights when he doesn’t really have to. It’s all plot convenient, AKA “because reasons.”
One of the more compelling conflicts is that Venom is carnivorous and ravenous, and has acquired a taste for human organs. As such, he threatens to consume Brock’s liver unless he gets fed often. Brock is told that he has an atrophied heart after hosting Venom for a few days. But this ticking bomb, this standard storytelling technique of setting a timer, vanishes without satisfactory explanation. Brock simply walks out of the hospital without seeking treatment for his heart condition.
Josh: Actually, he’s tasered right in the heart and then dragged out of the hospital, to no apparent or permanent ill effect.
Venom does not present as a being of pure evil barely held in check by Eddie Brock’s humanity. He seems more like a trickster god who does whatever amuses him, even at the peril of damaging his own host. Brock argues incessantly with Venom over whom they are and are not allowed to kill, without ever providing a reason that would convince a hungry alien that some humans are worth saving and others are not. In a scene reminiscent of Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), Brock restrains Venom from eating the police by saying, “We do not kill cops!” In Terminator 2, the Terminator does whatever John Connor says, to the letter. Of course, this does not stop the Terminator from kneecapping various guards and police, followed by an offhand, “He’ll live.”
Venom has a line: “We will eat both of your arms, and then both of your legs, and then we will eat your face right off your head.” Venom could then, like the Terminator, follow the letter of Brock’s instructions—eat the arms and legs off police who attack him. They’ll live.
Arley: Another standard writing technique: save the cat, don’t kill the dog. Save the homeless lady, don’t kill the lobby guard. Quick and cheap ways to establish Brock as “a good guy”.
Josh: I like to say that a bad movie doesn’t have a list of credits at the end, it has a list of blames. So who gets the writing blames on Venom?
Top-billed writers Jeff Pinkner and Scott Rosenberg previously worked together on the 2017 Jumanji sequel. Pinkner has credits on Alias, Lost, and Fringe, as well as sharing his The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) writing credits with fellow J.J. Abrams disciples Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, which probably explains some of the plot incoherence of Venom.
Arley: Aw, I liked Fringe.
Rosenberg wrote such Nicolas Cage vehicles as Con Air (1997) and Gone in Sixty Seconds (2000) which shows that he can at least come up with fairly entertaining if unremarkable action movies.
The third writer on Venom is Kelly Marcel, who is a friend of Tom Hardy and co-founded London’s Bad Dog Theater Company with him. Hardy brought Marcel in for uncredited rewrites on Bronson (2008) when that film ran into trouble.
Josh: Marcel was added to Venom‘s writing team later in the game. It’s likely that this was a similar situation.
Arley: I bet she was responsible for the movie having a strong female character. And the techbro had one good line, the “god-complex” line—it was so quick it almost seemed like an accidental slip, but I bet that was a line she wrote.
Josh: She got a lot of praise for her Saving Mr. Banks (2013) screenplay, so she’s probably the better writer. On the other hand, she also won a Razzie for Worst Screenplay with Fifty Shades of Grey (2015), so who really knows?
Venom was also hobbled by its PG-13 rating. With an opening scene that looks like the beginning of Alien (1979) and body-hopping alien parasites, this movie is set up to provide a dark science fiction horror story. Venom’s greatest threat is that he enjoys biting the heads off of people and eating their brains, something he does at least three times (off-screen). Because of the rating, the audience never actually gets to see this happen. This, and associated gore, is severely downplayed.
Josh: During Venom’s fight with Riot (not a spoiler, it’s in the trailer) all four characters are shown partially entwined with each other in a moment of pure Lovecraftian horror. More scenes in that vein would have set a darker and more compelling tone to the movie.
Arley: It is super CGI though.
Even if Venom were portrayed as unspeakably violent, he could still be made sympathetic by exclusively combatting the extremely immoral megacorporation, so that he is the good guy by comparison. Instead, the script muddies the audience’s sympathies and Venom’s motivations by having him threaten the police and bystanders seemingly at random.
The movie does eventually pick up the pace, and the real fun starts after Venom infects Brock. Tom Hardy’s performance almost single-handedly carries the film. Hardy’s ability to slip into a character by changing his voice is highlighted here, as he creates a dumb-friendly-guy voice for Eddie Brock, and something completely different for Venom. Shifts in cadence, intonation, and attitude between Brock and Venom provide a source of much needed humor.
This has always been one of Hardy’s strong suits: compare his voice in Inception (2010), a refined British accent, with his incomprehensible mumbling gangster on Peaky Blinders; his voices as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises (2012) and as Heathcliff in the Wuthering Heights mini-series are distinctly similar to each other; and he received praise for creating unique voices and personalities while playing twins in Legend (2015). Hardy’s double-acting—not just in voice, but in his walking and mannerisms when Venom takes over his body—stands out.
Venom also includes a strong character and decent performance in Anne Weying (Michelle Williams), Brock’s former fiancée. She stands up for what she wants and runs towards danger. No other characters comment on her strength or courage—her agency is taken for granted, which is unexpected and refreshing. However, the brief appearance of Anne as “She-Venom,” with exaggerated female attributes, sends a message that strength of character is tied to body shape.
The only other strength of Venom is its comic-book-worthy visuals and action scenes. Unfortunately, nearly all of these are shown in the trailer, so nothing comes as a surprise. Venom’s appearance on screen looks great but the CGI suffers a little bit in underlit scenes where there is so much happening on screen that it’s hard to physically focus.
The movie separates Venom’s origin story from Spider-Man and also draws from a comic book story arc that relocates Venom from New York to San Francisco. Fans of the comics may be disappointed by changes in character design and canon consistency. However, Venom is a lesser-known character to a general audience and the film is more likely to be judged entirely on its own merits rather than previous source material.
Josh: I liked that it was set in SF, but there’s no way there’d be a high-speed chase with SUVs anywhere in the city. You’d get two blocks and hit a solid wall of traffic.
Arley: They took liberties in terms of where things are. I saw a scene where the street signs said Hayes and Mission. I know those streets don’t meet.
Josh: Also, no one would give Eddie Brock a second glance on the sidewalk or on San Francisco public transit. Screaming to himself? Not remarkable in the city.
Arley: If anything, people would be looking away, or deliberately minding their own business.
Despite the substandard plot and tedious first act, Venom’s character design and Tom Hardy’s performance provide fun moments. If the scriptwriters get their act together, and Hardy returns to the role, the sequel could be worth watching.
Josh: I suggest that instead of watching the first third of Venom, you go watch Life (2017) and pretend like that’s the opening of this movie. Watch that, and then start Venom an hour in, after Brock and Venom join together.
Directed by: Ruben Fleischer
Written by: Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg & Kelly Marcel
Starring: Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, Scott Haze, Reid Scott & Jenny Slate
ARLEY SORG, Associate Editor, grew up in England, Hawaii, and Colorado. He studied Asian Religions at Pitzer College. He lives in Oakland, and usually writes in local coffee shops. A 2014 Odyssey Writing Workshop graduate, he is soldering together a novel, has thrown a few short stories into orbit, and hopes to launch more.
JOSH PEARCE, Assistant Editor, started working at Locus in 2016. He studied creative writing at SFSU and has sold short stories and poems to a variety of speculative fiction magazines. Born and raised in the Bay Area, he currently lives in the East Bay with his wife and son and spends way too much time on Twitter: @fictionaljosh. One time, Ken Jennings signed his chest.
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