It’s hard to think of the character Venom without Spider-Man. The webslinger was the first human host of the liquid alien symbiote when he was introduced in 1984, though Spidey soon peeled himself away from Venom. After that breakup, Venom bonded with reporter Eddie Brock and became a big bad for Spider-Man. That included an appearance in Sam Raimi’s horrible Spider-Man 3, with the forgettable Topher Grace as Brock. In the comics, Venom has bonded with quite a few other characters and has even shown up in “Guardians of the Galaxy.” Brock, though, was the primary host, so it’s fitting the character would appear in the new movie, Venom. The best news was that Tom Hardy would play the character(s).
Rather than keep the character in Spider-Man’s New York City, the movie version of Venom moves the setting to San Francisco. Hardy’s Brock is a shuffling, schleppy investigative reporter, though he’s managed to attract lawyer Anne Weyling (Michelle Williams) as his girlfriend. Weyling works for the Life Foundation, which has invested in private space exploration as an answer the growing tenuousness of life on earth. The head of the foundation, Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), believes the key to human survival in space is a blending of humans with aliens. One of their vehicles crash lands in Malaysia while returning to Earth with samples of alien lifeforms.
Brock’s assigned a puff piece profile of Drake by his editor, but instead he reads confidential information from Anne’s work and uses it to ambush Drake. The stunt costs both Brock and Anne their jobs, leading Anne to walk away from Brock. Six months later, Anne’s put her life back together and found a new relationship with a doctor. Brock, on the other hand, is living in a dive and hustling what work he can find to keep going. Then a researcher (Jenny Slate) comes to Brock with information about deadly human research undertaken by the Foundation. She gets Brock into the building, where he can find evidence to expose what they’re doing. Instead he becomes the evidence when he’s accidentally introduced to Venom.
Venom’s about as anti a hero as possible, with a preference of chowing down on people when he’s feeling puckish. However, he needs the compatible Brock to survive Earth’s hostile environment. Brock’s pretty far from a hero as himself, but he understands good and evil so he tries to exercise some restraint on Venom. The symbiote relationship goes both ways, since Brock needs Venom to survive the Foundation’s security team that’s gunning for him. Much of the action of Venom takes place at night, a fitting time for this murky, dark story.
A portion of the movie is devoted to Brock’s absurd behavior brought on by Venom, culminating in a scene with Anne and her doctor at a fancy restaurant. It’s familiar territory that date back to Renfrew in the original novel of “Dracula.” For the best comedic version in movies, think of the possessed versions of Rick Moranis and Sigourney Weaver in Ghostbusters. Here the trope is kind of tired, and thankfully the script abandons it fairly quickly. Where the movie comes alive is the action scenes where Venom shows his powers. Director Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland) ratchets up the intensity with tight, fast action that strikes in surprising ways. He also makes good use of the San Francisco setting, especially in a sequence with Brock fleeing on a motorcycle while pursued by several SUVs.
Both Hardy and Williams are almost too good for the movie, since they can communicate depth even in a shallow piece like Venom. They’re a full-course steak dinner caught in a popcorn flick. Likewise, Ahmed, who was outstanding in Nightcrawler and Rogue One, is tamped down to fit the stereotype of an evil genius. They raise the quality of the film even though their roles are pretty much by the numbers.
Overall, the film does work. It’s a bag of popcorn seasoned with some unexpected spices, so it tickles your taste buds in unexpected ways. It could have been much worse – Topher Grace, anyone? – and while it doesn’t rise to the level of recent Marvel fare like Black Panther, Spider-Man: Homecoming, or Thor: Ragnarok, it’s a decent second tier entertainment.
There are two long tags in the credits – one midway through, the other at the end – that are full scenes for upcoming films. One sets up the sequel to Venom – you knew there had to be one – and even introduces the big bad for that film. The other is for the new animated feature out later this year, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.