Venom Non-Spoiler Review
Right up front, ‘Venom’ is not as bad a ‘Catwoman’, that comparison is sensationalist and unfair. That said, it’s also not great but there was real potential in parts that tried to shine. Tom Hardy’s excellent performance and the glimmers of awesomeness are let down by a generic script, weak or non-existent character motivations, a main villain so bland they should have opted to not have a ‘big bad’ at all, an addiction to expository dialogue and ultimately a movie that is of at least two minds about everything.
The film never settles on what type of experience it aims to deliver or the story it wants to tell – its distinctly lacking a thematic anchor.
On the other hand, for all its flaws – and there are plenty – if you are able to look past them and focus on Hardy, there’s entertainment to be had in this throwback flick.
I was able to overlook many of these issues and get some ‘popcorn’ entertainment out of it, unlike ‘The Predator’ or ‘Fant4stic’. However, I wouldn’t be rushing to own it. But, if they let Tom Hardy own this franchise like Reynolds bosses 'Deadpool', something special is coming up.
Buckle up kids, this is a long one.
This first section of the review is called:
‘A slow and boring beginning that doesn’t really go anywhere - just like in the film’.
As a character, ‘Venom’ gets a lot of love. He’s often cited by fans of the ‘Spider-Verse' as their favourite adversary of the wall-crawler. So, there was plenty of hype when the film was announced, even though it wasn’t an MCU entry. Sony’s track record with the ‘Spider-Man’ IP has been patchy. The first two Sam Raimi films are stone-cold classics in the genre, with ‘Spider-Man 2’ often being hailed as one of the finest superhero flicks ever made (and personally I would agree – it’s one of my favourite films from any genre). However, the third film – although it was the highest grossing entry – suffered due to ‘Venom’ being forced into an already fully stuffed screenplay. The reception ‘Spider-Man 3’ received led to the series being rebooted in 2012 with ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ and its sequel two years later.
Had the ‘Amazing’ films been released in 2002, they would have been passable. However, the Marc Webb directed flicks hit theatres as the MCU was well into its stride with ‘Avengers: Assemble’ and ‘The Winter Soldier’ etc. The first Webb ‘Spider-Man’ film was a reaction to the success of the Nolan helmed ‘Batman’ films and went darker, which didn’t really lend itself well to the story, but it was solid enough, even if it didn’t really know tonally or narratively what its purpose for existing was – other than to retain the rights for the studio.
The second Webb film was a genuine mess. Again it was over-stuffed, seemed to pivot so hard to align itself with the tone of the MCU it tripped over its own feet, rolled down the stairs and ended up in ‘Batman Forever’ 90’s territory and it’s overall reason for existing, which was to set up the ‘Sinister Six’ and expanded ‘Spider-Verse’, was so overt it crippled what little story it had to tell. The ‘Gwen Stacy’ death scene was amazing though, it’s a shame such an iconic moment from the comics ended up feeling pointless.
‘Venom’ is a far more enjoyable experience (personally) than the ‘Amazing’ films. Although it suffers from many of the same issues, the entertainment value is superior thanks to Tom Hardy’s take on the character. The best aspect of the film is the dynamic between ‘Brock’ and ‘Venom’ - it has shades of the helping-hand from ‘Evil Dead 2’.
The charming, but low-key, performance of Hardy and the banterish dialogue between ‘Eddie’ and his 'parasite' provide the film with some genuinely cool and funny moments, saving what otherwise would be a generic, pretty unspectacular superhero flick. It’s a shame the movie doesn’t lean more into its obvious strengths (obvious to anyone except film execs), instead, it thinks action and CGI is its ally.
The action, for the most part, is well shot, punchy and reasonably easy to follow but the CGI is not great, using console terms, it looks a generation old. Yet, when it’s ‘Eddie’ and ‘Venom’ bouncing off each other the relationship is more important than the VFX. I love loads of older horror films with naff special FX that are a joy to watch because of the characters. When the trailer hit the net and I saw ‘Eddie’ conversing with the eel-like ‘Venom’ coming out of his back, I instantly thought of the cult classic ‘Brain Damage’ (1988). That film’s puppet is as basic as it gets, but it doesn’t detract from the experience. However, as the film bursts into its CGI slugfest climax when the fists and improvised symbiote weaponry start flailing around and all characterisation is out of the window, that’s when the VFX’s weaknesses are fully exposed.
They have tried to hide the iffy ‘Spawn 2.0’ CG by shrouding it in darkness, but that just makes it worse because both combatants in full symbiote suit form are dark, so you can’t see anything properly. I’m not sure if Fleischer directed the climatic CG battle, but its poorly executed compared to some of the other action sequences. Whether he directed the onset action and someone else did the final fight or vice-versa, I don’t know, either way, there’s a noticeable difference in quality. The chase sequence is done really well, even if the CG lets it down in places.
The biggest failing of the film as a whole, ironically, is that it’s of two minds about everything. Does it want to be an action film? A comedy? A body horror? Yes, yes to all those things. ‘Venom’ is all over the place and doesn’t focus, rather than being a master at one thing, the film instead opts for being a ‘Jack of All Trades’ (seriously, I’m going to get as many Raimi and Bruce Campbell nods into this as possible).
Now, whether the issues with tone, pacing, character motivations and story choices are the result of studio interference, the film being heavily cut and chopped up to land a PG-13 rating or simply the result of the filmmakers not deciding from the outset on a thematic anchor, is anyone’s guess – I suspect it’s a cocktail of all of the above.
The inference is noticeable from a general filmmaking point of view. To clarify upfront, by no means were any of the tell-tale signs of interference as detrimental to the final product as was the case with ‘The Predator’. For the most part, ‘Venom’ is well directed, but, again, much like the fleeting moments of quality provided by Hardy playing with himself, it’s patchy and ruined by a mixture of lazy edits, flat shots, poor lighting and confusing blocking. These issues only standout because other parts of the film are done so well.
As for the PG-13 rating, Tom Hardy has stated that a good 40 minutes of awesome footage didn’t make it into the final film. Hardy stated in an interview when attempting to clarify the nature of the unused footage, “What I’m trying to say is, the question was [what] scenes I was most excited to shoot…and I was like, there’s a bunch of stuff that hasn’t made the movie. And I’m talking [from] an actor’s point of view. So, what I’m saying is I had a lot of time improvising and a lot of freedom to play with Venom.” His statement suggests it was more footage revolving around the ‘Brock/Venom’ dynamic that was left out and not large chunks of ultra-violence.
Personally, I didn’t feel the film lost anything from being rated PG-13, it’s still rated 15 in the UK, I don’t know if we have a different cut, but the film that made it to screen didn’t need to be R-rated. That said, had the film focused more on body horror and taken the darker dramatic route, opting for that Cronenberg-esque thematic anchor, then it would have needed to be R-rated to fully realise itself.
So, who was the film trying to please?
The rating suggests the studio aimed to keep it parallel to the MCU on the off chance one day there’s the potential to crossover. Keeping it PG-13 means it would be easier to blend the ‘Venom’ series with the MCU without taking away any elements that could potentially make an R-rated ‘venom’ series popular in the meantime. Much of what draws people to ‘Deadpool’ is how free the films are to cross the line time and time again with their violence, bloodshed and naughty words. Sony would probably rather not have to deal with watering down ‘Venom’ and angering fans who become accustomed to an R-rated ‘Venom’ experience, similar to what fans of ‘Deadpool’ would have to deal with if the character were to ever be shoved into a mainstream MCU film. Then again, there is a PG-13 cut of ‘Deadpool 2’ coming out this Christmas, but we all know it’s going to be so facetious in its approach to the rating that it will work on a meta level and as a caution going forward not to anyone who even considers turning trying to make the ‘Merc with a Mouth’ family friendly.
Anyway, a PG-13 rating also means more people can go to see a film. But, after the success of ‘Deadpool’ and ‘Logan’, and considering so many films that should have been R-rated have flopped, studios are slowly changing the 00’s mindset where PG-13 was the golden ticket of ratings. So, looking at the long-term picture, it’s most likely they aimed to please Marvel studios with the rating.
As for the thematic anchor, well, if they’d gone down a deeper route they would have needed that R-rating which was off the table. So, the film had little choice but to be a bog-standard origin flick that couldn’t really explore the characters of ‘Eddie Brock’ and ‘Venom’ properly or build the world around them in any meaningful way. It’s such a missed opportunity, taking a premise like this and just producing a film in which you could pretty much slide any old comic book character into with a one-day re-write. The most enduring comic book characters are ones that have something unique about them. It’s why they have fans, it’s why they’ve been popular for decades, it’s why, out of the hundreds, they stand out. So, other than brand recognition, you do have to wonder why bother with a ‘Venom’ movie if all it amounts to is a CGI fight?
On to the second section of the review I like to call:
‘A meandering jumble of thoughts and ideas - just like the film’.
****THE NEXT PART CONTAINS CONTENT THAT MAY BE CONSIDERED SPOILERS****
Objectively, one of the biggest crimes the screenplay commits is in relation to the character development and motivations. This is definitely a ‘because script’ film. Very few of the actions taken by the main characters are influenced by the events of the film and everyone is going through the motions. The challenges, inch-high obstacles and conflicts the characters are faced with are manufactured for convenience and all subsequent actions and behaviour feel as though it would all have played out the same no matter what happened.
In the film, ‘Eddie Brock’ is an investigative journalist, it’s stated that ‘taking down unethical organisations etc.’ is what ‘he does’, therefore the obstacle of him being fired has no impact on his further actions; it provides no motivation to act differently. If he had started as a straight-laced journalist that deals with general fluffy news and upon losing everything he holds dear spirals into a depression that eventually turns to rage, it would have meant his firing had a point. If presented in this way, the story point of him being fired and losing ‘Anne’ due to the power of the ‘Life Foundation’, becomes the catalyst for the character to pivot and go after the company on a personal vendetta – leading to character growth.
As it is in the film, he would have ultimately done what ‘he does’ anyway after smelling a rat when the interview is cut short. If that work/life conflict is removed from the beginning and the scientist turncoat removed, the screen time could have been better used showing how ‘Eddie’ does ‘what he does’. The filmmakers could have had an almost ‘Ocean’s 11’ style segment with ‘Brock’ casing the ‘Life Foundation’, mapping out security placement and numbers, lifting an access card, infiltrating the building and then stumbling across the human experimentation. This achieves the same goal of getting ‘Eddie’ where he needs to be so he can bond with the symbiote, while showing the audience his skill set and what ‘he does’ as a reporter rather than tell.
This order of events also opens the opportunity to create a relationship conflict like in David Cronenberg's ‘The Fly’, whereby, now with the symbiote inside him, his initial behaviour is what pushes ‘Anne’ (Williams) away as opposed to the lazy and rushed – almost amateurish way – that story point is handled. How the film presents the perfect relationship between ‘Eddie’ and ‘Anne’ then plays it out ending in a heartbeat, it feels as though the writer took the easy route to just get her out of the way for a bit as quickly as possible for the convenience of the rest of the story. Linked to that, the breakup also functions as a cheap way to bring in a pointless character simply to allow access to a MIR scanner down the line.
If the script cut the fat and reorganised itself, the film could have worked with a body horror theme far deeper than it did. This would have been a massive benefit to the film as when it did dive into those aspects, they provided some of the best scenes, ‘Brock’ / ‘Venom’ stuff and jokes.
The same can be said about Williams’ ‘Anne’ and Riz Ahmed’s ‘Carlton Drake’. Neither character feels as though they do anything they wouldn’t have already done regardless of what happens to or around them. Yes, ‘Brock’ and ‘Anne’ end the film in a different place to where they started, but it feels so manufactured. The turn is slapdash and lazy and ultimately the distance between them as characters by the credits isn’t enough to have any real impact. There isn’t a reason for them not to be apart especially with the actions of ‘Anne’ in acts two and three, it’s Hallmark melodrama to leave a lazy thread to be picked up in the sequel. There’s no ‘Darkman’ ending, no ‘Peter Parker’ walking away from ‘Mary Jane’ (which is basically the same as ‘Darkman’ ending). Not that I want a rip-off ending, but a lack of any consequence that resonates and hits hard is sorely missing.
The villain, oh, the villain. ‘Carlton Drake’ must be one of the most poorly defined and developed villains in years. He’s pointless as a 'big bad' and brings the film down. The first reason he brings the film down is he lacks any screen presence and sucks the entertainment out of the story. Had he been replaced by a character more akin to ‘Xander Drax’ (‘The Phantom’), one that leans into the fun side of things, or a Netflix 'Kingpin' type had the film gone the darker route, it would have been elevated.
Considering ‘Venom’ is being set-up as an anti-hero, then the 'big bad' needs to be proper bad as the hero isn’t that good, either way, the villain needed to be at least interesting on some level.
The second reason is, ‘Riot’.
This is where the film enters ‘Incredible Hulk’ territory. ‘Riot’ is in the film prior to act 3, but the symbiote is hopping from host to host, hiding in bodies like in ‘Fallen’ (1998), as it makes its way across the world, but when its introduction proper comes along, it doesn’t really affect the story or change the plans of ‘Drake’, who wants more symbiotes anyway.
The climax does give the audience some bang for their buck and throws up on the screen the symbiote slugfest many came for, but that’s the issue I had.
Much like the nosedive point in the MCU ‘Hulk’ film, the climax is as generic and tensionless as it gets. It’s a barrage of poorly lit CGI spewed onto the screen delivering a generic ending to a film that had such potential.
Where this ending misses for me is, now there's been some symbiote on symbiote action it leaves little spectacle for the sequel. The stakes will feel lower now. Had they skipped the fight in this film, it would mean that when 'Venom' goes head to head with 'Carnage', it would be a massive step up from the security forces and gangsters it was used to going up against.
The final part of the review is called:
'Oh Spider-Man, Spider-Man! Wherefore art thou Spider-Man - just like the studio cries'.
Lastly, let’s quickly touch upon the lack of ‘Spider-Man’ in this story. Some fans have raised concerns about a ‘Venom’ origin film that doesn’t have a direct tie to ‘Spider-Man’. The two characters are intrinsically linked, and I fully understand the points raised by those who have been let down by this direction, however, there is an opportunity to tell an awesome ‘Black Suit’ story if by some miracle Sony was able to borrow Tom Holland. In the sequel, ‘Venom’ faces off against ‘Carnage’ and loses, bad. At this point ‘Carnage’ has also spanked ‘Spidey’ leading to the last option available is for ‘Eddie’ to lend the symbiote to ‘Peter Parker’ harnessing the power of the ‘black suit’ to defeat ‘Carnage’. Drunk on his new power levels, ‘Peter’ refuses to return the symbiote to ‘Brock’, effectively kidnapping a key part of him. This then sets up a ‘black suit’ film and provides ‘Brock’ with the motivation to hate ‘Peter Parker’ in a more organic way compared to how it played out in ‘Spider-Man 3’. This way, although it isn’t how some fans wish it to be currently, they could get the basic story they want and at the end when the symbiote re-bonds with ‘Eddie’, ‘Venom’ now has the ‘Spider-Man’ power set and the white chest emblem. But, that requires Marvel and Sony to work extremely closely on two sequels.
Head of content and co-founder of Beyond the Box Office.