Director Ruben Fleischer’s “Venom” is a strange beast that symbiotically bonds the gleeful campiness of superhero films in Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” series with a subjective scope of unchecked power in the current sociopolitical spectrum. At the end of it, you see a hypnotic but tonally bizarre hunk of awesome that feels so detached from its current “cinematic universe” craze that it’s almost like a breath of fresh air—or not because it’s so unabashedly eccentric one can only react in extremes.
Its early-2000s kitsch looms throughout its (almost) 2-hour runtime, giving viewers a time capsule full of casual one-liners, evil lab experiments, and the most comic-book visual effects any movie based on a comic book character can look like. Top that off with a promotional single performed by Eminem, and you’ve got yourself a plate of Mac and Cheese that’s more Cheese than Mac, and—depending on which side of the dish you’re on—in kind of a good way.
Despite how all over the place the film is, “Venom” is as far from an intermittently overwritten file as possible. Director Ruben Fleischer (“Zombieland,” 2009) and writers Kelly Marcel (“Saving Mr. Banks,” 2013), Scott Rosenberg, and Jeff Pinkner create a fun anything-goes vibe in a quasi-realistic image system, but here’s the zinger: from a technical and pacing standpoint, it still feels like the same film through and through.
Every setup has a payoff, whether it’s a character’s particular trait, a barking dog, or a plot decision that incites a domino effect in the following minutes. A prologue that establishes the presence and power of the symbiotes kickstarts a plot thread in the background that continues to advance in its predetermined direction. Also, while the violence is toned down (it’s all PG-13, ‘member?), its bold usage of visual cues from body-horror movies is undoubtedly worth every cent—and, as a bonus, it gives us THAT scene (never mind what it is right now; you’ll know it when you see it).
Admittedly, the movie’s not great—it’s replete with clichés and breaks the ridiculous meter like it’s crumbling a biscuit. But it would be unfair to criticize a film that uses them to its unabashed advantage. The makers look like they were having the time of their lives during production, and it shows. In particular, Tom Hardy (“Dunkirk,” 2017) nails the Jekyll-and-Hyde vibe of Eddie Brock and his alter-ego Venom. He successfully sells viewers on both personalities, giving them distinct characteristics so huge you’d think the symbiote and the human were played by two different people.
Michelle Williams (“All the Money in the World,” 2017) and Riz Ahmed (“Nightcrawler,” 2014) are in for the ride, playing standard personas with their own time to shine. Williams, in particular, has a pretty rote role, so when her moment-in-the-spotlight arrives (yep, it’s that scene; again, you’ll know it when you see it) out of practically nowhere, you’re left trying to pick your dropped jaw off the ground.
With Ahmed, however, it’s slightly more difficult to read between the lines. On the surface, his character—the deliberately villainous-sounding Colton Drake—is your standard villain; a super-diluted, dull variant of Rhys Ifans’ Lizard in “The Amazing Spider-Man,” if you may. Peel through the layers, and you’ll find that he’s a strange spin on Elon Musk, the hyperactive entrepreneur and maverick who’s so charming it’s easy for his fanboys merely to ignore or deny his otherwise emotionally abusive behavior.
Drake’s character arc takes from Musk’s charm, establishing his “inspiring” demeanor to the world, expecting his incredible showmanship to make up for his erratic, sociopathic work ethic. Now, some things he does happen out of nowhere—and there’s no way this kind of convenient character evolution (?) would be okay—but quite honestly, the makers want to make the film’s often surprising stupidity celebratorily self-aware. And that’s fine.
For a movie this tonally diverse, we could use some breathing space. The film’s pacing makes it look like someone wearing a “Yeah, baby!” Austin Powers speaking-tee, trying still to make “fetch” happen. (#StopTryingToMakeFetchHappenItsNotGoingToHappen). At barely two hours, it could have used 20 minutes of space to let its characters and the narrative progression breathe a little. Also, any filmmaker who grossly underutilizes Jenny Slate in a movie has sinned (thank you for coming to my TED talk).
However, the most significant detriment to the film is its safe PG-13 landscape. The USP of “Venom” is its fearful personality, but the gore mostly happens off-screen or inconsequentially comes off slightly half-baked and way too safe. While it’s easy to spot through its feather-light narrative that it wasn’t exactly meant to be a hard-R, the fact that the makers attempted to be the darkest they could within the confines of the rating would definitely make viewers sad thinking about what could have been.
None of its detriments make it an unwatchable film. It’s a wild, breathless roller-coaster through so many different styles—there’s your fun buddy-cop relationship Brock and Venom engage in, with hints of an oddly amorous turn out of nowhere. There’s a drama about righteousness and how overrated it is in the face of self-preservation. And then there’s this mildly Shakespearean trajectory of Ahmed’s Drake, whose arc smokes out Musk’s toxic managerial skills.
“Venom” might not be as accomplished as works like “Watchmen” (2009), “Chronicle” (2012), and “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” (2016). That doesn’t, however, mean it’s not worth every cent. Sure, it’s silly and flawed, often too tight, misses out on many opportunities, and feels all over the place. As a throwback time capsule containing the kind of superhero movie moments you’d only think would appear in cheesy early 2000s blockbusters, though, it nails the experience right on the head.
“Venom” is a total blast and a rewatchable one. Terrific performances, frenetic action setpieces, and an unapologetically gonzo vibe aside, don’t expect a masterpiece to blow you away because this isn’t it. Fleischer succeeds in making a tonally fluid origin story that’s 100% big, dumb throwback fun, and doesn’t care. Totally worth your money unless you’re looking for a cinematic marvel (pun intended) because this is your friendly neighborhood Quattro Formaggi pizza. Pop in a Blu-ray of “The Dark Knight” (2008) if you’re looking for caviar.