I am no comic book purist. I am barely comic-book-literate. So it feels to me that comprehending the immensely profitable Marvel superhero universe is like trying to get the hang of a gigantic many-headed hydra that adds another viper whenever it wants money.
Which brings us to “Venom,” a Spider-Man spinoff that made me chuckle a bit and shrug a lot. The title character is a hybrid alien-human antihero inhabiting the body of San Francisco TV reporter Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy). Eddie is transformed when he is invaded by a gooey extraterrestrial amoeba called a symbiote that must hide under his skin to survive while on Earth.
Venom, as the talking consciousness is named, pops into multi-fanged view only to fight breakneck battles or to chomp down a snack, preferably one that is human and still alive.
Before you can say Jekyll and Hyde, Eddie is sprouting tentacle-like limbs with minds of their own and bickering with his unruly new tenant over how to deal with his ex-fiancée Anne (Michelle Williams). The result is a wannabe action comedy that, like its limb-stretching protagonist, regularly overreaches itself. It quickly demonstrates that even cartoon science fiction has its limits.
“Venom,” produced by Sony outside of the usual Disney/Marvel franchise control center, aims to be a brash, breezy and breathlessly paced new origin story, but largely misses those targets.
That is doubly disappointing because the talent involved in the cast and crew is what initially excited me about the film. Hardy, an excellent dramatic actor, and Williams, who is unforgettable in deep, serious and romantic roles, are a cinematic dream team. But here they’re asked to carry a story straining for the surrealistic gusto of a Looney Tunes classic but lacking the nerve to go “Deadpool”-style gonzo. A film that provides the obligatory Stan Lee cameo in this story line but doesn’t have his head bitten off is a film that lacks courage.
Given the weak script, the actors do as well as can be reasonably expected. Eddie, who is repeatedly called “a loser” and seems far too dumb to be a celebrity TV journalist, is played by Hardy as if a powerful drug was released into his system. Under the direction of “Zombieland’s” Ruben Fleischer, he writhes around like a freshly landed salmon.
There are glimmers of humor in his performance. At one point, Eddie repeatedly tries to raise his hands in surrender to a band of armed goons while Venom insists that he drop them back down. Their verbal clashing goes in some novel directions, with Hardy voicing both characters, and his sudden attack of hunger in a swanky Bay Area restaurant where live lobsters are served is something we haven’t seen before in movies like this.
But through it all, Hardy plays the character as a guy who seems dopey and drunk, making the hero a hard person to root for. Like his work in the last “Mad Max,” it is an audacious performance, but one that would work better as a sidebar character than as the film’s centerpiece.
With much less screen time and character development, less is demanded of Williams, and less is what she delivers in what must be the least successful screen performance of her career. Riz Ahmed plays the standard-issue villain, a tech titan with diabolical secret plans, in standard-issue form. Without interesting characters, the film rings phony.
There’s even a formulaic, here-we-go-again feeling to the final credits, which would feel incomplete if sequels weren’t revealed. Yet, it’s worth staying in until the very end to capture the full experience. What makes this signoff unusually watchable is a preview of an upcoming Spider-Man saga that crams in immeasurably more fun, emotion, visual excitement, creative gags and superhero satire than the main film. After the disheartening movie that precedes it, this snazzy little caboose feels like an entertainment bonanza.
★★ out of 4 stars
Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for language.