Spider-Man recently made a critically acclaimed Homecoming to Disney/Marvel after years tied to Sony, leaving the alien entity known as Venom in a strange hinterland.
The character’s first stand alone film is produced by Sony “in association with Marvel” as part of their new sharing agreement, but the resulting conflagration of themes and tones bears little sign of Marvel’s Midas touch.
Tom Hardy steps into the title role as Eddie Brock, a journalist infected with a symbiote (crawling CGI goo, essentially) that turns him into the film’s antihero Venom. If this was intended as an audition for the Marvel Cinematic Universe proper, he fluffs it.
The character has long been deemed too adult for Marvel’s PG landscape – Toby Maguire certainly couldn’t pull it off in the woeful Spider-Man 3 – and those fears are absolutely realised. The demands of blockbuster film-making are entirely at odds with the grimdark nature of Venom, especially when you don’t have a friendly neighbourhood wall-crawler to crack some jokes.
The first half plays like a stilted rom-com, with Hardy the lovable loser who breaks the heart of Anne (Michelle Williams). These scenes aim to give the characters some emotional depth but end up exposing the paucity of the script.
Venom himself is portrayed relatively cleverly, bantering back and forth with the beleaguered Brock, impatiently ranting about his desire for destruction. Had the film focused on this schizophrenic dynamic, with Hardy wandering the streets of San Francisco appeasing the voice in his head, it could have worked in a similar way to Fox’s superlative Logan, exploring the darker side of superheroes, and by proxy the darker side of humanity.
But aside from the numerous henchmen he eats, Venom’s most tragic victims are the talented cast that struggle their way through a film packed with goofy comedy and seismic tonal shifts. Chief among the casualties is Williams, lumbered with a painfully bland character well below the Oscar nominee's standard. Riz Ahmed is equally wasted as cookie-cutter villain Carlton Drake, a symbiote-infected, power mad inventor in the vein of Elon Musk.
In Venom’s favour, it’s refreshing to have a superhero film that doesn’t require twenty movies’ worth of research. But this long awaited spin-off is a jumbled affair that falls way below the expectations set by both the comic books and the star.