VENOM (2018) – Review
Even though Summer is a recent memory, it’s Marvel time again at the multiplex. Or is it? Yes, that familiar red logo is prominent in all the marketing for this flick. Well, as they say, ya’ gotta’ look at the “fine print”. This is not from Marvel Studios, the film division started ten years ago. Rather it is “in association with” as it states at this flick’s opening frames. That’s because prior to 2008, before going “all in” on features, two of the biggest Marvel Comics properties were licensed out to some major movie powerhouses. The X-Men were snapped up by Fox, which has been releasing “mutant movies” since 2000 (two more are due next year). And after a massive legal brawl, Spider-Man swung over to Sony. That initial Sam Raimi 2002 origin was a box office behemoth. But when Raimi finished his trilogy, a reboot in 2012 and its 2014 sequel fizzled. Wisely Sony joined forces with Marvel Studios, making Spidey part of the Marvel “movie-verse” and launching a solo franchise with 2017 hit SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING. But Sony insisted they’d have their own “Marvel universe” aside from the “web-head” by focusing on Spidey’s impressive roster of villains (really, aside from Batman and maybe The Flash, he’s got the best “rogue’s gallery” in comics). Of course, Warner’s tried that with the disastrous 2004 CATWOMAN (and they’re trying again with the “now in production” THE JOKER). Will Sony have better luck with a comics fan favorite that goes back 30 years? There’s a lot riding on the slithering, toothy man-monster known as VENOM.
The story begins with the final moments of a sleek new space shuttle crashing to Earth (and no, you’ve not walked into the auditorium showing THE PREDATOR). We’re actually in a wooded area in East Malaysia, not the US. As the authorities arrive. we learn that this wasn’t a government project, but rather part of a space mission launched by the “Life Foundation”, a drug and tech mega company headed by Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed). Seems they were bringing back several canisters containing these weird, wiggly alien creatures. And wouldn’t you know it, one of the canisters is missing. Oh oh. As Drake goes on TV to praise the astronaut/scientists that perished, we meet (back in San Francisco), popular maverick cable news journalist/reporter Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy). He’s living the good life, sharing a plush two flat with his lawyer girlfriend Anne (Michelle Williams). Hey, they even have crazy pillow fights before she’s got to rush off to the firm (awww, so cute). But Eddie’s got a boss too, and he insists on an interview with Drake (Eddie distrusts the guy). When he stumbles on to some insider info, Eddie uses it to turn the TV “puff piece” into an “ambush” on Drake. The mogul throws his considerable weight around and Eddie is fired (leading to a nasty break-up with Anne). But back to those aliens, called Symbiotes, who need to “merge” with living beings in order to live on Earth. Unfortunately, the hosts (lab rats and rabbits) don’t survive the merge. Nonetheless, Drake pressures his scientists, headed by Dr. Skirth (Jenny Slate), to begin trials on humans (the homeless recruited with promises of big cash). When the bodies begin to pile up, Skirth contacts Eddie and sneaks him past security to the sprawling Life labs. When Eddie spots a familiar street person writhing in a cell, he breaks her out. This prompts her alien to merge with Eddie. Lucky for him, they’re compatible. Soon Drake’s brutal security forces are on the hunt for Brock. But Eddie’s freaking out about the weird voices in his head. Then there’s the whole “morphing into a multi-fanged, nearly unstoppable, hulking cannibal” thing that has him on edge. And what of that missing alien across the ocean? It couldn’t make its way to the States, could it?
A truly talented cast is chained to a heavy, clunky script that drags them straight down, never giving them a chance to soar. Hardy has dazzled with his talents countless times, but average Joe (lotsa’ ‘dems and ‘dose, y’noze) turned crusading cable news star Brock is an out-of-date cliche that his skills can never really wrangle. Plus, he has to make the countless one-sided conversations with his merged-alien work, but it’s as if he’s Elwood Dowd contending with an obnoxious homicidal “Harvey” (where’s the “holy hand grenade” when you really need it). And thanks to that sloppy script, his Brock has zero chemistry with Williams’s Anne. She seems more like a sorority sister throwing a “hissy fit” at her listless beau after their big split (it doesn’t help that she’s attired in preppy plaid skirts, with a 70’s folk singer wig making her look like an extra in THE PAPER CHASE). So, an action adventure is only as good as it’s villain? Despite Ahmed’s talents, Drake is a sneering Lex Luthor-wannabe (though not the over the top loon that Jesse Eisenberg is as the actual LL in the DC “movie-verse”). His threats against his minions seem hollow, as though he was chewing out the servers at his “pop-up” eatery. The film’s biggest crime would be its treatment of the dazzlingly witty Slate as the doomed “whistleblower”. At least she’s not burdened with an excess of dopey dialogue (unlike the main trio).
Director Ruben Fleischer made one of the most delightful horror-comedies of the last ten years, ZOMBIELAND, but there’s little of that film’s wit and style here (It’s closer to the lunk-headed brutality of his GANGSTER SQUAD). The comedy here is ham-fisted while the action sequences are edited so haphazardly that it’s almost impossible to make out who’s where while mired in CGI ooze. A motorcycle/car chase through the streets of “Frisco (now that’s original) is so tedious I was wondering where the SF police were hiding (was this the night of “The Purge”). As for the title character, well, he’s a “mo-cap” mess with shiny porcelain eyes who bounces about as though he leaped right out of I, ROBOT and I AM LEGEND, or any number of video games. Hardcore fans of the comics will be angered that most of V’s more gruesome…appetites..were curtailed in order to grab the PG-13 rating (really, DEADPOOL and LOGAN were comics-based R-rated hits, so why wimp out). And as with all Marvel flicks we get bonus scenes during the end credits. The first tauts a possible sequel (yeah right) involving a great beloved actor sporting a dime-store tomato-red clown wig. But hang tight, because we’re treated (truly) to 3 or 4 minutes of the upcoming animated feature, SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE, which does hold out some hope for Sony’s plans. However, VENOM, like its namesake while likely not be fatal, but will definitely leave you queasy and lethargic. Maybe that cartoon feature on December 14 will be the perfect antidote to this toxic tripe.
1 Out of 5