Why Venom (2018) was pretty great.
[Spoilers! But not for the ending.]
I did not see Venom in theaters because I could not find anyone who would see it with me. The film was getting panned by critics, but I was hearing good things from people I knew. They said it was surprisingly fun, with a buddy cop-type relationship between Eddie Brock and his super(anti)hero alter-ego, Venom. Given that the trailer featured an oily mass with a very long tongue and sharp teeth biting off someone’s head, I wasn’t sure whether to believe them.
When I saw Venom a month ago after it came out on DVD, I discovered that they were absolutely right. Venom has an astounding ratio on Rotten Tomatoes: 28% approval rating from critics (Rotten by a wide margin), but an 84% approval rating from audiences (well above the minimum approval rating to be Certified Fresh). Tom Hardy plays Eddie Brock, an overconfident journalist with his heart in the right place but little respect for ethics in journalism or his girlfriend’s job. Though the film begins as if it is about the love story between Eddie and Anne (Michelle Williams), it is, in fact, about aliens.
Riz Ahmed plays Carlton Drake, the wealthy space-minded entrepreneur who has absolutely no moral compass but plenty of charisma. In a scene that is either a clever encapsulation of Drake’s character or a significant oversight in the script, Drake praises a young girl for raising her hand to ask a question, and then fails to ask her what her question was or make any attempt to answer it. If Eddie’s efforts to ruin Drake’s PR cover and expose his real plans were the main source of conflict, the film would feel stale. Thankfully, it isn’t.
Venom is surprisingly funny. Much of the humor comes from Hardy’s portrayal of Eddie’s “just go with it” approach to his sudden illness and the subsequent discovery that he is the host for an alien life form with a lot of opinions. Venom as a character is also amusing, with just enough dialogue to make Eddie both frustrated and fond and introduce us to a terrifying but practical alien that is always hungry. Venom does get to bite off the promised heads, but the violence mostly occurs just out of frame. To call Eddie or Venom (or Eddie-Venom) a superhero is a stretch. Together, they make an amusing team with a certain idea of justice.
Eddie’s ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend, Dan (Reid Scott), is a nice change of pace from usual characters of the type. One of the subtle reversals of the film is that while Eddie destroyed his girlfriend’s career due to his selfishness, their mutual self-centeredness is part of why they got along. Dan, who does not notice or mind this aspect of his girlfriend, seems to be the only character who genuinely cares about Eddie’s well-being, including Eddie. Reversals like this one – the compassionate romantic rival, the alien who eats tater-tots, the journalist who completely loses sight of his own story – make the film refreshing.
The movie is slow to start, but once Eddie and Venom meet, the action picks up. Unlike many films set in San Francisco that take place entirely inside or on the Golden Gate Bridge, the film features several car chases that take full advantage of San Francisco’s notoriously steep hills. However, it is obvious that not all the scenes were filmed on location. One scene takes place in a pine forest that is allegedly near San Francisco. It was jarring enough that for a moment, I had no idea what country the scene took place in.
The film suffers from some odd choices, such a substantial amount of screen time for the travels of a symbiote we can only assume is Venom, but is not, and which serves almost no purpose for advancing the plot. The plot holes are frustrating: If the humans who host the symbiotes have control over their own bodies, why do some of them turn into docile zombies? Threads of the plot are introduced and then never referred to again, such as Eddie’s attempt to reveal the true nature of Drake’s activities – which was supposedly the motivation behind his actions for most of the movie.
Overall, Venom is enjoyable and exactly what I was promised. Our protagonist is free from the angst about doing the right thing that superheroes usually suffer from. Eddie isn’t exactly a good enough guy for that sort of thing to worry him, and Venom doesn’t mind some casualties. As one of two solid superhero movies that Sony released in 2018, Venom proves that sometimes critics get too caught up in the source material and their expectations, and don’t give enough credit to the end result when a studio tries something new.