It’s quite endearing how clearly Venom turns the clock back 15 years to the 2003 class of superhero movies, feeling wholly and irrevocably at odds with the increasing homogeneity of comic book cinema in the Marvel Cinematic Universe age. That’s not to suggest the film is meaningfully good, but merely bad in its own idiom, spirited and simply valuable as an almost found object from another time when the genre was still figuring itself out. How else to explain turning a bizarre would-be two-man show with Tom Hardy unleashing his inner Abbott and Costello into a superhero (or anti-hero) film?
Hardy does bring a schizophrenic, screwball discombobulation to the proceedings as Eddie Brock and his symbiotic alter ego Venom, but the film around him badly, almost astonishingly mismanages all of the good-will he earns even before the titular figure shows up. Director Ruben Flesicher is at his best when winking at another Fleischer, the animation guru from the ‘30s. Or better yet the Marx Brothers, Venom as the cheerfully demented prankster to Hardy’s paranoid, delusory journalist on the tail of a corporate human-experimentation racket. All this should signal you to the closeted truth of Venom: it only really functions as a comedy, and although it’s kind and self-aware enough to imbibe in its pitch-black, sadistic tendencies, it’s not clever enough to truly rely on them.
Instead, Venom does almost nothing with the masochistic elements latent in its central idea – the notion of self-improvement through self-harm – and barely even exposes the more elemental but lazier “embrace your inner darkness” material it so obviously wishes to play on. And all the other material is a wash, from villainous Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed) to Brock’s girlfriend Anne (Michelle Williams). In between bouts of genuine invention, the visual stylists douse the film in the dreariest of steel greys, the shallow, perspective-less variety circa a decade or more ago (before The Dark Knight replaced that style with the more baroque, urban-gothic textures that seem to have remained de rigeuer in blockbuster cinema since then). The humor, all courtesy of Hardy’s truly bonkers decision to throw himself entirely into his role(s), is largely undone by the lame, ham-fisted, self-serious handling of the material from everyone else on the screen.
So yes, Hardy’s internal dialectic is extremely riveting. And, yet… How wonderfully arbitrary it is that a film which only functions by virtue of its ability to expose the protagonist’s dueling mentalities still feels the need to play the “final antagonist is a reskinned negative mirror version of the protagonist” bit that’s been clogging the arteries of superhero cinema for twenty years now. That pseudo-Gothic final fight doubling managed to dull the otherwise sublime Afro-diasporic aesthetics of a film like Black Panther earlier in 2018. But that film at least attempted to use the same Gothic doubling in its more sociological register, extending a century of scholarship by WEB Du Bois and others, to explore Afro-diasporic tensions and the mental contours and/or polyphony of racial consciousness. Not only does the same conclusion speak to Venom’s lack of confidence in Hardy’s ability to sell his internal demons, but, bereft of any of Black Panther’s admittedly sometimes problematic sociological insight, it clarifies how little Venom even attempts to achieve, let alone how little it succeeds at.