This is a list of things that happen in the new movie Venom: Riz Ahmed, personifying every rich supervillain trope at once, utters the words "God has abandoned us … I will not"; Tom Hardy hops in a restaurant's lobster tank and eats a crustacean raw; the movie's titular character says "on my planet, I was kind of a loser"; and an alien turns into Oscar-nominated actress Michelle Williams. These are the kinds of moments that turn a movie into a cult favorite, or into a total disaster. Venom could be either—if it had any idea what it was at all.
What the movie is supposed to be is an adaptation of the Marvel Comics series featuring the antihero known as Venom. (The character, like his comics-world brother Spider-Man, is currently the property of Sony, so this movie, like Spidey's standalone flicks, are produced "in association with" Marvel, not by the studio itself.) It's a live-action movie about a super-something born of melding a one-time investigative reporter Eddie Brock (Hardy) with a symbiote from outer space. How'd the symbiote get to Earth? Well, it crash-landed here thanks to a mad scientist named Carlton Drake (Ahmed), who has some pretty nonsensical ideas about how to save the human race by coupling them with symbiotes and sending them to space. (At least, I think? Most comic book movie villains don't have very well-drawn motivations.) When a tip from a whistleblower (a tragically unused Jenny Slate) sends Eddie to Drake's lab, the symbiote gets inside him and decides they're best friends. From there it's just a lot of running around as Brock attempts to understand his new "parasite" while fending off Drake and his henchmen, who very much want their alien back.
Sound cool? Discombobulated? Like a relic from the VHS-era dustbin? A clumsy allegory for anything you can imagine? It's all of those things—and none of them—at once. The reason Venom falls apart isn't poor direction or bad acting, it's that all the things it is seem to be at odds with each other. (It could, however, be the script, which wanders aimlessly between "dark" and unintentionally hilarious.) Director Reuben Fleischer (Zombieland) appears to have been on a quest to bring back the slightly campy comic-book movies of a bygone era, but instead ended up with a movie that looks like a collection of Spawn outtakes that were wrapped in brand-new CGI for a 14-year-old kid who just time-traveled here from 1997.
And that's not necessarily a bad thing. There are more than a few moments in Venom that are primed for WTF LOLs, and if they were played to sleep-deprived, possibly intoxicated midnight moviegoers, the movie would be a hit. A good laugh is a good laugh, even if it comes for the wrong reason. But when the movie tries to take itself seriously, the hope that Venom might just be a jab at the entire comic-book movie genre falls apart.
It's too bad, because that movie—the one where Tom Hardy talks to his symbiote like a kid who just built a new imaginary friend and knows full well it's ridiculous—could've been amazing. Writing for Polygon, Matt Patches pointed out that Hardy might be the only person in the movie who knows it's a comedy and responds accordingly. "The movie's highs come when Hardy treats the Spider-Man spinoff like a Little Shop of Horrors remake starring mid-'90s Jim Carrey," he writes. "That may underwhelm comic readers of the '90s, promised a faithful standalone movie year after year after year, but it's enough to leave this Venom skeptic wanting more."
That's correct. If Venom was just slapstick and one-liners, an antidote to the over-seriousness of the "dark comic book movie" subgenre, it'd be a gas. If the entire movie was that lobster scene I mentioned above, I'd watch it back-to-back with Legend, the other movie where Tom Hardy played two characters without either one missing a beat. (Besides, a "Hardy's Boys" double feature sells itself.) But it's none of those things. It's just a confused mess with a few moments of levity clutched in its jaws—a movie too bad to be enjoyable but not bad enough to make anyone want to line up for the trainwreck. It's got a nice big grin, but nothing in its fangs.