The Venom Symbiote is a sentient black goo from outer space, first introduced when it bonded to Peter Parker in 1984’s “Secret Wars” crossover extravaganza. Not only did the Symbiote give Spider-Man a new costume, but it could change its appearance into any costume Spidey wanted. The Symbiote could also shoot out tendrils, obviating the need for Peter’s web fluid and shooters, while greatly enhancing his strength and endurance as well. Unfortunately, the Symbiote would often hijack Peter’s body while he was sleeping, and also turn him into a cocky and callous dickbag. So it was that Spidey tore himself from the Symbiote, which promptly turned back into a helpless mass of black snot, only now it held a grudge against the host who threw him away.

Eddie Brock was a journalist who thought he had unmasked a serial killer, only to find that Spider-Man had caught the same killer previously, and Brock had just erroneously accused someone of being a supervillain. This front-page faux pas cost Brock his job, his wife, and his apartment. Then Brock and the Symbiote found each other. Two poor souls disgraced and cast aside, with nothing left to live for but their mutual bloodthirsty hatred of Spider-Man. Thus the creation of Venom.

Venom has all of Spider-Man’s powers and abilities, amplified to degrees that Peter could never reach, and they’re immune to the Spider-Sense. What’s more, they literally know Spider-Man inside and out, with intimate knowledge of Peter’s true identity, his loved ones, and everything else Peter has worked so hard to keep the bad guys from knowing (in the comics, anyway). Perhaps most importantly, Venom is a living representation of a time when Peter was corrupted by his own power. He used his abilities irresponsibly, and it will always come back to bite him so long as Venom runs free.

Venom was such an instantly successful character that of course Marvel has tried to capitalize on them at every opportunity, introducing numerous other Symbiotes and even rebranding Venom as an antihero for a time. None of these efforts (with the notable exception of Carnage) ever took off. Little wonder, considering what made Venom so popular. Everything that makes Venom interesting — hell, everything that makes Venom who and what they are — is all about being a foil to Spider-Man. The character was built so specifically for that role and works so perfectly in that role that Venom could never work nearly so well as anything else.

Yet so many keep on trying. The latest attempt is Venom, a Sony picture completely separate from the greater MCU, in which the filmmakers were legally prevented from even so much as mentioning Spider-Man. So it’s a Venom origin story with absolutely zero input from the Webhead, and you can already tell we’re in trouble.

To be clear, I’m not against the principle of other studios making Marvel films. Even the exorbitant resources of Marvel Studios are bound to be spread thin if they’re the only ones committing the vast Marvel Comics stable to film. And anyway, we don’t want Disney and Warner Bros. to be so massive and unimpeachable that there’s nobody else making superhero movies — just look at what the Marvel/DC duopoly has done to the comics industry.

The problem is that with very few exceptions (Looking at you, Deadpool.), pretty much all of the third-party Marvel films have been cash-grabs without any passion or creativity. Even worse, they’re creations of spite against the fans and Marvel alike, made solely to keep the rights from Marvel for that much longer. By all appearances, Venom looked like something similar. Not that there’s anything wrong with making a stand-alone movie about a fan-favorite uber-violent anti-hero (especially one so famously botched in a previous film), but making such a film into a PG-13 venture was a pretty big red flag.

Of course, we can’t ignore the talent involved. Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmad, and Jenny Slate are all rock-solid talents with long and respectable work histories. We’ve also got Ruben Fleischer in the director’s seat, and the guy who made Zombieland and 30 Minutes or Less looks like a fantastic choice on paper. But in practice… well, those movies were both rated R, we’ll put it that way.

As for the writers… yikes. We’ve got Kelly Marcel, late of Saving Mr. Banks, Fifty Shades of Grey, and the ill-fated “Terra Nova” show. We’ve got Scott Rosenberg, one of the writers on the first of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films… before he helped write the abominations of Kangaroo Jack and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. Which brings us to the third writer and the shittiest one of the bunch: Jeff Pinkner, who helped write The Amazing Spider-Man 2, The 5th WaveThe Dark Tower, and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.

(Side note: Seriously, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman lost their careers over less than this. What the fuck is Jeff Pinkner still doing in movies, and who keeps giving him work?!)

Put it all together and what do we get? Predictably, a mess.

To be fair, things start out well enough. Our stage is set in San Francisco — a neat little nod to the comics, as that’s where Venom’s less villainous endeavors took place in the source material. The premise begins with Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmad) the hotshot billionaire genius philanthropist behind the Life Corporation. This is the guy who’s been sending rockets into space to try and find new planets to colonize. Naturally, when he finds alien life, he introduces them to human subjects with the intent of finding a way for human life to survive outside of Earth.

Enter Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy), an investigative journalist with a lovely fiancee (Anne Weying, played by Michelle Williams). Brock catches wind of the shady pharmaceutical testing that Drake has been up to. Long story short, Brock pushes the billionaire too hard, going to unethical lengths in a failed attempt at finding out the truth about Life Corporation. Brock loses his job, his fiancee leaves him, and he’s reduced to being a pariah in a run-down apartment.

Cut to six months later, when Brock is approached by a whistleblower in the Life Corporation (Dr. Dora Skirth, played by Jenny Slate). She gets him into the laboratory at Life Corporation, Brock ends up with his very own symbiote, Drake wants his property back, and we’re off to the races.

With this premise, the filmmakers came so very, very close to getting it right.

Basically, what we have here is a riff on the classic Venom origin, swapping out our heroic Spider-Man for a maniacally evil conglomerate bent on world domination. This could have been a super-powered beatdown of Bad versus Evil, with Anne and/or Dr. Skirth acting as moral arbiters, and that could have been fucking awesome. If only Brock had been motivated by revenge against the billionaire asshole who destroyed his life, and the Symbiote had been motivated by revenge against the lowly humans who kept him in a glass jar for so many months.

But that’s not what we have here.

Instead, Brock is a character with close to zero agency in his own story. From the lab accident onward, Brock is effectively powerless to do anything but hang on for dear life, hope that nobody gets terribly hurt, and do whatever the Symbiote wants. The Symbiote is in full and absolute control from start to finish, and that’s problematic when his motivations are all over the place. When he isn’t acting out of hunger or self-preservation, the Symbiote acts in ways that are totally irrational, and he wants to save the world for no better reason than because he likes it here. For no decently-explained reason. Also, he’s considered a “loser” among his species and no further explanation is given.

Again, the filmmakers had it so close and yet so very, very far.

In this movie, the Symbiote is basically presented as Eddie Brock’s id. But in the source material, the Symbiote is absolute power that corrupts absolutely. The Symbiote represents the power to act without consequences, immune to injury or repercussions, acting on pain and anger in a destructive and infinitely satisfying way. It’s an alluring and addictive power trip that even wanting to get rid of it is insanely tough. In the source material, Eddie Brock and the Symbiote are well and truly one. In the movie, they’re constantly at odds with each other. And it’s not like the latter “Jekyll and Hyde” approach couldn’t have worked, it’s just that… well, the source material’s approach worked perfectly fine. And also, this kind of inner conflict between “mild-mannered human” and “rage-powered superhuman” is one we’ve already seen before.

We’ve already seen this kind of dynamic twice with the Hulk in his own standalone movies. We’ve even seen something like it with Ghost Rider in his two movies. And it doesn’t work because the whole time the main character is trying not to freak out, the audience knows it’s going to happen and is in fact actively clamoring for it to happen. No filmmaker in a comic book movie is ever going to put in the time or effort necessary to make the internal conflict more exciting than the apocalyptic external conflict, and until that happens, this is never going to work.

Incidentally, this is why Hulk and Ghost Rider both hit their respective strides as supporting characters (in Avengers and “Agents of SHIELD” respectively), because they’re so much more interesting when we’re not privy to their internal dialogues and we have no idea which way they’re going to go. Compare that to this movie, in which we know absolutely everything about Brock/Venom and we always know exactly where they’re going to fall on the good/bad spectrum. Don’t believe the tagline, folks — the filmmakers leave absolutely zero doubt that Venom is supposed to be a hero in this.

Which brings me to the action. It sucks. All of it. The motorcycle chase scene got cut to ribbons in the editing room, while Drake repeatedly screams at his henchmen not to let Brock get away. The climax looks like a bunch of black CGI pixels slamming into grey CGI pixels until nobody has any idea what’s going on and we have to pretend that Riz Ahmad could plausibly hold his own in a fistfight against freaking Tom Hardy. And then we have the shootout, which holds absolutely zero tension because we know for damned sure that Venom is going to plow through so many armed SWAT officers without a scratch on him. We don’t even get a visceral thrill out of the moment because there’s too much fog to see anything and there’s not even a drop of blood anywhere.

(Side note: Oh, and the scene includes an annoying and uninspired use of the Wilhelm Scream, which is never a plus. The Wilhelm Scream is just like a Stan Lee cameo or any other cliche at this point: If you’re going to use it, you had damn well better be creative about it.)

Speaking of which, the lack of an R rating is a serious detriment. In this iteration, the Symbiotes are clearly presented as beings who constantly need to eat fresh organs to stay alive — if they don’t eat the organs and tissues of other live beings, they’ll eat those of their hosts. With a plot point like that, and a premise like this, and a main character like this, it’s a massive goddamn disservice to see peoples’ heads getting eaten off and it’s presented as a perfectly clean kill. It’s nothing short of laughable to see Venom about to maul a guy, the camera cuts away, and the bad guy is gone without so much as a single speck of blood anywhere on set to show that he was ever there. I don’t mean to come off as someone who insists on a ton of blood and gore in my movies, but I’m not the guy who promised a movie about a famously violent anti-hero who eats people’s viscera to stay alive. I’m just saying, if you’re gonna go there, nobody gets to turn back.

Moving onto the cast. Jenny Slate and Michelle Williams are sadly wasted, but they both put in a noble effort at earning their paychecks, if nothing else. Riz Ahmad is suitably charismatic as our villain, very nicely playing a persuasive snake who shouldn’t be trusted under any circumstances, though things definitely go downhill when he goes for chewing scenery in the back half. As for Tom Hardy… well, it looks like he’s having fun if nothing else. He definitely seems to relish the Brock/Symbiote interplay, and God bless the man, Hardy never does anything halfway.

Oh, and there’s a cameo appearance in the mid-credits stinger to set up a prospective sequel. I knew exactly what was coming, and I’m sorry to say that I came away disappointed. I didn’t see any of the unhinged lunacy I was looking for, but I fear I’ve said too much already.

As for miscellaneous notes, it’s worth repeating that the plot is predictable, the characters get progressively thinner as the plot unfolds, and there are giant gaping holes in the plot. Also, while Venom was superbly designed and beautifully animated, the CGI as a whole was sadly uneven.

To sum up: We already have Deadpool as our uber-violent comic book antihero and this year’s Upgrade as our superpowered “Jekyll and Hyde”, both of which delivered with far more clarity of vision and R-rated commitment. We’ve also got the upcoming Spider-Man: Enter the Spider-Verse to give us a more creative and reverent spin on Webhead outside of the MCU, and that’s another Sony joint like this one is. The title character isn’t nearly as interesting as he is in the source material, so fans won’t be impressed. And anyone who isn’t a fan will be left with this uneven, uninspired, homogenous mess of a film not nearly as transgressive or edgy as promised.

Put all of this together, and I can’t figure out who Venom was made for, or who could possibly need it. Not recommended.

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