In the first scene of Marvel’s utterly unmarvelous Venom, an alien space ship crashes and burns on earth leaving behind a slithering mass of defanged, digitalized slop. That’s also a fair description of this puddle of simplistic, sanitized PG-13 drivel that Marvel has released instead of the scary, dark-night-of-the-soul thunderbolt fans had the right to expect. Tom Hardy and a massively overqualified cast, including Michelle Williams and Riz Ahmed, have been reduced to putting on a clown-show for kiddies in a shameless corporate product where the creativity stopped with the balance sheet. This year gave us the best and most imaginative Marvel film in Black Panther. Now we have the worst.
What went wrong? Everything, actually. Crudely directed by Ruben Fleischer (remember the bliss of Zombieland?) from an aggressively blockheaded script by Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg and Kelly Marcel, this super–antihero tale seems to take a twisted pride in missing the point. Hello! The title character is an alien symbiote (that tongue! those teeth!) who bites off heads and feeds on human brains. The damn thing needs a human host to survive. In Spider-Man 3, Topher Grace played the villain with a capital “V.” But in this lame origin story, Venom’s accidental target is a crusading, San Francisco TV journalist named Eddie Brock (Hardy). He cares about his fellow man, so there should be a chill — think Jekyll and Hyde — when Venom possesses Brock and starts leaving broken bodies in his wake. It’s the stuff of nightmares. Not here. Our hero actually carries on a dialogue with his mental roommate, telling the monster to ease up. There are Deadpool-style laughs here, and they’re welcome, until you realize the comic side is all there is. The hard-charging reporter and the annihilating counterpart are actually cuddlebugs. Yuck!
This leaves the movie with nowhere to go. It’s hell watching the mega-talented Hardy struggle with a mumbly American accent and a script that chokes the vibrant life out him. Williams is stuck in the paycheck role of Eddie’s former fiancée Anne, a lawyer who has moved on to romance with a doctor (Reid Scott). If that doesn’t send you into a snooze, wait till to see what this movie does to Ahmed. This brilliant actor (Nightcrawler, The Night Of) can’t do a thing with the villainous Carlton Drake, a billionaire entrepreneur who’s obsessed with melding aliens and humans. Since this movie takes all the terror out of those implications, Ahmed never looks more than mildly annoyed; it’s more like he’s on a Shark Tank panel and no one has any solid business ideas.
The action? It’s repetitive enough to bore you breathless. And the special effects are strictly bottom shelf. Social media has been all over Venom, accusing fans of stuffing the Web with fake bad reviews so A Star Is Born won’t whack it at the box-office. Don’t sweat it. No one has to fake a bad review of this. The ending suggests there’s a Eddie/Venom buddy sequel in the offing. Someone needs to bite the head off that idea pronto. Audiences have suffered enough.