Iron Man, Captain America, and the others in the Marvel Cinematic Universe would probably like to make it clear that Venom isn’t part of their program (though it’s better than at least one of the Thor movies). The Spider-Man villain, seen briefly in Spider-Man 3 played by Topher Grace, gets a messy spinoff, directed by Ruben Fleischer (“Zombieland”), that has no overt connection to the larger Marvel canon besides the Stan Lee cameo, and which is a tonally uneven, mostly bumbling, and occasionally funny, sometimes on purpose. Is it good? No. Is it boring? Also no.
This time it’s Tom Hardy who plays Eddie Brock, a crusading investigative journalist in San Francisco who ruins his own career and that of his lawyer fiancée, Anne Weying (Michelle Williams), by going after Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), a tech/pharma billionaire whose efforts to cure cancer have taken an unethical turn. Publicly, Drake is a benevolent tycoon whose company is called The Life Foundation. Privately, as disclosed by conscientious scientist Dr. Dora Skirth (Jenny Slate), Drake is using alien life forms he found in a comet to experiment on humans. These “symbiotes,” as he calls them, can’t survive on Earth by themselves, but they become incredibly powerful when they take over a human host.
Eddie comes to be infected by one of these things, whereupon he becomes voraciously hungry and capable of great feats of strength. He hears the alien’s voice in his mind — it calls itself Venom — and is powerless to control his body when the alien takes charge, resulting in comical situations that are strikingly similar to what happened in Upgrade, starring Tom Hardy lookalike Logan Marshall-Green. A man arguing with a voice in his head is instant comedy, especially when the sinister-sounding alien is as petty and dumb as he is. For example, what makes Venom angriest is when someone refers to him as a “parasite.” Venom also says that the reason he’s turned against his fellow aliens’ plan to destroy the Earth is that he’s come to like the place, on account of “on my planet I’m kind of a loser, like you.”
That kind of thing is entertaining, but it doesn’t do much for the movie’s credibility. Both the hero and the voice in his head are buffoons, and so it is rarely possible to take Venom seriously even by the low standards of legitimacy set by other comic book movies. The dialogue is unmemorable, the plot formulaic, the characters paper-thin. Instead, you have to view it as a comedy, albeit one that only tries to be funny about 30 percent of the time. Admittedly, it’s not a great workaround.
Tom Hardy, doing an accent that’s somewhere between Brooklyn and what-the-hell-is-this?, appears to be having more fun than most people will have watching him. His performance is loose and silly, almost Stooge-like, calling to mind goofy turns by Mel Gibson long ago. Giving himself fully to the role, Hardy is by turns disheveled, feverish, manic, and confused. At no point does he seem to want us to think of Eddie Brock as a real person with complex emotions. Regardless of what anyone else is doing, Hardy is always just havin’ a laugh. Imagine how enjoyable it could have been if everyone had been on the same page.
(Full disclosure: I was 2-3 minutes late to the movie, so it’s possible everything that’s wrong with it was explained in the part I missed.)