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‘Venom’ an uninspired antihero

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As the superhero industrial complex continues to grow in Hollywood, we can expect to start seeing more material featuring secondary and tertiary comic book characters. The studios have churned through the A-list characters and many of the B-listers – it’s inevitable that they’re going to keep reaching.

Now, one could certainly argue that noted Spider-Man foe Venom isn’t a deep cut – he has been one of Spidey’s primary antagonists ever since he first made the scene 30 years ago. He has had connections to other heroes and villains and a fair number of stand-alone outings over the years, but he remains indelibly connected to Spider-Man.

And yet, it the new film “Venom,” there’s not a Spider-Man to be seen. And while that absence isn’t the only reason the movie fails to pass muster, it’s a significant one. The movie is a tonal mish-mash, one that seems happy to outright refuse to decide what kind of film it wants to be. Add to that the fact that the character has long been defined by a sort of reactionary emptiness and you get a movie that offers flashes of quality, but largely collapses beneath its own indecisiveness.

A noted bioengineering firm called the Life Foundation – led by an enigmatic billionaire named Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed, “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”) – has sent an expedition into space in search of methods of life expansion. Upon its return, the ship – carrying symbiotic lifeforms discovered on a comet – crashes, leading to the escape of one of the organisms.

Meanwhile, investigative journalist Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy, “Dunkirk”) has been hearing rumblings about underhanded and unethical practices at the Life Foundation. After discovering some secret information via the computer of his fiancée Anne (Michelle Williams, “The Greatest Showman”) – she’s a lawyer whose firm is working with the Foundation – he makes a move for a “Gotcha” interview with Drake.

It does not go well. Due to the fallout and the pressure exerted by Drake, Brock loses his job, his good name and his wife-to-be all in one fell swoop.

Meanwhile, Drake and company continue their experiments with the symbiotes – and human test subjects – for the next few months. When lead scientist Dr. Skirth (Jenny Slate, “Hotel Artemis”) has a crisis of conscience, she reaches out to Brock in hopes that he will bring the truth to light.

Instead, an after-hours incident at the lab results in Brock inadvertently bonding with one of the symbiotes. The creature, which calls itself Venom, finds in Brock an ideal host. The two experience a telepathic connection – one which allows Venom to communicate his race’s less-than-altruistic plans for Earth.

Venom’s presence gives Brock superpowers and an insatiable appetite – one he struggles to control. At the same time, Drake and his team are on the hunt, willing to do whatever it takes to retrieve the symbiote … no matter who might stand in their way. An uneasy alliance is formed between the reporter and the alien as they must team up to try and prevent both the sinister schemes of Drake and company and the existential threat posed by the symbiotes.

Does that all sound a little unclear? Yeah – it feels that way while you’re watching it too.

At the risk of coming off as disingenuous, I actually did enjoy myself watching this movie. It’s just not, you know … good. It’s a mess, bordering on goofy one moment and going pitch-black the next. It never settles into anything resembling a groove. And it can’t be stressed enough – there is a Spider-Man-shaped hole in this movie. It was always going to be a problem considering the interconnected nature of the character dynamic, but it’s palpable.

(Note: This very well may be a non-issue for those who haven’t got the same experience with the character. I can’t speak to them – all I know is that it felt weird not having Spider-Man there.)

Director Ruben Fleischer is known more for comedy, so it’s no surprise that there are some comedic moments in “Venom.” And going full dark comedy could have worked. Instead, those flashes of humor are interspersed amidst stretches of grimness that come off as altogether too self-serious. The juxtaposition might have been effective if handled more cleanly; instead, it’s just tonally inconsistent.

Tom Hardy slurs and mutters his way through his performance as Eddie Brock. He’s an incredible talent, but for whatever reason, he makes a vocal choice that challenges his intelligibility. It’s also yet another role where he spends significant time hiding his face. He just comes off as a little dumb. Ahmed is fine as the billionaire bad guy; generic, but fine. Williams is clearly just trying to do something, anything with her underwritten part. Slate and the rest of the supporting cast do what they can with what they have … which isn’t much.

Like I said, I had a good time with “Venom.” But that’s largely because I’m primed to dig anything with costumes and superpowers. It’s not a good movie, but considering the box office numbers, it won’t be long until we see the sequel that this movie ham-fistedly foreshadowed.

[2 out of 5]

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