I’m going to be honest: At what I figured to be the halfway point of “Venom,” I took stock of my feelings and realized I liked what I had seen so far. I don’t mean to sound overly surprised by this, but after “Spider-Man 3,” “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” and the 2014 Sony Pictures email leaks revealed an inability on the part of Sony higher-ups to comprehend what makes Spider-Man and his rogues gallery work on any level whatsoever, I can’t say my hopes were particularly high. Sitting there, though, I reasoned that “Venom” wasn’t anything special, but provided the second half expanded on the character arcs and shored up the weak story, there was something workable there.
Then the climax started and the movie ended. “Oh,” I said, “That’s it.”
The last two times they’ve killed their fledgling Spider-Series, Sony has done so by cramming as many plotlines and recognizable characters as possible into a single, bloated narrative. This time, in what seems like a truly misguided overcompensation, they’ve done the same thing — albeit without Spidey himself, who is too busy appearing in competently written movies to show up — by stripping their story and characters down to their bare bones and hoping nobody notices that they still don’t know what they’re doing.
Everything a good movie should have, “Venom” has almost exactly one half of. It has the introduction of a likeable lead in Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy, “Dunkirk,” doing his best Nick Miller impression) and the beginning of an arc that will see him, true to the tagline, embracing his inner anti-hero, but it doesn’t ever return to or wrap up that arc. By the end of the movie, Eddie isn’t an anti-hero, he’s just a superhero with a weird tongue.
It introduces the counterpoint to Eddie in Venom, the alien symbiote which bonds with the idealistic reporter, and includes the end of the arc which sees him in a different headspace than he began, but it doesn’t show how he got there. Point A and Point B are there, but the story and arc that would tie them together and make for a satisfying story are absent, replaced with boring trudging from one set piece to the next. Eddie and Venom simply don’t interact with each other enough outside of pithy one-liners to have changed each other in the way the film wants you to believe.
It’s sure to cast a talented actor as its villain, Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed, “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”), but it fails to give him anything to do outside of grating monologues about how humanity is evil and he’s the only one who can save them. It seems to realize far too late that nothing about him is intimidating, but instead of fixing the villain they’ve got, they introduce another one at the top of the third act who — and I’m quoting Venom the alien symbiote here — “has got shit you ain’t never seen” which winds up meaning knives, axes and other shit you most certainly have seen.
There is some comedy that works, particularly in the relationship between Eddie and Venom, but more often than not, it’s just uncomfortable. Even when it goes for weird-with-a-capital-W, it’s not weird enough to be watchable just for that. Sure, the scene where Tom Hardy sits in a lobster tank is the sort of thing we’ll be meme-ing in a few years, and yes, it features one of the strangest onscreen kisses in the history of film, but do you really want to sit through two hours of set ups with no follow-through and follow-throughs with no set up for a few seconds of “Oh, dear God?”
At it’s best, “Venom” is occasionally fun and personable, but it’s coming out in a time when comic book movies are supposed to be more than just that. Last year, “Logan” became the first live-action superhero movie to be nominated for a screenwriting Academy Award, and the smart money says that in a few months, “Black Panther” will be a Best Picture nominee. Sony wants that kind of success with their “Spider-Man” properties, but “Venom” shows they’re still not interested in putting in the work.