It takes a frustratingly long time for the title character of Venom to speak. The first 45 minutes of Ruben Fleischer’s film tell a straightforward superhero origin story (despite the poster’s angry proclamation that “the world has enough superheroes”). Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) is an investigative journalist in San Francisco asking probing questions about the preening space-tech CEO Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed). The reporter’s quest to uncover shady dealings eventually costs him his job and ruins his relationship with his fiancée, Anne Weying (Michelle Williams). So Eddie breaks into Drake’s secret lab, where he comes into contact with an alien creature—a glob of black goo one can wear as a kind of living costume—that seeps right into his skin.
For a little while, all seems normal, though Eddie looks a bit feverish. But soon it becomes clear that he’s superhumanly strong, impervious to bullets, and very, very hungry. And that’s when Venom, the film’s true ingenue, finally announces himself. As Eddie walks into a fancy restaurant, a growly voice in his head speaks: “FOOD. FOOD NOW.” With those magic words, Venom shifts from being a movie that feels almost ineptly made to one that’s intriguingly bizarre. The alien inside Eddie’s body is also inside his brain, and the give-and-take between them is far more interesting than the machinations of a typical super-villain.
Venom is, at its heart, a will-they-won’t-they story—a grisly meet-cute between a down-on-his-luck reporter and a grumpy, gloppy little extraterrestrial with a really big appetite. That’s good because the movie is barely competent as an action flick. Fleischer, the director of Zombieland and Gangster Squad, doesn’t put much of his own creative stamp on the proceedings. Every CGI-fueled showdown between Venom and his enemies is frantically assembled to the point of being unwatchable, and the talented supporting cast (Ahmed, Williams, Jenny Slate, Melora Walters) isn’t given much to do.
Hardy, on the other hand, is apparently unable to film the most ordinary dialogue scene without inserting an idiosyncratic yelp or snarl. His voice is a tremulous, oddly accented rumble, and his dialogue is peppered with the strangest turns of phrase. “How ya doing, Eddie?” asks a convenience-store clerk as he walks in to buy groceries. “Ah, aches and pains,” he replies, as if this is an entirely normal thing to say. Even before he accidentally ingests an alien parasite, Eddie Brock is a weird, weird dude. But once Venom (also voiced by Hardy) enters the picture, things get a hundred times more ludicrous.
Venom is, on paper, an invader. His job is to find a human host, bond with him, and use his body to take over the world. But like Eddie, Venom has a bit of a chip on his shoulder. While his other symbiote friends go about wreaking havoc around the planet, Venom starts taking a liking to Earth and to his flesh-and-blood companion. The comic-book character that inspired this film was introduced in the late ’80s as a Spider-Man villain, a brutish alter ego with a grudge against the web-slinging do-gooder. That was Venom’s role in 2007’s Spider-Man 3, in which Eddie was played by Topher Grace. This film dispenses with all of that material (distributed by Sony, Venom has no connection to Marvel’s wider “cinematic universe”).
Instead, the narrative is almost completely in the hands of Hardy, who turns a Jekyll-and-Hyde pastiche into a riff on the Steve Martin film All of Me. Any time Eddie voices an altruistic thought, Venom is there in his head to dump all over it; any time Eddie tries to have a regular conversation with Anne, Venom shouts, in voice-over, “WHEN ARE WE GOING TO EAT SOMEONE?” Venom’s voice isn’t really Eddie’s dark side. It’s the audience at Mystery Science Theater 3000, lobbing popcorn at the screen and begging the movie to hurry along to the goofy stuff.
Though Venom was originally conceived as a comic-book antagonist, that kind of simplicity has no place in Fleischer’s film. So when Eddie embraces his parasite and lets the gooey Venom armor envelop his body, he turns into a 10-foot-tall monster with glowing eyes, serrated teeth, and a long, drooling tongue that dances in the air any time he talks. He’s ridiculous, and the film knows it. Or at least Hardy does, which is surely why he plays Eddie as such a raspy oddball.
Superhero movies have been in the zeitgeist, on and off, for generations now, but this is the first one that’s about a love affair between man and costume. The rest of Venom is too junky to enjoy as anything but a so-bad-it’s-good, cable-TV curio. But Hardy’s utter commitment to his role, and to nailing the joyful union of these two eccentrics, makes Venom riotous enough that I’m almost praying for the sequel that the inevitable end-credits sequence promises. The world has enough superheroes, but not nearly enough super-couples like this one.