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.