FILM REVIEW – VENOM. With Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, Jenny Slate, Reid Scott. Written by Scott Rosenberg & Jeff Pinkner and Kelly Marcel and Will Beall. Directed by Ruben Fleischer. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for language. 112 minutes.
If the folks planning future DC movies want to know how Marvel is running rings around them in film adaptations of comic book characters, and this year’s string of hits (“Black Panther,” “Avengers: Infinity War,” “Deadpool 2,” “Ant-Man and the Wasp”) left them baffled, then they should go see VENOM. In a tight 100 minutes or so it introduces its character with action and humor, and when one of two bonus scenes in the closing credits sets you up for a sequel, you know you’ll be there.
Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) is fired from his job as an investigative reporter for daring to ask pointed questions of Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), a brilliant scientist and businessman who has a secret agenda. Drake has sponsored his own space program to collect samples of alien life which turn out to be symbionts. Roughly speaking, they can take over human bodies and merge with them, although the early experiments do not turn out well.
However, when the alien calling itself Venom takes over Eddie, they gradually develop a working relationship. For an alien that likes to feed by biting the heads off of humans, it turns out to have a sense of humor and a willingness to learn. We know this will have to end with a showdown between Eddie and Drake, but in the meantime, Eddie has to learn how to deal with Venom, who occasionally emerges as a toothy, pop-eyed monster courtesy of some impressive special effects. Fortunately, his ex-girlfriend (Michelle Williams) is now seeing a doctor (Reid Scott) willing to help.
So why does this work? Start with the casting of Tom Hardy, an actor not known for his light comic touch, who turns out to have one. In the tradition of a number of Marvel superheroes, Eddie is a bit of a misfit, who messes up his private life and doesn’t suddenly become ultra-competent when he merges with Venom. Add to that the fact that, unlike the DC films, the movie doesn’t seem as if it were shot during a power failure. It’s not dark and brooding (which only the Christopher Nolan/Christian Bale “Batman” movies managed to pull off). And it doesn’t take itself too seriously. The film doesn’t take on the comic tone of “Deadpool” or “Guardians of the Galaxy,” but it doesn’t shy away from lighter moments, such as Venom commenting on Eddie’s love life.
One last lesson for the folks making the DC films: look at how Marvel promotes their films. Often, as here, a bonus scene will include a character who hasn’t appeared in the movie prior to this moment. Part of the audience will hoot and holler, while those (like this reviewer) who are unfamiliar with the comic book will have to find someone to explain that, yes, that character will have a major role in an upcoming film.
It would all be cynical and calculating except for this: “Venom” delivers for its audience. It’s exciting, entertaining, and fun. It’s not “Black Panther” in terms of reaching out far beyond the fan base, but for those already inclined to see such films, it should be another success for Marvel. DC’s upcoming “Aquaman” has its work cut out for it.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His new novel, Father of the Bride of Frankenstein, will be released in January. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.