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Venom Movie Review

A Hardy Appetite*

*Alternate title: Spider Blight

Denizens of the ever-expanding Marvel Universe have been eagerly awaiting "Venom," the latest release in a seemingly-endless line of superhero/supervillain films that have kept audiences streaming into cinemas since "Iron Man" was released a decade ago. "Venom" continues the Marvel habit of marrying high-profile actors with fan-favorite characters, this time with mixed results. Powerhouse performer Tom Hardy ("Mad Max: Fury Road") stars here in a film featuring symbiotic alien organisms that is absolutely co-dependent on its leading actor and his character. And just like its symbiotic organisms, it would likely die but for the pairing.  Every moment Hardy is off screen, "Venom" suffocates. It's difficult to determine if this is an intentional or accidental meta-narrative.

A full 50 minutes of the film's front half is spent on exposition (do we really need this much origin story??) and an "all the way bad" villain who lacks in both meaningful motive AND standard issue bad guy mustache.  In brief: Mr. Hardy plays Eddie Brock, a journalist who's unexpectedly boarded by a symbiotic alien lifeform when he breaks into a lab in pursuit of a story. Said story concerns industrialist Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed, "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story"), the aforementioned clean-shaven bad guy, who's experimenting with symbiotes as a solution to overpopulation and climate crisis (really!). Eddie's ex-girlfriend Anne Weying (Michelle Williams, "The Greatest Showman") gets in the mix as Eddie learns that the symbiote cohabitating his body is called Venom, and he's got a personality all his own, as well as a traffic-stopping appearance. Venom is on Earth because - well, just trust me, there's a whole lot of plot here.

Once the audience has survived the expository penance, "Venom" manages to mostly entertain for the remaining runtime.  Action set pieces-the motorcycle chase teased in adverts, Venom vs. bad guy fisticuffs, and the big finish-are well staged and effectively paced. Once the titular lethal protector makes his appearance, he's an oozing seven-foot-tall screen stealer. Eddie/Venom delivers rapier wit while chewing the scenery-and a few heads.

Unfortunately, the majority of the non-Eddie/Venom dialogue doesn't work.  The supporting cast does what it can - they're actors, not miracle workers - but it really hurts to have a paper-thin antagonist and half-note henchmen. Special nod to Ms. Williams, who does well in avoiding the standard damsel in distress trope.  She even delivers a few hits of her own. Accents are also a bit confusing, and Hardy's somewhat mumbled, squinted, and shoulder-shrugged demeanor lands at times like a strange homage to Stallone's original Rocky. Precious exposition time is consumed establishing Mr. Ahmed's Carlton Drake as a scion of British parents, but as a once-removed Brit myself, I detected nary a hint of my extended family in any of his lines.

The story has a few beats that feel lazy and unearned, with a few obvious issues that pull the viewer right out of the film.  In certain moments, the antagonist's Life Foundation drone and camera coverage is all-seeing and magically in the right place.  In others, there's not a camera to be found. My inner NASA nerd could not get past the idea of launching a rocket into outer space from San Francisco (think of the latitudes!). But I'll let it slide for a pithy line about Eddie's fear of heights.

"Venom's" special effects are satisfying, but not revelatory. The symbiote effects both impress and underwhelm, depending on the scene, and the disparity makes me curious about the division of labor at the multiple effects houses in the credits. But when the visuals are on point, they help to deliver an engaging alien-influenced experience.

"Venom" could have gotten its origin and exposition out of the way in a five-minute montage. It could've then spent the remaining 147 minutes with Eddie/Venom just hanging around San Francisco riffing dialogue and chomping heads, and I'd freely and gladly exchange my money for a full price ticket, thank you very much. There are some strong pieces in this film, they just need to get them working better as a whole.  If this release yields an opportunity for a sequel (in the MCU maybe?), I hope the filmmakers can dial in the right formula.

P.S. Don't get up too soon once the credits begin to roll...


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