Sony's attempt to break away from the Marvel Cinematic Universe is officially underway with Venom, the antihero-focused film by Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland). While its title character certainly has enough name recognition to carry a movie all his own, thanks in part to the popularly derided Topher Grace incarnation in 2007's Spider-Man 3, the question has never been whether Venom could carry a movie on his own, but whether a Marvel movie not connected to the Marvel Cinematic Universe could shoulder the weight of sky-high expectations.
The answer is an unfortunate, but not entirely unexpected, no, not really. It's not that Venom doesn't make an earnest go of carving its own path, but the finished product feels like an unwelcome relic predating the MCU, like Ang Lee's Hulk or the Ben Affleck Daredevil. Of course, that doesn't necessarily mean Venom is a complete wash, but falling as it does so close on the heels of powerhouses like Spider-Man: Homecoming and Avengers: Infinity War, it's hamstrung at best.
Venom follows Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy), a loose-cannon investigative journalist as his determination to expose the corruption of the shady Life Foundation, led by Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), torpedoes his relationship with his attorney girlfriend Anne Weying (Michelle Williams). It's not too much of a spoiler to say that, eventually, Eddie's obsession with uncovering the Life Foundation's dirty laundry brings him face to face with their human experimentation -- specifically, a division intended to pair human subjects with alien symbiotes, which Drake believes are the key to humans surviving space travel. Eddie winds up with a symbiote all his own, a oozing black goo-based buddy called Venom, who throws Eddie's body around like a rag doll, getting him into all sorts of ridiculous, and occasionally, violent antics.
It's heavy on the buddy-cop slapstick, but never really commits to the bit enough to make the gags land. At any given moment, you might find yourself laughing through a scene, but it's tricky to figure out whether you're laughing with the movie or at it. The humor feels -- like the rest of the film -- weirdly dated, epitomized by the panned "turd in the wind" liquor store scene depicted in the second trailer. It's all like that, as if the script itself fell out of a wormhole connected to 2002.
Wildly, for as hard as the script apparently wanted to punch up the gags, Jenny Slate, an actor famous for her comedic roles in shows like Parks & Recreation, isn't given a single laugh in her portrayal of Dr. Skirth, one of the Life Foundation's top scientists. Slate has arguably the most joyless role in the film next to the villain, which seems like a waste.
When Venom isn't trying to go the early-'00s humor route, it wants you to think it's a horror movie -- but it never quite gets there, either. The action has a few big, gory moments, and there's certainly no shortage of brutality, but it never feels like anything to write home about. The fear that ought to stem from the "infection" element is dulled considerably by how much fun Eddie and Venom have together.
It's all a pretty tame PG-13, which only serves to make the fact that it's not an MCU movie hurt worse. It's definitely not doing anything that couldn't work right alongside Tom Holland's Peter Parker or Paul Rudd's Ant-Man, especially in the more dire, grounded Infinity War era.
Plot-wise, Venom is ... serviceable, if cluttered. The core stakes of the movie -- the Life Foundation's mission, and original plan for the symbiotes -- mostly hold up, anchored by a great performance from Riz Ahmed, but the logic and the rules that inform the world rapidly start coming off the rails by the middle of the second act. By the finale, everything feels like a frantic collage of random ideas, haphazardly tossed at the screen. It's never boring, but it certainly doesn't hold up under close inspection -- and it definitely doesn't meet the standards set by its genre predecessors.
Opening Friday nationwide, director Ruben Fleishcer’s Venom stars Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, Scott Haze, Reid Scott, Jenny Slate, Woody Harrelson, Sope Aluko, Scott Deckert, Marcella Bragio, Michelle Lee, Mac Brandt, Christian Convery, Sam Medina and Ron Cephas Jones.