An object lesson in lowered expectations: If you’re prepared for the worst, you might come away pleasantly surprised — or at least not bitterly disappointed. Such is the case with Venom, one of the dumbest comic book movies in recent memory, but also not nearly as bad as you may have been led to believe. Yes, it’s big and loud and obnoxious. But then again, so were most of the early comics that represent its protagonist’s genesis. If Venom fails in its aspirations as comics counterprogramming in the vein of Deadpool, it only does so because it pulls too many punches in its quest to court the casual moviegoer at the expense of committing any legitimate transgression. It’s a movie that would have been novel five or 10 years ago. But now? It feels dated on arrival.
And that’s not without reason, because the very concept of Venom is rooted in the comics culture of the ’90s collectors’ boom, an anything-goes era of excess for its own sake in which bigger and badder were always seen as better. In that spirit, Venom makes no claim to any kind of respectability, instead favoring a pulpy tenor of disrepute that leaves the film poised for cult movie status in ensuing years. But this admirably grimy sensibility is hamstrung by a level of bet-hedging that inexplicably tries to limit the gore inherent to a story about a giant alien that eats brains.
The narrative draws from its source material liberally but without a slavish devotion to verisimilitude. For those unfamiliar with the comic books, the character Venom originated when Spider-Man’s sentient extraterrestrial costume bonded with disgraced former reporter Eddie Brock and exploited his grudge against the web-slinger that ruined his career — hey, the ’90s were a weird time for comics. Here the Spider-Man connections are dropped entirely, leaving Venom as something of a stand-alone film trying to forge its own path, a decision that could be prudent given the current ownership transitions surrounding the intellectual property.
If comics fans may feel slighted by the film’s detachment from the broader Spiderverse, not to mention the Marvel Cinematic Universe into which those characters will be inevitably subsumed, there’s some comfort in the film’s tonal adherence to the character’s history. Director Ruben Fleischer may not be the most competent visual stylist to helm a superhero spectacle, but his background with action comedies like Zombieland is apparent here in the repartee between Brock (Tom Hardy) and the Venom symbiont. It’s a film that finds the black humor in its own cynical worldview, and Hardy sells the gags better than one might reasonably expect.
While Venom isn’t a great film by any stretch of the imagination, it does boast its own dubious charms, and it scores points for disavowing the self-seriousness that has blighted so many recent comic book adaptations (looking at you, Infinity War). If you’re looking for high art, look elsewhere. But if you’re just after some mindless fun, Venom could take the bite out of an otherwise dreary cinematic landscape. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for language.
Now Playing at AMC River Hills 10, Carolina Cinemark, Regal Biltmore Grande, Epic of Hendersonville.