The world may have enough superheroes, but it doesn’t have enough good movies about them. “Venom” goes a small way toward changing that, even though it’s technically about a supervillain — or, if we’re being generous, an antihero. News that the fan-favorite Spider-Man antagonist was receiving a standalone film of his own starring Tom Hardy was greeted warmly by those who harbor a childhood fondness for the character despite being generally indifferent toward comic books and who have yet to grow weary of Hardy’s incoherent mumbling (read: this writer), but uncertainty abounds with these enterprises. For every “Deadpool,” there’s at least one “Fantastic Four.”
Apparent creative differences between Hardy and director Ruben Fleischer (“Zombieland,” “Gangster Squad”) aside, “Venom” leans closer toward the former — a potential franchise-starter whose bizarre incongruities ultimately feel more like a feature than a bug.
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All is well with Eddie Brock when first we meet the mild-mannered reporter, who takes his investigative duties seriously and relishes speaking truth to power. This is occasionally to the chagrin of his boss, whose latest assignment is of the puff-piece variety: a profile of high-tech entrepreneur Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed). The genius inventor is of the opinion that human beings are a weak, imperfect species, and so he looks to the stars for an answer to our earthbound woes.
What he finds is something different, of course. The film begins months before Eddie and Venom become one, when a rocket carrying an alien lifeform harvested from a comet and soon to be known as the symbiote crash lands in Malaysia. A parasitic being that imbues its host with superhuman abilities even as it slowly kills them, it’s described by Drake — who funded the cosmic expedition and will soon begin testing the entity on human subjects — as something like an organ transplant: If the symbiote and its host aren’t a perfect match, the body will reject it and eventually die.
The otherworldly origin of the Venom mythos in general and the symbiote in particular has always been the series’ most compelling element (well, that and the lizard-brain appeal of the fact that Venom simply looks cool). That’s emphasized to great effect here, as is the endlessly strange relationship between Eddie and Venom. There’s a violence to the way our hero is first taken over by the symbiote after breaking into Drake’s lab, his transformation preceded by several other would-be hosts whose gruesome deaths wouldn’t be out of place in “The Thing” or “Videodrome.”
As much a body-horror thriller as it is a comic-book movie, “Venom” is also akin to a buddy comedy in which one of the buddies has to prevent the other from wantonly biting people’s heads off. If that sounds ridiculous, it is — but “Venom” both knows it and leans into it, playing up the dark humor until it’s pitch black. Not all of Eddie and Venom’s exchanges land as intended, but those that do are genuinely funny; over time, their relationship even becomes endearing in its own way, which comes as such a pleasant surprise it’s almost enough to recommend the movie on its own.
Neither Michelle Williams (as Eddie’s love interest) nor Jenny Slate (the scientist who tips him off to what Drake is doing) is given enough to do, but Hardy commits fully to what’s essentially a dual performance. His nonpareil approach to accents remains intact, with Eddie’s all-American speech patterns contrasting sharply with Venom’s extraterrestrial bellows; we’re constantly made aware of the ways in which they both are and aren’t in harmony, with a push-pull tension ideally suited to a character who resides uncomfortably in the grey area between hero and villain.
Conspicuous in his absence is Spider-Man, the yin to Venom’s yang, but the film doesn’t suffer for it. The two nemeses going at it in a future installment seems inevitable, but a mid-credits scene makes plain that Spidey isn’t the only foe worth getting excited about. It’s no spoiler to say that Ahmed emerges as the antagonist here, resulting in symbiote-on-symbiote combat that quickly turns into a web of flesh, tendrils, and fire. It’s a remarkable visual display, as awesome as it is off-putting.
Marvel has established such a consistent formula in its cinematic universe that this radically different approach will surely be jarring to some, but the fact that this movie could never exist in the same world as “Captain America: Civil War” despite hailing from the same brand of comics is part of its charm. “Venom” is very much its own entity — one in which, for better or worse, a parasitic alien calls its host a pussy for deciding to take the elevator instead of jumping off a skyscraper and Tom Hardy jumps into a lobster tank in the middle of a crowded restaurant. This leaves the viewer with two choices: reject the parasite or let it take you over. Fight it off and you’ll have a bad time; become one with it and you may achieve a kind of symbiosis.
“Venom” opens nationwide this Friday, October 5.