Photo: Sony Pictures Digital Productions Inc.
A few months ago, director Ruben Fleischer tried to convince the world that his would-be super-franchise starter, Venom, is something it very much isn’t. Speaking to the huddled masses at San Diego Comic-Con, he said the titular protagonist would be a “grittier, grounded, complicated character,” and that there are “no heroes in this movie.” The much-watched first trailer — in which leading gent Tom Hardy grumbles his way through a monologue about life, the universe, and everything while we’re subjected to scenes of agony and brutality — similarly pulled a fast one on us. The PR campaign added up to a pitch for a film that mixed superhero tropes with psychological torture and visceral horror. But in retrospect, we shouldn’t have been fooled. This is Fleischer, after all — the guy who did Zombieland. Walking out of Venom, you’ll realize it functions first and foremost as a comedy. And an intentional one, at that.
To be fair, a lot of the film’s laughs are very much not deliberate. At the New York media screening last night, the first big guffaws came during the opening titles, when that world-famous Marvel comic-book-page-flip animation finished and zoomed out to reveal the Marvel logo with the slightly pathetic caveat “IN ASSOCIATION WITH” above it (this being a Sony picture, not a Disney/Marvel Cinematic Universe one). There were also laughs when, just minutes after establishing that Eddie (Tom Hardy) and Anne (Michelle Williams) are passionately in love, the latter blithely and unemotionally gives him back her engagement ring after he screws one thing up. A certain amount of the overwrought, supervillain-y dialogue from evil scientist Carlton (Riz Ahmed) also elicited giggles at its expense; e.g. a scene where he looks at a human test subject and says, “Such poor design,” to which a lab tech replies, “I’m sorry?” and Carlton adds, “Human beings.”
But I’d argue that such moments are in the minority. The film contains a vast wealth of laughs that emanate from a kind of action-comedy slapstick I sincerely didn’t know Tom Hardy had in him. “In him” is the key phrase there, as we have to wait until about a quarter of the way through the picture for a living goo to enter him and get the goofs going. For those not familiar with the setup to the whole Venom concept, dating all the way back to the Spider-Man comics of the 1980s, it’s relatively simple: there’s this alien organism called a “symbiote” (side note: the filmmakers must have seen the backlash to the “sim-bye-oat” pronunciation from the first trailer and done some dialogue rerecording, because in the finished product, everyone says the less-goofy “sim-bee-oat” or the traditional-for-Spider-Man-media “sim-bee-uht”) that takes over people’s bodies and speaks to them within their brains. The symbiote, whose alien name is translated to “Venom,” is generally pretty violent in its philosophy and has a hankering for the consumption of flesh. In the film, Eddie unwillingly becomes its host.
Once the pair are bonded, their life together becomes something of a one-man buddy comedy — and a delightful one. They’re a lovely mismatch: Eddie the cerebral pacifist and Venom the bloodthirsty marauder. Eddie needs Venom, as he’s a wanted man: Carlton’s sinister Life Foundation has been doing symbiote experiments and wants its property back, after which time they’ll ice poor Eddie. So Venom engages in vicious CGI combat with the baddies, exerting superstrength and flailing around his protean black-goop appendages to stab and toss folks hither and thither. Venom speaks as a voice in Eddie’s head and the latter is constantly trying to get the former to tone down the bloodletting a little bit, or at the very least explain what the hell is going on.
The result is Hardy, in not one but two of his signature weird vocal performances — the Noo Yawk grumbles and whines of Eddie and the overnunciated gut-punch mega-whisper of Venom — having a series of dialogues with himself. They’re often fantastic. I don’t want to spoil all the good exchanges, as they’re by and large perfectly timed and often surprising, but a few examples will suffice. “You are a loser, Eddie.” Venom bellows to him at one point; Eddie replies, “You gonna eat anybody else?” and Venom says, “Most likely.” Later, while trying to escape some henchmen in a tall building, Venom screams at Eddie, “Jump!” — we then cut to Eddie opting to take the elevator. There’s a beat. Then Venom simply intones, “Pussy.” My personal favorite comes at a tender moment between Eddie and Anne, when Venom very earnestly says, “Aww. That’s nice.” Okay, so not all of these work on paper, but a significant part of what allows them to land is the expert pacing of the sound edits and Hardy’s deft line readings.
But if you like Hardy’s vocals, you’ll love his physical work. This aspect one definitely can’t capture in writing, but I’ll do my best. Rarely has bodily possession been conveyed with such delicious weirdness. The thespian has these moments where he is in total control of his muscles as Eddie tries to one thing while the symbiote does another; for example, he one time raises his hands in surrender while Venom pulls them back down for attack, then back to surrender, then attack, and so on. You can see Eddie’s face contorted in shock that any of this is happening, sending a message to his assailants that he’s as confused as they are. (“You’re making us look bad!” the symbiote silently yells.) Or there are the multiple times where Venom craves food and Eddie jets toward some bit of meat or another and shoves it in his face while his eyes tell us he doesn’t have any idea what’s happening. It’s like watching Robin Williams in his prime.
Oh, and speaking of eating: reader, consider the lobster. Perhaps the comedic height of the flick comes at a restaurant that Eddie/Venom bursts into a fancy dining establishment to ask questions of Annie and her new boyfriend Dan (a perfectly cast Reid Scott, whose mere presence causes fans of Veep to chuckle at his comforting smarm). He hungers and keeps grabbing other diners’ food against his will, at one point holding a steak and screaming “This is dead!” But none of it is enough, and he eventually climbs into a lobster tank and settles himself in with a sigh of comfort, as though he were entering a bubble bath. He digs down beneath himself, grabs a lobster, and just tears into the poor thing. The frenzied look on Hardy’s face is worth the price of admission.
As is the opposites-attract vibe of his dual performance, in general. Much of the picture falls flat, but the Eddie/Venom dynamic is aces and lives up to the Zombieland legacy. Barring any Billionaire Boys Club–level flopping, a Venom sequel is inevitable. As long as Hardy and Hardy are back, I’ll shell out a few bucks to see it. I can always use a giggle or two.