There is a fork in the road that a film writer encounters when they walk out of the movie like Venom. You can either contribute to the raging sea of negativity that envelops the release of bad comic book movies on the internet or avoid talking about the movie altogether. This puts me in a strange predicament, as I want to talk about my experience with my movie and I detest being even a drop in the ocean of the “your movie sucks and here’s why” crowd that constitutes so much of internet film criticism. So, I want to make a conscious effort to set the tone of this review in a non-negative light. No performative euphemisms, no creative curses and no snarky quips. Lets just talk about the movie.
From a critic’s perspective, the most important element of a movie is its thematic content. If a movie isn’t about anything then you wouldn’t need film criticism to do any interpreting or contextualizing. Critics could be replaced with algorithms. “We have determined based on your previous viewing habits that you do not like unfinished visual effects work, villains whose motivations make no sense or a total inability to balance comedic and dramatic tones so we do not recommend that you see Venom”. That being said, what is Venom about? Well, the answer to that question is frustratingly unclear. One might infer from the symbiote egging Tom Hardy’s Eddie Brock on by calling him a “pussy” and forcing him to participate in violence when he is reluctant to do so that the symbiote is a metaphorical stand in for normative masculinity. That interpretation might not be defeated by the film’s ending, wherein Hardy and Venom have to stop fighting and learn to work together to defeat another symbiote but it is certainly something of a subtextual monkey wrench that the metaphorically monstrous masculine id is shown to actually be the path to salvation for our heroes (and the world!). The ashewing of a bifurcated masculinity that rejects its own destructive nature in favor of a unified, masculine hero who utilizes said destructiveness for positive ends is the closest thing Venom has to consistent subtext of any kind.
There isn’t just a lack of meaning in Venom, there is a full on aversion to it. When Brock’s inheritance of the symbiote is coincident with his reliance on alcohol to cope with his recently destroyed life, you think that the film is making an attempt at being about addiction in some substantive way. This is a smart move as it is a seemingly perfect fit for a story about Eddie Brock’s relationship with the Venom symbiote, at least as it has existed in other media. See, the Venom symbiote feeds on a host with negative emotions and empowers them to act on those negative emotions rather than change them. It is a balm that helps its users cope with frustration and perceived powerlessness. The fact that the symbiote is literally an addictive substance that is commonly used as a toxic coping mechanism couldn’t possibly have been lost on the filmmakers. I mean, right? Especially since alcohol is featured so prominently in the movie. Yet, the alcoholism stuff is dropped like everything else.
There are other half hearted attempts at meaning. Eddie is an investigative reporter, which plays off of a speech given by Riz Ahmed’s Carlton Drake about silencing those who question things but it goes nowhere. Ditto for the Elon Musk satire that seems to have been the organizing principle of Drake’s character. So. if Venom is only about something as tepid and uninteresting as “men need to be men…but better” (and, I remind you, it feels generous to even assign a concrete thesis statement to a movie this clearly mangled in the editing room) then is there anything else that can compensate for that lack of meaning? Um, not that I can tell. The action is awful, with the most elaborate sequence being shrouded in smoke to cover up the shoddy visual effects work. I’m not sure I should be too ungrateful for that though, as Venom truly features some of the worst VFX in modern action cinema. The rest of the technical filmmaking is equally weak and there isn’t a stand out moment to be had in the film’s entire runtime.
I mentioned at the beginning of this review I don’t like being overly negative, so I will do my best to end on a positive note. The truth is that I’m grateful for movies like Venom. They offer insight into how crazy these Hollywood productions can get and how wrong they can go. Ruben Fleischer and company made a movie about nothing, for no one and with no redeeming qualities. The fact that that can happen with millions of dollars bankrolling talented people is, frankly, fascinating. I learned a lot about what not to do from watching Venom and I hope the filmmakers did too. There is a sequel tease at the end of this thing and I don’t want to be sitting here again in 3 years trying my hardest to be nice to Venom 2.