Venom, as a character, needs Spider-Man. Introduced in the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man comics, Venom was an amalgamation of bitter newspaper reporter Eddie Brock and an alien symbiote that had been rejected by Spider-Man. Both entities hated Peter Parker, and their shared animosity fueled the creation of the vengeful and murderous Venom.
Arguably, you can’t have Venom without first having Spider-Man… which, in a nutshell, is the main reason that Venom, the movie, doesn’t work. Sure, director Ruben Fleischer and his seven credited screenwriters (!!) cook up an alternate origin story for both Brock and the symbiote. But removing Spider-Man from the overall equation creates too many narrative potholes around which Venom fails to weave with any sort of grace or style. Eventually, the movie gets a metaphorical flat tire, and wrecks itself on the Hollywood superhero highway.
Why isn’t Spider-Man in Venom? It’s complicated, but it boils down to the fact that while Sony owns the rights to the character, it recently loaned him out to Marvel Studios so that Peter Parker (played by Tom Holland) could play alongside Captain America (Chris Evans) and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.). Brilliant move for Marvel, and good for Sony in that it allowed them to co-produce the winning Spider-Man: Homecoming. But the cost proves great, as it means Sony needs to jumpstart its disconnected Spider-Man Universe without Spider-Man, leaving Venom (and possibly movies that follow it) feeling incomplete.
Here’s why: Because Venom can’t use the symbiote’s real origin from the Marvel Secret Wars limited series, it has to cook up a new entity. Enter the Life Foundation, is a generic laboratory dedicated to space research that’s funded by the blandly sinister Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed, playing a Textbook Bond Villain). The Life Foundation explores the stars because, well, the reasoning is unclear. Something about the solutions to our planet’s — fill in the blank here — ecological, medical or societal woes potentially waiting for us in the galaxies. Don’t worry, all of that gets chucked to the side once Drake obtains the symbiote from one of his errant space crafts.
Across town, Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) is an entrepreneurial, hard-news bloodhound who has established his name and reputation by going after suits like Drake, and defending the voiceless Every Man. Eddie has a steady girl, Anne (Michelle Williams), and a promising gig, but he decides to jeopardize them both when, coincidentally, he’s assigned to write a puff profile on… you guessed it, Carlton Drake.
There’s a lot of story being set up here, and that story is just as quickly discarded, because the symbiote’s about to show up and pull focus, entirely. And that’s an important note, because Venom — without the benefit of having multiple comic book issues to draw on — has to race through narration and character development in a hope that we will care an ounce about Eddie, about Anne, and about the evil machinations of Carlton Drake. And we just don’t.
Venom improves once the symbiote shows up, but by then, it’s too little, too late. Venom is an alien, a slithering blob of a creature who absorbs into its host and can communicate, almost Jekyll and Hyde style, with its carrier. But the symbiote also feeds off of and decimates its host, like a parasite, unless it makes a perfect match. In the comics, the symbiote bonded with Eddie because they both hated Spider-Man. In the movie, Venom bonds with Eddie because… well, because the seven credited screenwriters decided they needed it to. The symbiote also creates perfect bonds with Anne. Oh, and with Carlton Drake, forming the menacing Riot. How convenient that the three people at the heart of Venom also happen to be ideal surrogate hosts for the murderous alien symbiote brought to Earth!
Narratively, Venom is a mess. Eddie Brock has no concrete motivation to go after Carlton Drake, no credible reason to flush his relationship with Anne, and no discernable situation where bonding with the symbiote is the right choice. He can’t understand Venom. There’s no explanation given for their team up. It’s just understood and accepted, not convincingly explained. The screenplay’s also vulgar and stupid. Eddie talks about symbiosis with the alien as having the symbiote “up your ass.” At one point, the symbiote possesses a purse dog, and it’s played for laughs. There’s a lot of comedy in Venom, actually, though most of it generates uncomfortable and unintentional laughter.
The special-effects work is sporadically impressive, and the symbiote, in general, looks great. Time and money went into creating Venom’s look, and fans simply looking for an improvement over Topher Grace’s atrocity will be comforted by the fact that Fleischer’s CGI team brought Venom to life. But at the same time, the action is choppy, a motorcycle chase through downtown San Francisco uses a laughable amount of green screen (I’m convinced Tom Hardy wasn’t on set on the days those scene were filmed), and the final confrontation between Venom and Riot disappoints.
The whole movie disappoints, actually, including the mid-credits tease for a sequel that won’t ever happen. This was supposed to be a launch pad for stories in this Spider-Man universe that could essentially keep the lights on in parts of the wallcrawler’s world until Marvel and Sony figured out credible ways to bring Peter Parker back into this fold. If Venom worked, stories built around Morbius the Living Vampire, Silver Sable, Black Cat and Kraven the Hunter could advance, fleshing out this universe and showing that Spider-Man would be a welcome, but non-essential, inclusion.
Instead, Venom convinced me of what I initially feared. It doesn’t make sense to create stories around Spider-Man characters if you can’t use Spider-Man in them.