"The world has enough superheroes," proclaims the tagline emblazoned on Venom's posters, a nod to the character being, at best, a reluctant antihero, if not a full-on villain, in many iterations of his story. It's true in another sense, too: There are a lot of superhero movies out there these days, whether hailing from the sleek and steady Marvel Cinematic Universe -- where Venom's most famous foe, Spider-Man, is thriving -- or the amorphous DC verse or the X-Men franchise, still chugging along. For a super -- or not -- hero movie to point that out so blatantly, it must to do something new, something different, to justify its own existence, right?
Venom last appeared onscreen in the inexplicably jazzy Spider-Man 3, but, of note, there is no friendly neighborhood webslinger in play here. Venom introduces Tom Hardy's Eddie Brock after he's been run out of New York following some sort of investigative journalism controversy and is now living in San Francisco with his own cable news series called "The Eddie Brock Report." He is a New Yawk hothead intent on taking down The Man, an instinct that finds him knocking at the front door of The Life Foundation.
Dr. Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed) runs the corporation, with Ahmed playing Drake as a sinister Elon Musk-type -- so, Elon Musk -- obsessed with building rocket ships to transport earthlings elsewhere once our planet becomes uninhabitable. In the movie's opening sequence, we see one of those spaceships burn up while reentering the atmosphere, crash landing in Malaysia and releasing a "specimen" into the wild. As it were, Drake's interest in interplanetary travel involves more nefarious means than NASA's likely do.
For those well-versed in comic lore, I hardly need to explain that the specimen is an alien symbiote that infects its human host and creates a monstrous, symbiotic super persona. For the rest of you, there you go. I'd be hard-pressed to provide a more nuanced explanation than that, as Venom plays fast and loose with the rules of symbiotes. Eventually, though, Eddie crosses paths with the symbiote Venom and bada bing, you've got yourself an extraterrestrial antihero and a dynamic straight out of Little Shop of Horrors, between a man, generally disposed to helping humanity, and an alien who wants to eat people's heads. (Half the movie's dialogue could be summed up with a rousing rendition of "Feed Me (Get It!)")
I never quite got a read on Venom himself, though. He never seems all that bad? (Bloodlust aside, but even then he shows considerable restraint.) So, when he eventually decides to side with the good guys against the villainous symbiote Riot, it doesn't land with any weight. (The movie is at its weakest when it is two stringy symbiote creatures punching each other.) I could never get a read on Venom as a whole, either. As directed by Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland), it's not all that funny, with Hardy topping out at a dry sarcasm and the jokes fitting safely into its PG-13 rating. But it's also not exactly dark or gritty and only takes itself seriously half the time. It's a movie that casts some of the best actors working today, and then has Michelle Williams, as Eddie's alternately doting and nagging ex-girlfriend, Anne, and Jenny Slate, as Drake's right-hand scientist, Dr. Dora Skirth, compete for most thankless role for a woman in a superhero film. (Slate at least deserves her own "Zendaya Is Meechee" song. Dr. Dora Skirth!)
What Venom has going for it is Hardy, rasping and bellowing and acting at a 10. And that's before he is infected by Venom, when he really lets rip, hamming it up and playing a mix of drunk and demonic and raving mad. There's one sequence in particular, as Eddie first adjusting to having an alien cohabitate in his body, when he gets sweatily panicked and crazed, and Hardy really is great in it. Venom segues from there into a more traditional chase through the city, fast and loud and thrilling, but I wish it had lived in that sweet spot of bizarreness, that Hardy had been able to push boundaries further, to go totally nuts, to remind us why, exactly, the world needs another superhero.