Tom Hardy gives his weirdest performance ever in Venom

This superhero movie feels like a relic and a sign of things to come simultaneously.

Tom Hardy (more or less) in Venom

I think it’s fairly widely understood that superhero movies could stand to move away from the extreme rigidity that Marvel’s success has imposed on them. If the superhero film has established itself as a genre in its own right, it remains in its infancy: it’s still the white hat / black hat dichotomy at play to some extent, and whatever attempts have been made to stray from that formula have been fairly unsuccessful.

Enter Ruben Fleischer’s Venom: a film out of time and out of sync with everything, feeling both stuck in 1997 and giving us a glimpse of what blockbusters might look like in 2036. Venom has a very peculiarly modern problem: it’s a film that has a precious resource in the form of the ever-desired intellectual property, but absolutely no idea what to do with it. What they’ve wound up doing is an unofficial remake of All of Me crouched in some very boring, very rote basic-cable sci-fi.

Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) is a San Francisco-based investigative journalist with a loving lawyer girlfriend (Michelle Williams) and a thirst for the truth. When he finds out that Anne is working on a case involving Muskian captain of industry Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed) with some very dubious outer-space business dealings, Brock can’t resist getting the scoop by whatever means necessary — a tactic that gets Anne fired and Eddie thoroughly dumped.

Now a down-on-his-luck, unemployable loser, Brock is approached by scientist Dora Skirth (Jenny Slate), who reveals to him that Drake has captured an alien symbiote in outer space that he’s now testing on homeless and drug-addicted “volunteers.” Brock breaks into Drake’s compound in order to expose the conspiracy and instead winds up being infected by the symbiote, which turns him into a muscle-bound force of chaos known as Venom. Brock and Venom co-exist rather haphazardly, but Brock has to figure out how to harvest Venom’s power in order to stop Drake.

Venom’s definition of the Venom character is a little loose; it sometimes feels like it’s the product of the writer spending a transatlantic flight being lectured to about a comic book character that may or may not exist. He’s defined more by his recognizable look than anything else, which makes nearly everything else about the character malleable to the point of anonymity. Venom wisecracks in a bassy quasi-Welsh accent that sounds not unlike the one Hardy sported in Locke (just about the only comparison possible between those two Hardy vehicles), but he’s so vaguely defined by the film (which posits him as, I guess, a good guy with some bad habits) that it’s difficult to really care one way or the other.

Hardy, on the other hand, seems to care deeply. His performance is pitched somewhere between late-’80s Nicolas Cage and Jim Carrey at his most destructively rubbery. With a reedy Gumby voice and perpetually sweaty brow, Hardy quite literally chews the scenery, fighting with himself and chomping on live lobsters with an abandon and voraciousness that would do the hammiest of hambones proud. It’s impossible to see Hardy’s performance and not see a comedy — and a particularly wonky one, at that. As you watch one of the greatest actors of his generation tear through walls and chomp down on chicken bones from the garbage while wheezing at top volume, it’s easy to forget that he inhabits a significantly more drab and uninspired film.

I’d venture about a third of Venom is a pretty good slapstick comedy; unfortunately, another third of it is people standing around labs looking at stats on computer screens that literally no one is paying attention to, and the last third is the perennially unpopular “a CGI thing fights another, differently-coloured CGI thing” that plagues all films of this ilk. It’s, I think, a fundamental design flaw of the story they’ve decided to tell. It’s not just, as some have suggested, that Hardy has such contempt for the material that he’s decided he’s in a comedy; it’s that there are two things this movie is trying to do, and there’s a fundamental lack of communication between the two.

Perhaps if the stakes had been lower, Hardy’s wild-eyed abandon wouldn’t have stuck out so severely. It’s hard to say, because Venom ultimately winds up so dramatically inert that none of it — not even the gusto put forth by its lead — is worth it. The only thing Venom really succeeds at is being a vehicle for whatever bizarre, outsized comedic talents he’s chosen to keep hidden all this time. It’s been posited by some that movie stars are more or less completely irrelevant to a movie’s success these days, but Venom is a comedy-star vehicle through-and-through. Too bad it’s gotta do all the other shit, too. ■

Venom opens in theatres on Friday, Oct 5. Watch the trailer here: