Typically, Your Weekend Cheesy Movie will be an older film which became enjoyable despite directorial intent. But Venom is an unusual breed and therefore deserves to become Your Weekend Cheesy Movie immediately upon release. Whether it is a good movie or a bad one is entirely up to your own critical appraisal of the filmmaking and/or its relative fidelity to the source material. But it is definitely an entertaining film; occasionally in accordance with director Ruben Fleischer wishes — which fits our metric for cheesiness.
Tom Hardy stars as a version of Eddie Brock. He’s a hip on-camera investigative reporter who moves to San Fransisco after an “incident” at his previous job and to stay with his fiancee Anne (Michelle Williams) while her career as a lawyer takes off. Unfortunately, he makes a colossal mistake which ends pretty much all the good things in his life. Meanwhile, The Life Foundation brings some alien symbiotes back from space. Sometime later, Eddie merges with one of the symbiotes and the pair set off on a loud and sometimes hilarious ride across the city to end some distant threat with apparent world-ending implications.
But really, that’s just the structural work necessary to get to the film’s true charm: Hardy carrying what is, essentially, a buddy cop movie on his lonesome. In this light, he plays Eddie as a ne’er-do-well more akin to a Jay Baruchel stock character than someone with the build and height of Tom Hardy. It leads to a number of scenes in which his fear of Life Foundation goons seems ridiculous as Hardy’s screen persona looms larger than the character he plays. The movie keeps painting him as a loser despite the fact he looks like the guy who played Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. It is unclear if this ridiculous dissonance was the intention of Fleischer, but it certainly was not the intent of Sony Picture; which hopes to see its own Spider-Verse launch with Venom‘s success. Either way, Hardy’s performance seems to defy the expectations of both the film and studio.
As Venom, meanwhile, Hardy manages to create an appealing, if silly, monster. He’s all id and the best performance in the film. Once he learns to speak, Hardy’s voice for the character is so different, you would be forgiven for thinking someone like Tony Todd played Venom. They are nonetheless an appealing screen duo once they meet.
Granted, you’ll have to suffer through the first twenty minutes, which crawl slower than a symbiote reaching for a host body. In fact, until Venom merges with Eddie, Venom feels like a different — and poorer — film. It tries to be as realistic as the synopsis above suggests, but also cuts away to Life Foundation founder Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed) anxiously testing alien/human symbiosis; breaking the strange, but grounded character study of Eddie Brock. And even after Venom makes his presence known, the film still expects you to take the whole thing seriously as it also acknowledges just how goofy the whole thing is. Which may leave you wondering if the laughs it generates are, in fact, intentional.
The tonal shifts also effect Ahmed and Williams’s performances. In the early sequence, they seem overly cartoonish. But they both make sense once the wackiness of the film takes over. Which, again, may not be the desired intent of the filmmakers, but both actors become far more entertaining when the film seemingly embraces their interpretations of the characters.
And, really, the film is just more entertaining if you read it as a cheesy throwback to the days when comic book movies were made piecemeal with little concern to cross-film continuity. In trying to generate an origin for Venom without Spider-Man, the film falters as heavily (and as cheesily) as movies like Judge Dead or Daredevil, but it also, perhaps inadvertently, finds the strange charms of those earlier films’ attempts to establish comic book universes without the aid of a Marvel Studios. In this, the film is oddly successful.
But that brings us back to intent. Fleischer’s body of work, which includes Zombieland, suggests he would gleefully embrace the jokey, cheesy tone. At the same time, this is clearly not the case in scenes like the San Francisco bike chase. The scene has comedic beats, but they are underplayed both by the editing and the grand tentpole score provided by Ludwig Göransson. There should be moments in the sequence to pause for laughs, but they are strangely absent. The music, meanwhile, tells you this is serious, guys. And yet, the same tactics make a later Venom attack even funnier for all the misplaced gravitas; which once again suggests Fleischer means for these scenes to be as serious as action beats in a Dark Knight style flick.
Or, alternatively, he may be commenting on the seriousness of some comic book movies. Venom himself is an icon of grim-and-gritty 1990s comics. His visage was plastered on T-shirts for kids to indicate they liked more extreme comics than Archie or Superman. But that form of self-serious can easily become humorous and silly; particularly when creators and filmmakers grasp the tone even harder. Lobo was intended as a parody of the 90s anti-hero, but was embraced by Venom fans with equal fervor. And the action scenes in Venom embrace that serious for all its worth. How the viewer reads that depends on their own affinity for cheese.
Which means, in the long run, Venom will not be considered a classic of the genre. It’s too strange and ill-conceived to be appreciated in the same breath as Superman or The Dark Knight. It’s also too clumsy to be counted among the best Marvel-related features. But it also contains enough charm and quality to keep it out of the bin where you will find all the DVD copies of Daredevil, Elektra and Catwoman. And while definitely born of the same cynicism as those lesser lights, it manages to find something enjoyable in the detritus of studio demands and orphaned comic book characters. It may also not be what you want out of movie called Venom, but it is cheesy goodness from Venom’s first appearance to to its Eminem-performed closing credits track.
Venom is in theaters right now.
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