Superhero fatigue got you down? Tired of the same old bland Marvel Cinematic Universe offerings? A dose of “Venom” could be just the right antidote. This dark, wacky outing combines one of the most interesting contemporary leading men with a daring director who has a hit-or-miss track record. Throw an outlandish alien organism into the mix, shake well with a healthy serving of irreverent humor and you’ve got “Venom.” It’s a mess, but, wow, is it ever a fun, fascinating mess. Those are always so much more thrilling than any of the formulaic superhero movies that parade through multiplexes all year.
Tom Hardy plays Eddie Brock, intrepid San Francisco investigative reporter and unwilling host body for alien Symbiote Venom. Although director Ruben Fleischer uses every tool in his cinematic arsenal, Hardy is firmly in charge here, steering this ship straight to Crazytown. One can’t help but wonder if Hardy is pulling the greatest trick any actor ever has on a multi-million-dollar Hollywood comic book movie, because his insane performance as the edgy Eddie feels like an elaborate troll, like Hardy might be a Trojan horse, or the parasite itself feeding on the genre from the inside out. He’s in full-on crazy-eyed “Wuthering Heights” mode, colored shades of “Bronson” physical intensity, while using his own heavy Brooklyn accent from “The Drop.” He’s absolutely riveting, and hilarious.
The first half is a character study, juxtaposing the freewheeling but principled reporter Eddie with nemesis Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), a shady biotech entrepreneur and Elon Musk type who would rather inhabit outer space than try to disrupt climate change and has a shocking disregard for human life. After receiving a tip from Dr. Skirth (Jenny Slate), Eddie breaks into a lab hoping to collect evidence that Drake has been abusing and killing homeless people for Symbiote trials. Venom inhabits Eddie’s body and turns him into an unlikely killing machine, black tar tentacles propelling the bewildered human around the streets of San Francisco in a reluctant rampage reminiscent of this summer’s AI techno-horror thriller “Upgrade.”
By far the best part of “Venom” — aside from a scene where Eddie plunges himself into a restaurant lobster tank and tears into a live crustacean — is the chemistry between Eddie and his parasite, Venom himself, who is cheeky and sardonic for an alien. They bicker like a married couple over when to eat, what to eat (there are rules about whose heads Venom is allowed to chomp), and how to approach Eddie’s ex-fiancée, Anne (Michelle Williams).
Their banter is funny, intentionally so, and Hardy’s wild-eyed performance and quirky asides invite you to laugh at the silly madness of it all. The supporting cast of Ahmed, Williams, Slate and Reid Scott, who plays Anne’s new boyfriend, Dr. Dan, is game to go along on Hardy’s wild ride, with heightened performances that come with a big wink.
One flaw “Venom” shares with other superhero/comic book movies is big third act problems, clouded by muddy character motivations and even muddier CGI. Two Symbiotes fight for dominance, their shiny, slick, ‘roided tar bodies clashing and melding in a disposable and disappointing battle. Hardy and Fleischer do manage to reel it back to that bizarre but charming tone they’ve created, and amazingly, for all of the wild weirdness and wackadoo mess, this character is, shockingly, one we’d be happy to spend more time with, thanks to Hardy.