VENOM. Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, Scott Haze, Reid Scott. Directed by Ruben Fleischer. 112 minutes. Rated M (Science fiction themes, violence and coarse language).

‘Venom’ is the first film to be released as part of Sony’s planned universe of Spider-Man characters. Due to quirks in their contractual arrangements with Marvel (the comics house that created Spider-Man and now presides over a successful cinematic empire thanks to the Avengers films), Sony wants this franchise to exist without Spider-Man making an appearance (at least for now). Given that the titular antihero is best known for, perhaps even defined by his run-ins with Spider-Man, it’s a strange way to introduce the character. As you might then expect, the movie doesn’t totally come together, and it frankly pales in comparison to everything that the comic book genre has achieved in the ten-plus years since the character was last seen in Sam Raimi’s ‘Spider-Man 3’. Murky motivations, jerky plotting, a disappointing villain – all facets of ‘Venom’ that have been left (for the most part) in the noughties. That said, there are a few things to like about this origin story, especially the warped Jekyll-and-Hyde intensity of the character that the writers and star Tom Hardy lean into. These glimmers of hope are a mixed blessing then; they hint at the potential that Venom has as a character, but flit in and out of being in the space of seconds. Because the movie is so inconsistent, even within itself, it’s often a frustrating exercise in what could have been.

Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) is an intrepid reporter based in San Francisco, known for sticking his nose where the government would rather he didn’t in his regular dispatches. His boss (Ron Cephas Jones) is at once impressed by Brock’s knack for turning up a cover-up and frustrated by his inability to toe the line. The latter blows up in Eddie’s face when he pushes too hard while investigating Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), the wealthy and driven owner of the Life Foundation, a leading medical research company that also employs Eddie’s lawyer fiancé, Anne (Michelle Williams, slumming it). Eddie and Anne are both fired, and she unceremoniously ditches him for reneging on his promise to her to not antagonise Drake.

Six months later, Eddie is in a rut – drinking hard, looking for minimum wage jobs and slumming it in a dodgy apartment. If you’ve ever seen any movie about a down-on-their-luck protagonist, you know exactly what I’m talking about. When he is contacted by Dr. Dora Skirth (Jenny Slate), who tells him that everything he suspected about Drake’s illegal experiments on vulnerable people is true, Eddie follows the juicy lead to the Life Foundation’s laboratories. There, he uncovers evidence of wild experiments, the aftermath of Drake’s attempts to bond alien lifeforms, or “symbiotes”, with human hosts. In the lab, he inadvertently bonds with a symbiote called Venom, and thus begins their turbulent partnership.

Once he and Venom are joined, the movie improves noticeably, but it’s a bumpy ride to get there. On one hand, there’s Ahmed’s Drake, a corporate/scientific villain so generic that it comes as no surprise when he starts hopelessly monologuing, comparing himself to God and experimenting on cute animals. One can’t blame Ahmed for the failure, but it’s tough to see the once-promising support from ‘Nightcrawler’ trying to sell what’s just a bad baddie. On the other hand, there’s the lacklustre intrepid reporter plot, where Eddie is apparently both a top-shelf sleuth and a complete fool, following dangerous leads blindly with no apparent regard for his own career or life. A lot of this stuff reminded me of mid-2000’s superhero movies, like Tim Story’s goofy ‘Fantastic Four’ films or the cringeworthy ‘Catwoman’ adaptation, and not in a good way.

However, the good news is that most of the action involving Venom is as wild as you might expect when a 12-foot tall, shape-shifting, needle-fanged beast is involved. When bonded with Venom, Eddie turns into the black-alien-goop-swathed creature both at will and at random, and gets a whole range of powers, from indestructability to the ability to generate and launch new appendages at will. The CGI work is wonderfully slimy, and director Ruben Fleischer gets serious mileage out of his skillset. However, there’s another annoying and uneven development waiting in the wings, when the symbiote – redolent of the split-second decision made by the hardened villains in ‘Suicide Squad’ to become good guys – changes his mind without rhyme or solid reason. The exact mechanics of choice might be considered spoiler territory, but it suffices to say that this one-eighty is as flimsy as the film’s forgettable villain.

Just about everything else that works about the movie for most of its brisk runtime comes back to Hardy. The British thesp, probably best known for his various roles in Christopher Nolan films, running the gamut from the mumbling behemoth Bane in ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ to the suave conman Eames in ‘Inception’, gives Eddie/Venom his all. Working through Eddie’s whiny New York accent, Hardy is at first curious and confident, then slack and broken. As early observations have indicated, the script by Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg and Kelly Marcel may not always make sense (see Eddie ridiculing Skirth for talking about extra-terrestrial life for one bizarre example), but Hardy almost wills it into coherence through sheer perseverance. His voicework as Venom is even more impressive, delivering a cool hissing growl that should become synonymous with the character if there’s any justice in the world. He even manages to make it fun when Eddie and Venom are battling for control of the one body (though purportedly larger chunks of this “puppeteering” were left on the cutting room floor).

Frustratingly, the film really coalesces into something interesting in the final five minutes. It’s like a romantic comedy with a third wheel, a meet-cute narrated by a schizophrenic presence in one character’s head (probably thanks to Marcel, who also adapted the at times deliriously self-aware ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’). Throw in the threat of Venom busting out to eat a crook or two and you’ve got an extremely weird but also funny and unique movie on your hands. The rest of ‘Venom’ seems to veer self-consciously between the irreverence of the ‘Deadpool’ films and the seriousness of the forgettable ‘Fantastic 4’ reboot, but those five minutes seem to coalesce into something strangely its own. A mid-credits scene promises a sequel featuring an iconic foe for the black behemoth, and if they can harness the same tone for the incoming showdown, a second bite of the apple might be not such a bad thing.

Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

Out October 4.

Sony Pictures.

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