Thanks to Disney and Marvel, comic book superheroes are synonymous with cinema. The 2008 release of Iron Man proved that ancillary comic properties could rule the box office. It kickstarted what we know today as the Marvel Cinematic Universe and it’s the biggest film property around. None of what I just mentioned is news to most filmgoers, but it’s worth mentioning because one of Marvel’s most popular cult characters, Venom, is arguably a bigger comic property than Iron Man.

With Spider-Man enjoying a resurgence, Sony and Columbia Pictures got cocky and opted to create its own Marvel film universe, and felt Venom would be the perfect character to begin expansion. Venom, as a film character, has been established before in 2007’s Spider-Man 3. That version saw Topher Grace as Eddie Brock, and combining him with the alien symbiote proved disastrous, at best. Those characters have since lay dormant while Sony moved forward with not one, but two reboots of Peter Parker/Spider-Man.

Venom is a solo film that excludes Spider-Man, an odd choice considering how intertwined the two are, much like how Magic Johnson cannot be mentioned without bringing up Larry Bird (and vice versa). But with Tom Hardy playing the titular character, Sony and Columbia believe the characters can exist without a friendly neighborhood parlay (at least for now). With Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland) serving as director and Scott Rosenberg, Jeff Pinkner and Kelly Marcel writing, Venom comes off as a superhero horror-comedy hybrid that plays it safe and has no idea which direction it wants to go.

This Venom is an origin story with Eddie Brock as an investigative journalist in San Francisco. Eddie, who’s engaged to Anne Weying (Michelle Williams), ambushes Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), an ambitious CEO who’s become obsessed with combining symbiotes and humans in order to prepare for life away from Earth. At this point symbiotes are hidden from the public as Drake’s bioengineering company, the Life Foundation, has brought back the alien species from space and are conducting experiments with them and “volunteers” – homeless people who have no idea the dangers they've agreed to. Regardless, Eddie makes some serious, as-yet-unproven allegations towards Drake and soon afterwards he’s fired. Anne, an attorney who works for a firm affiliated with Life Foundation, gets booted, too, and she breaks off her engagement to Eddie. Eddie’s life then spirals out of control, but things get crazier when Dora Skirth (Jenny Slate), a Life Foundation scientist, reaches out to Eddie to expose Drake and the horrific experiments he’s spearheading.

Considering how superhero films have evolved over the years, Venom is a first draft of sorts. That means it looks like a film where the studio lacked any understanding of this comic book property. Knowing that, Venom is a film that would’ve thrived back in, say, 2004, when audiences haven’t yet realized a superhero film’s potential. There are some scares that work, although it’s held back by its PG-13 rating. That’s not to say films can’t be scary at PG-13, but in this case a violent character like Venom works best uncensored. On the surface, Venom is dark and gruesome but this iteration is funny (although much of it seems unintentional). That all adds up to a movie that lacks a true identity, which is frustrating because horror-comedies with identities (like Shawn of the Dead and Zombieland) have proven successful commercially and critically.

Despite its lack of focus and its confusing tone, Venom is still an interesting entry due to Tom Hardy’s remarkable performance. There is chemistry between Eddie and Venom which Fleischer and the writers got right, and that allows audiences to root for this anti-hero. They dropped the ball when it comes to Venom’s motivations, but the “pair” adds some fun to the proceedings (but every character lacks depth and nuance). But there is one flaw (and it’s a bit of a spoiler) regarding Eddie and Venom – Fleischer and company liked their relationship so much they had the two make out (a misleading statement, but when you see it you'll know what I meant). So from that perspective Venom can be considered a horror rom-com.

With a production budget of $100 million, the CGI looks dated, too. No matter how I approach it, Venom looks so outdated at times I searched my pockets to confirm my cell phone wasn’t actually a pager. This is bad enough to prove a supporting character doesn’t deserve a standalone film, but going the anti-hero route is the right choice. The problem is there are more compelling anti-heroes out there and none of them need to pair with someone to be interesting. Venom is flawed but Hardy is interesting enough to make for a fascinating, even enjoyable, watch.

2.5 stars out of 5

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