Perhaps the hardest thing to process about Venom — and allow me to warn you that this is not an easy film to process in general — is the sheer ugliness of Venom himself. Sony Pictures appear to have lavished a nine-figure sum on, and are now hoping to establish an entire cinematic universe on the back of, a character who looks like someone drizzled Creme Egg filling onto a bin bag.
For those unschooled in the history and lore, Venom is a blob-like alien “symbiote” who gives his hosts largely tendril-based superhuman powers, and who was created in the mid-1980s as a means of jazzing up Marvel’s Spider-Man line.
As drawn by Todd McFarlane, he was immediately iconic: a mix of all-in wrestler, goblin shark and silverback gorilla, with a smashed piano grin and grasping, Nosferatu claws.
But as seen in Ruben Fleischer’s film, he is a jumbled CG eyesore — one of the most flatly unprepossessing digital creations the superhero craze has yet to cough up. And things are made more confusing still by a deeply eccentric central performance from Tom Hardy as Venom’s human host, the investigative journalist Eddie Brock, whom the Mad Max and Dunkirk star plays in a well-meaning but hapless style that suggests Norman Wisdom in the lead role of The Fly.
It is a bold and bizarre artistic choice — blameless in its way, and one that would have probably worked well in a very different treatment of the source material. The film Hardy seems to have been trying to make might have been along the lines of the 1994 Jim Carrey vehicle The Mask, in which the possessed human comically struggles to retain control over a body gone berserk. (There is a scene in which he runs into an expensive restaurant and sits in their fish tank.)
But Venom is not that film: instead it is a bog-standard superhero origin story of the type that was quietly phased out when the Marvel Cinematic Universe started to cohere 10 years ago, and redrafted the rulebook for these things in the process. Here, around 40 minutes pass before Eddie and Venom are united, another 20 before the titular anti-hero’s fang-fringed visage leers into view.
Filling the time beforehand are the reams of moody backstory that Marvel Studios long ago realised could be painlessly dispensed with. (Venom is a Columbia Pictures production, made “in association with Marvel”, and unconnected to the mainline Avengers films.) Some of this involves Michelle Williams’ hadron-thin love interest character, and the rest of Eddie’s role as the intrepid presenter of a San Francisco-based investigative journalism series, which is referred to variously as The Brock Report, The Eddie Brock Report and The Eddie Brock Show. (Venom’s screenplay is credited to three people.)
This job brings him into contact with a nefarious Silicon Valley billionaire played by Riz Ahmed, who is convinced that all of humankind’s problems can be solved through forcible cross-breeding with some aliens his outer space research team found on a comet. Eddie sneaks into the lab one night with the help of a concerned whistleblower played by Jenny Slate — and one shattered security door later, the fateful meeting, and melding, of man and symbiote takes place.
Next comes a very long motorcycle chase around San Francisco at night, involving a fleet of explosive drones — one of only a few signs the film was written post-1996 — and the usual harnessing of powers sequence, in which Venom chomps and impales a squad of heavily armed goons.
Fleischer, the director of Zombieland and Gangster Squad, stages the action as strings of bangs and jolts, with no sense that anything is happening in a continuous physical space. Then it is back to the lab for an extended and CGI-drowned final battle on that most banal of final battle venues, a gantry: another cliche dutifully exhumed.
Venom can be quite a lively watch, both as a reminder of why Hollywood stopped making superhero films like this, and also for the occasional glimpse of the off-the-wall, star-driven freak-out that might have been: Hardy did say earlier this week in an eyebrow-raising interview that his favourite 40 minutes of footage did not make the final cut, which is easy to believe. But in terms of basic entertainment, let alone as the foundation of a franchise, it is miserably shaky stuff.