If you replaced Tom Hardy for Steve Martin in “All of Me,” and switched out Lily Tomlin for a wad of chewed-up black licorice, you’d have “Venom.” The difference being that “All of Me” is a charming screwball comedy, and “Venom” is the kind of comic-book movie that people who hate comic-book movies think that all comic-book movies are like.
Leaping from plot point to plot point without the hindrance of logic or characters, this big-screen return of the legendary Spider-Man nemesis — last seen in the franchise-hobbling “Spider-Man 3” — is aggressively loud and stupid without being much fun at all. It exists as a waste of time (although, one hopes, a sizable payday) for some very talented actors, and it’s proof that even Marvel (whether it’s the studio or other films based on its imprint) doesn’t always get it right.
Tom Hardy stars as Eddie Brock, a motorcycle-riding investigative reporter who tools around San Francisco uncovering city corruption and investigating unsolved murders. (Why someone who covers a local SF beat works for a national news network is never explained, but “Venom” is not the kind of movie that rewards pulling at loose threads.) He gets fired when he turns a puff-piece interview with billionaire Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed) into a gotcha piece, based on intel that Eddie stole from the laptop of his lawyer girlfriend Anne (Michelle Williams). She also gets canned from her job, and breaks off her engagement to Eddie in the process.
Six months later, we see that Drake is working with alien specimens recovered from his science-lab spaceship that crashed at the beginning of the movie. The idea is to meld these extraterrestrial symbiotes with human beings so that people will gain the ability to live on other planets; if a bunch of homeless people die in the clinical trials, well, that’s just the price of science. Except for Dr. Skirth (Jenny Slate), who thinks Drake has gone too far, and she reaches out to Eddie to blow the whistle on the experiments.
Long story short, the alien Venom (voiced by Hardy) winds up inside Eddie’s body, and while Drake and his goons (led by Roland Treece, played by Scott Haze) chase Eddie down, Anne and her new boyfriend Dr. Dan Lewis (Reid Scott, “Veep”) try to figure out how to remove this alien parasite that is killing Eddie.
Or is it? “Venom” posits that even human hosts that can tolerate the alien symbiote will eventually suffer organ failure, until that idea gets jettisoned. Venom tells Eddie that he plans to lead an invasion of the Earth by his species, until he decides not to and helps Eddie fight alien Riot, who has jumped into Drake’s body. The neither-here-nor-there plotting is matched by the wispiness of the characters, who rarely seem to have clear-cut motivations or anything resembling depth.
And that’s what makes this film such an egregious misuse of a fine ensemble. Hardy is always mesmerizing, even when the material is less so, but in “Venom” he’s finally found a project he can’t overcome by sheer talent. (The fact that he’s telling press that his favorite half-hour got cut out by director Ruben Fleischer might have something to do with all the film’s problems. Maybe we’ll get to see that version three Blu-rays from now.)
Williams gets stuck with a role that’s mostly The Girl, although she does occasionally get to step up (after accepting the Venom situation in record time), and Ahmed and Slate give what may be their first bad performances, respectively overplayed and tentative. Heck, even Haze, who had a breakout turn in James Franco’s “Child of God,” can’t turn his character into anything but a grimacing henchman.
As for the big set pieces, they’re so chockablock with CG animation that they never pop in the material world. A car chase devolves into explosions and excessive cutting, offering none of the thrills of Black Panther zipping through the streets of Busan, while the climactic showdown between Venom and Riot looks like Michael Bay directing a battle between two gobs of phlegm after visiting a Jackson Pollock exhibition. (And for a movie loaded with people getting stabbed and beheaded by pointy alien extremities, all the violence remains resolutely, bloodlessly PG-13.) There’s one thrilling moment of Venom running up — and Eddie sliding down — the Transamerica Pyramid, but it’s over all too quickly.
One interesting bit of trivia: At one point, Anne notes that certain audio frequencies are Venom’s “kryptonite,” which means that DC Comics exist in this corner of the not-the-Marvel-Cinematic-Universe. Unfortunately, this film also proves that the bad decision-making that has plagued so many recent DC productions can happen to movies bearing the Marvel Comics shingle as well.