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REVIEW — “Venom”

Venom could have been the next Deadpool: a breakout Marvel-inspired franchise centered on an edgier, non-conforming anti-hero who is stronger for his detachment from the homogenized Disney-owned Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Instead, much like the cheeky, parasitic alien that bonds with investigative reporter Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) — transforming the hapless Brock into a slapstick meat puppet — Venom is a leech, feeding off the goodwill built up by Sony’s dealings with Marvel Studios, which allows the Sony-controlled Spider-Man to co-exist in Marvel Studios’ shared universe and operate as a member of the Avengers.

The first in what the studio calls “Sony’s Universe of Marvel Characters” — a Spider-Man-less universe intended to be populated by spinoffs starring a cache of the web-slinger’s supporting players from the comic books — this Sony-produced monstrosity is at war with itself as much as its leading man, who spends more time wrestling with the growing and growling abomination inside him than he does embracing and unleashing the titular character.

In Venom, do-right reporter Eddie’s sudden struggle with forming an unwilling parasitic relationship with a blood-lusting alien isn’t as complex or compelling as it sounds: it manifests itself by giving an always-hungry Brock a constant craving for not-always-cooked tater tots and half-eaten garbage, and by forcing a feverish Brock to lash out in an upscale restaurant — ultimately plunging ass-first into a lobster tank before consuming one of the still-living creatures.

When gooey extraterrestrials known as symbiotes crash land on Earth as result of off-world probing initiated by billionaire industrialist Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), the genius-slash-inventor sees the inky aliens as a means of achieving “a new species, man and symbiote combined,” allowing for humans to live in space — provided they survive the volatile bonding process that tends to kill its often involuntary hosts.

After prying into the powerful Drake’s rumored illegal practices and alleged human test subjects, Brock finds himself without a job, without his apartment, and without fiancée Anne (Michelle Williams) — and with a newfound hatred for Drake, who Brock says “ruined me.”

“I am done with this saving-my-fellow-man shit,” a dismayed Brock tells scientist Dora Skirth (Jenny Slate) when approached about looking into Drake’s progressively worsening shady dealings, before being roped into infiltrating the Life Foundation facility. It’s there Brock is infected with the Venom symbiote after grappling with a symbiote-possessed homeless woman, granting him nondescript superhuman abilities like super strength, durability, and agility.

What follows is a more-often-than-not borderline farcical take on the comic book genre, which feels particularly cheesy and out of place in a year where Venom swings in after such milestone hits as Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War.

It’s not just dated, it’s out of touch: Venom might have generated shrugs in the pre-Iron Man and pre-Dark Knight era — the Ruben Fleischer-directed film feels straight out of 2006 — but in 2018, a schlock take on a beloved character feels more insulting than ever when considering the genre is in its golden age and niche and C-list characters alike are not only being treated with reverence, but flourishing and being embraced by audiences the world over.

Hardy gets an “A” for effort, top-class star that he is, but even he can’t save an underdeveloped relationship between his Brock and Venom, which should be — but isn’t — the central focus. The famed twisted symbiotic relationship between the two is frustratingly rarely touched on, much less fully-realized.

Origin story aside, Eddie and Venom don’t become “we” until just before end credits — and by then it’s too late, after 90-something minutes of Brock acting as a puppeteered buffoon and Venom being a self-admitted loser who has an entirely-out-of-nowhere change of heart in the third act, giving Sony its corporate-mandated, watered down Spider-Man.

Brock’s fueling hatred of Drake is almost entirely forgotten about, and when the two have their inevitable going-through-the-motions and video game-like final boss fight — with the entire world on the line, of course, under threat of an unseen invading horde of millions of other symbiotes — Brock doesn’t so much as mention any of the many bones he has to pick with Drake, instead opting for cheesy one-liners and slow-mo punches.

What should be a personal fight on Brock’s end is completely lacking in drama, tension, and stakes, and is as interesting and engaging as the CGI-heavy fights seen in any of the Transformers movies — and just as hard to decipher, what with two barely distinguishable gooey aliens battling it out in the dark.

Not even the action scenes are spared from the generic blandess permeating throughout Venom, whose action sequences are not only sparse, but unsatisfying as result of their messy incoherence. With no character arcs or development to speak of and a plot so barebones it could double as a Halloween decoration, Venom could at least deliver on mindless, popcorn-munching action thrills, but it fails even there — leaving little of redeeming value.

There are times where Venom flirts with going darker, with its horror-tinged sequences — few and far between as they are — among its best. But Venom never quite has the guts to pull the trigger, forcing it to land somewhere in-between camp and tame PG-13ness.

To his credit, Fleischer sometimes seems to draw on the Sam Raimi-ness of it all, almost closing in on the fun outlandishness of Army of Darkness or Drag Me to Hell — but those moments are fleeting, and Venom more than not lacks self-awareness, sometimes in part due to its tonal inconsistencies.

This is the second time the fan-favorite sometimes-villain, sometimes-anti-hero has been trotted out in front of an audience, and the second time the character has been made out to be an often embarrassing laughing stock; a cringe-filled joke unbefitting of his comic book counterpart.

Venom could have been something special if it paid better mind in building out the Eddie-Venom dynamic, and unleashing the two as a twisted, devil-may-care lethal protector with a perverse sense of justice — one who shows up longer than just the last ten minutes after a tedious first hour. As it is, Venom is like a real-life parasite: best expunged as soon as possible.

/ ★★★★★

Venom opens October 5.

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