Forget a smattering of poisonous pre-release reactions from haters who resent anything that falls short of lofty Marvel Cinematic Universe standards, and from Lady Gaga fanatics hoping to boost the “A Star Is Born” box-office by bad-tweeting the opening-weekend competition. The monstrous but scary-good “Venom” is the perfect Halloween season antihero, in an unexpectedly funny flick that’s a definite treat.
Although “Venom” features the creepy alien creature (and his human host Eddie Brock) previously seen in director Sam Raimi’s 2007 “Spider-Man 3,” both characters get a total reboot here that includes no references whatsoever to the web-slinger. Thanks to studio negotiations that shifted Spidey into the MCU but left Sony with the rights to his comic-book villains, “Venom” is the first movie in what Sony hopes to construct as a separate universe from the one where Spider-Man now hangs out with The Avengers.
What’s surprising is how well “Venom” works, even while going out of its way not to mention anything about the wall-crawler. For comics nerds, a single awkward moment occurs when Brock says he worked for the Daily Globe—as opposed to J. Jonah Jameson’s Daily Bugle—before leaving New York for San Francisco. (There’s also a passing reference to kryptonite that seems very odd in any Marvel-related production.) The good news is that it’s almost refreshing to see a comic-book movie these days that stands completely on its own.
Tom Hardy is amiably appealing as the new Eddie Brock, an investigative TV reporter who is kind of a lunkhead, but a determined one. As his boss notes, “For a smart guy, you really are a dumb-ss.”
Here’s the Basic Plotline
Brock’s on-camera interview with amorally single-minded visionary genius Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed) is cut short when Brock brings up wrongful-death lawsuits arising from Drake’s research on humans. What Brock doesn’t know is that Drake also is trying to merge gooey alien organisms obtained from a comet with humans. Drake wants to create a new life form that can survive what the coolly mad scientist envisions as Earth’s impending ecological demise.
Brock gets tipped off about those gruesomely unsuccessful experiments by horrified Drake staff researcher Dr. Dora Skirth (the always enjoyable Jenny Slate, in sexy-librarian tortoise-shell glasses here). Eddie shows up at the lab after hours, tries saving a victim, and yada yada yada, ends up bonded with a blob of living tar that has a taste for human heads.
The concept of an alien parasite that can take over a human, transfer from one body to another, and morph into a monstrosity could have made for a decent straight horror variation on “The Thing.” What’s impressive about “Venom” is that its tongue (a very long, wet, and active one) is inserted just far enough into its cheek to make the movie more action-oriented and amusing than tense and terrifying. All involved have shot down stories that the PG-13 “Venom” originally was intended to be R-rated, and the movie isn’t the type that seems to require any hot sex or graphic gore.
A Likeably Evil Villain
Starting out as a booming bass voice in Eddie’s noggin after becoming part of him, Venom turns out to be a comically crude putdown artist as well as a raging, hyper-violent brute. His interior banter with Eddie makes them an unusual odd couple, especially when Venom offers relationship advice or shows hilarious sympathy with his host’s situation in life. Like Eddie, Venom admits, “On my planet, I am kind of a loser.” What’s not to like about this guy?
Venom also is an impressively elaborate CGI creation when he comes out to make trouble by converting Eddie’s body into a hugely hulking and menacingly malleable midnight-black monster with way too many teeth. Extending parts of his body as slimy tentacles, spears, or battering blunt objects, he is impervious to bullets, grenades, and just about anything except a certain sound frequency and fire.
Eddie’s ex-fiancée Anne (Michelle Williams), looking at one point like a 30-something Gwen Stacy in black turtleneck, plaid miniskirt, and boots, has a new significant other (Reid Scott) who’s a doctor but, amazingly, not a jerk. The way he tries helping Eddie with no apparent resentment is a break from the usual ulterior-motive melodramatics in movies like this.
Word to the Wise: Skip the Credits
Director Ruben Fleischer (“Zombieland”) keeps everything B-moving along, doing a decent job with the usual frantic fisticuffs and a decent motorcycle-drones-SUVs chase up and down (and flying off of) hilly San Francisco streets. The frenzied final showdown between Venom and an equally nasty opponent suffers from slightly incomprehensible editing, but the payoff is worth it.
Screenwriters Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg, and Kelly Marcel, whose past credits range from “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” to “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” to “Fifty Shades of Grey,” deliver a good-enough story that’s predictable without being plodding. Todd McFarlane and David Michelinie are credited as Venom’s creators, but the complicated origin of the character (involving numerous industry pros, as well as a fan who submitted an idea bought by Marvel) is a fascinating tale in itself. Also, rest assured that Marvel legend Stan Lee finally shows up, in what may be the longest wait ever for his cameo.
A mid-credits scene at the end teases the villain of a possible “Venom” sequel, which Hardy says he is eager to do. Sticking around through the rest of the ridiculously long credits just for a preview of the animated and unrelated “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” flick arriving December 14 feels like a cheat, however. If you want to beat the rush to the parking garage, you can see a better trailer for that movie on YouTube.