“Box Office Don’t Lie” is a favorite aphorism of my favorite movie review partner, and our feature this week appears to be a case where the 35 rating on Metacritic is perpendicular to the audience reaction. Indeed, Marvel’s newest offering, Venom was the dominant offering over at the Marcus Cineplex the night we attended, and yet we sat in amidst a packed house to see last Tuesday night’s late screening. To the extent that east central Wisconsin has its finger on the pulse of the box office, this one is headed to blockbuster status.
To those non-aficionados of the comic-book genre, Venom is an alien life form that instigates a symbiosis with a human carrier to elicit truly terrifying results. That human is typically Peter Parker’s nemesis at The Daily Bugle, Eddie Brock, and we last saw the character in Spiderman 3, played by Topher Grace (and Parker himself also got venomized for a spell in that movie). Spiderman 3 was a disaster of a movie that brought that particular story arc to a screeching halt (there there have been two more major studio arcs since, for those of you keeping score). And, in the spirit of if at first you don’t succeed….
In this Venom incarnation, we don’t get any mention of Spidey, but we do get Eddie Brock, living in San Francisco having been chased out of
Gotham some eastern city. Brock finds himself as the investigative vlogger for the San Francisco paper / media concern, while living with his gorgeous lawyer girlfriend, Anne (Michelle Williams). And it is Brock, played by Tom Hardy, that is pretty much the sole focus of the film — not as Hardy-centric as, say, Locke, but I would bet Hardy takes up over half of the screen time. In contrast to the typical portrayal of Brock as a sniveling little weasel, Hardy plays it up more as a somewhat misguided urban hipster, lovable, but prone to bad judgement. And once Brock and Venom become one, his back and forth with the alien symbiote push this one well over the $5 bar, even without the popcorn. Indeed, I would argue that Hardy’s brilliant acting definitely undermines the credibility of the consensus panning of this one.
In fairness to the critics, there is plenty to complain about here. First and foremost, the villain is weak. If there is no Spidey to stop Venom, what exactly is going on in this movie? And that is pretty much the rub. The film trots out Riz Ahmed as the mad scientist, sort of an Elon Musk type who we also see loosely in Tony Stark and Norman Osborn and Lex Luthor, among others — the Big Brain, megalomaniac, world-conquerer type. Above the law and making his play to improve on the human condition.
Well, as we have remarked before, the villain / foil is really a key to a good action movie (e.g., Hans Gruber, the Joker, the Wicked Witch, Sam Gerard), and this movie doesn’t have it. The best that can be said about the Ahmed character is his house on the banks of the Pacific just over the Golden Gate bridge is pretty cool, even if it does look remarkably like Tony Stark’s house further on down the coast in SoCal. So, score one for the critical consensus on this front.
I suppose you could argue that Venom is Brock’s foil, and this relationship worked pretty well. Kudos for that. The audience repeatedly erupted in laughter from the alien commentary. And, on that score, give it up for Tom Hardy. His comedic, Men-in-Blackish portrayal of the alien’s host is good theater. And, Hardy has now played two of the greatest comic book villains that DC and Marvel have offered up, Bane in The Dark Knight Rises and now Venom in Venom. It is too bad the idiotic story lines in both of these efforts failed to keep pace with his considerable talents.
With all that said, it is no big surprise that this is one that audiences love and critics hate. For this coming Tuesday’s showings, our local Marcus Theater is presenting 15 Venom showtimes, compared to 16 combined for Bad Times at the El Royale and First Man. Box Office don’t lie, indeed. I guess when you are sizing this one up you have to ask yourself: if you had been newly endowed with superpowers, would you take a leap off a tall building, or would you take the elevator down? L&D recommend that you take the leap on this one.