Bad movies come out all the time, and most of them are totally forgettable. But every once in a while, one comes along that’s notable because of the sincere effort put forth by one individual in the cast. He believes so passionately in the project that he gives his whole soul to it. All around him, people are phoning it in, but not him. He is committed. He is devoted. He is making Art.
There is no reason to see Venom — although a ton of people did this weekend — but if you’re bound and determined to waste your time and money, you will be treated to the sight of Tom Hardy bringing it in the role of Eddie Brock, a dogged investigative reporter who will stop at nothing to break big stories in San Francisco. For instance, did you know that San Francisco has a homeless problem? Well, Eddie Brock is on it. But life is not all scoops and deadlines for Eddie: Through some bizarre circumstances, his body is invaded by a malicious alien parasite, which starts to go to war with him and dictate his actions. Suddenly, Eddie has superpowers, although it means being forced to live very closely to a ravenous, psychotic creature.
Venom, for those who aren’t enthralled with comic books, is a Spider-Man villain, and so Venom is a sort of origin story for how he came into being. None of that proves very interesting. What is interesting is the unhinged dedication Hardy brings to the role. (Well, roles, actually — he also does the voice of Venom.) Not many people going to Venom will care that it’s inspired comparisons to All of Me (the 1984 comedy in which Lily Tomlin’s spirit takes over Steve Martin’s body) and some of Jim Carrey’s more whirling-dervish turns in Liar Liar and The Mask. But those are fair analogies for what Hardy tries to pull off in this pseudo-dark comedy. He doesn’t succeed, but that only makes it more fascinating.
Once the parasite takes over, Eddie starts flipping out. Venom is always starving, so Eddie gorges on frozen tater tots and woofs down live lobsters. I don’t mean that Eddie has a few tater tots — he rips open a bag and pours the whole thing down his throat. And Eddie doesn’t passively enjoy a live lobster — he dives into a restaurant tank, biting right into the nearest crustacean as frightened patrons run screaming. Hardy plays the character as if he’s constantly experiencing a severe allergic reaction, convulsing and sweating like a madman. Remember Vincent D’Onofrio’s wacky performance in Men in Black as an evil alien awkwardly wearing a human’s skin? Hardy sees it and raises D’Onofrio a quantum of crazy.
In a different film — in a better film — Hardy’s daring would be thrilling. He’s an actor who’s always seemed consumed with a desire to give gutsy, gonzo performances. He’s played a slew of demented, repulsive heels — Bronson, The Dark Knight Rises, Legend, The Revenant — and even when Hardy is the ostensible hero of a movie (like in Locke), he’s obsessed with transforming himself for the role.
As good an actor as Hardy is, there’s always been something strenuously earnest about his dedication. Not only does he put everything into every performance, he wants you to know he’s doing it. If it’s for a searing drama like The Revenant, that effort is understandable. But if you’re in a bad comic-book film, well, maybe not.
Venom’s behind-the-scenes stories have only highlighted Hardy’s dedication — as well as the sheer folly of the enterprise. The film’s director, Ruben Fleischer, mentioned that the scene in which Eddie/Venom dives into the lobster tank was 100 percent the actor’s idea:
We went to the set to rehearse before shooting, just so he could get a lay of the land because it’s a really physical scene. And the production designer had put a lobster tank in there just as a detail of a fancy restaurant. And Tom, as soon as he saw it, he said, “I’m going in that tank. You guys gotta figure out how to do that, but I’m gonna end this scene in that tank.” … [S]o we had to get, overnight, ship a ton of fake lobsters for when he got in the tank. But that’s the genius of Tom Hardy. He just brings so much to the table.
“Genius” is a word that gets thrown around a lot when talking about actors’ quirky, often unreasonable creative choices. We as moviegoers are meant to be impressed with their bravery — they risk looking ridiculous for our entertainment — and, of course, it’s snide to mock actors when a film doesn’t work out. After all, movies are a collaborative endeavor — many, many people have to be rowing in the same direction for them to work — and a lot of genuine, good-faith effort can be put into them, only for the film to be atrocious.
That’s what’s so enthralling, embarrassing and ultimately endearing about Hardy’s performance in Venom. He has so much fun cutting loose that he energizes the whole movie. His bug-eyed intensity is delightful and inspired — in part because the film around him is pretty lame. The futility of his concerted effort is downright poignant.
Here are a few other takeaways from Venom.
#1. Riz Ahmed is bad in ‘Venom.’ But his band is good.
For the last few years, Riz Ahmed has been a dependably terrific actor. Starting with his breakthrough, the 2010 dark terrorist satire Four Lions, the 35-year-old actor has continued to raise his profile while impressing in everything he’s done. As the unwitting henchman to Jake Gyllenhaal’s deranged video journalist in Nightcrawler, Ahmed projected just the right amount of innocence and anxiety, making us feel his character’s uncomfortable realization that he’s befriended a psychopath. Since then — whether as the accused rapist and murderer in HBO’s The Night Of or part of the compelling Star Wars spinoff Rogue One — he’s been absolute aces.
Except for Venom, which is a further indictment of the movie. This film’s so bad it even brings down Ahmed, who plays the evil head of a tech corporation. Not only did I never think I’d see a bad Riz Ahmed performance, I’d never dreamed I’d witness a boring one — the villains in superhero movies tend to be, at worst, sorta campy, but Ahmed’s character is just a rich, jerky dweeb.
But because I love Ahmed so much, I’d rather draw your attention to another aspect of his artistry if you’re not familiar with it. A few years ago, he formed the hip-hop group Swet Shop Boys alongside indie rapper Heems. (Prior to that, he was a solo act, Riz MC.) But this is no vanity project: Heems, who’s Indian-American, and Ahmed, who’s English-Pakistani, speak bluntly about racism, politics and life as men who get hassled at airport security because of their skin color.
The music is just as potent, incorporating South Asian instruments with hard rap beats. For casual listeners, Swet Shop Boys sound most like M.I.A., an equally talented boundary-breaker, although they’ve as yet to come up with a track as indelible as her “Paper Planes.” But in the meantime, they’re worth checking out — and while their music is often serious, they’re not afraid to throw in a few jokes, too. Even, in “T5,” which takes shots at racist TSA employees.
#2. So, is ‘Venom’ a Marvel movie or not?
I went on a radio show over the weekend to discuss Venom, and before going on air, there was a discussion with the producers about whether it was accurate to describe the movie as being a Marvel film. After all, the Marvel logo appears near the start of Venom — that means it’s a Marvel film, right?
Well… not exactly. It’s actually pretty complicated. And the deeper you dig into the backstory, the more obvious it becomes why Venom is bad.
To start with, Venom is part of the Spider-Man universe, but even that’s a point of contention. As The Ringer laboriously documented this week, there are competing claims as to who, exactly, created Venom — and don’t forget that the character has had different iterations. In some comic books, it’s an alien that merges with Peter Parker, making him essentially an evil Spider-Man. In other comics, and in the movie Venom, the alien attaches itself to Eddie Brock.
Spider-Man is a Marvel character, but only recently did the web-slinger get involved in the Marvel Cinematic Universe — his first appearance was in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War. The reason was that, although Disney had purchased Marvel, the company didn’t own all the Marvel characters. Some superheroes, like the X-Men and Deadpool, belonged to Fox, while Sony had Spider-Man, which is why the studio was able to release the Tobey Maguire Spidey films in the early 21st century.
In 2015, though, Marvel and Sony announced a deal where Marvel would produce Spider-Man: Homecoming and Sony would pay for it and get the profits. As ScreenRant explained, “This is a win-win for both studios. Sony profit from a reinvigorated cinematic Spider-Man brand, Marvel essentially get creative control and to team Spider-Man up with the Avengers.” Because that’s what Marvel cared about most: They wanted to be able to feature Spider-Man in its movies, like Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War.
Meanwhile, Sony is now trying to develop its own mini-MCU, preparing a series of films around Spidey’s nemeses. The first of those is Venom, which is consciously unlike the MCU films. It’s not as bright and shiny as an Iron Manmovie or Thor film — it’s almost more of a horror movie. And it doesn’t have any participation from Kevin Feige, the producer and mastermind behind the MCU movies. (Fleischer made a point of this in a recent interview, saying, “No. Not in any way,” when asked if Feige was involved.)
This puts Venom in a weird position. There’s a Marvel logo at the start of the movie, but it doesn’t feel like a Marvel movie. So when those radio producers asked my fellow critic and me if Venom was a Marvel film, we had to explain that, really, it’s not — not in the way we think of them, anyway. Clearly, many moviegoers this weekend didn’t care about those fine distinctions — it was close enough to the real thing to satisfy them. Ultimately, though, here’s the main difference between Venom and Marvel films: Those other films are good.
#3. Tom Hardy’s comment that his favorite parts of ‘Venom’ didn’t make the final cut isn’t actually the best moment in that interview.
This week, there was a mild ripple of controversy when, during a press junket to promote Venom, Hardy was asked an innocuous question: What was your favorite scene to film? Hardy’s response was weird: “There are scenes that aren’t in this movie. There are, like, 30 to 40 minutes’ worth of scenes that aren’t in this movie. … Mad puppeteering scenes, like dark comedy scenes, you know what I mean? They just never made it in.”
Beyond gifting the world with the phrase “mad puppeteering scenes,” Hardy’s comments are, really, kind of worthless. There were some scenes that didn’t make the final cut that he liked? Okay, that happens — no big deal. Of course, it turned into a big deal, with plenty of outlets running a variation on “Tom Hardy’s Favorite Venom Scenes Got Cut” headlines. The implication was obvious: If the scenes Hardy liked the most in the movie are gone, how good can the movie be? At the very least, it suggested that Hardy and his director (who has the final decision on what stays in the film) differed on the kind of movie they were making. Regardless, it’s not a good sign.
Not surprisingly, Hardy had to “clarify” his comments later — insisting, really, everything’s fine, he’s thrilled with the movie, nothing to see here.
So, minor controversy dealt with — we’re all good here, right? But what’s hilarious to me is that, really, Hardy’s comment in that interview isn’t actually the best part. The best part is right after that comment, when Ahmed essentially clowns Hardy for not realizing that, maybe, the stuff he loved during filming wasn’t that good. Let’s go back to the video! Pay close attention to Ahmed:
Ahmed basically lets Hardy down gently: “Well, if they didn’t make it into the film, probably they weren’t any good, bro. I hate to break it to you.” Then he really busts Hardy’s balls: “We all had a meeting and we watched it and we were like, ‘Tom enjoyed making it so much, but it wasn’t…’ It wasn’t what you thought it was.”
The look on Ahmed’s face as he’s mocking Hardy — and the look on Hardy’s face as he’s trying to play it off, while probably being a little hurt — is chef’s-kiss terrific. It’s richly ironic, too: In an interview in which Hardy complains that Venom’s best stuff got cut, the actual best part of the interview has been totally overlooked.