Let’s make one thing clear right out the gate: Making a Venom movie is probably one of the dumbest ideas a major studio has had for a superhero movie that ever made it to fruition, especially considering that this version of the character has diddly squat to do with Spider-Man. Venom is an edgelord nineties comics character, personified by being a dark reflection of Spidey that foregoes responsibility in favor of feeding insatiable hunger and wrecking up the place to excess. Any superhero film that makes that a protagonist is going in inherently appeal to the antithesis of that character’s purpose, namely that there’s limited mileage one can get from a character that is largely incapable of limiting himself, indulging in the power fantasy without actually giving the story a moral center. And in that sense, Venom delivers exactly as promised, in the form of a messy, confused narrative about a man coping with becoming possessed by an alien lifeform. But folks, I don’t think Sony realizes what they’ve made here, or if they do, it’s something they probably hope nobody will notice.
Venom is a god damn queer rom-com.
Now, you might not think so based on the film’s first act, which feels like it was pulled straight out of 2004 and positions the nicest guy in the world, Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy), as our lead. Eddie’s a journalist who desperately wants to do the right thing, so much so that when he steals confidential client info from his lawyer girlfriend, Anne (Michelle Williams, trying her best with a nothing character), in order to expose the corruption of monopolistic billionaire Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), both Eddie and Anne lose their jobs. Anne leaves Eddie, and he’s all alone in the world, scraping by with only his neighborhood for company. Meanwhile, Drake – an Elon Musk-type with a god complex – pours his resources into researching an alien symbiote collected by his astronauts in a space exploration mission gone awry, using unsuspecting homeless people as guinea pigs to try to discover a perfect host for the parasitic lifeforms. When a conscience-burdened scientist (Jenny Slate) convinces the down-on-his-luck Eddie to come to the lab to photograph the atrocities, Eddie comes into contact with one of the symbiotes, named Venom, which deems him a perfect match and starts to take over his body.
In terms of narrative and character arc, Venom is an absolute disaster, as Eddie is never really framed as needing to learn a lesson about his recklessness, nor is he actually driven to stop Drake or the rival symbiote Riot until late into the third act. Plot points are just sort of strung along in a sequence that resembles a three-act structure but doesn’t actually inform any character growth. The only thing that really saves the film scene to scene is the absolutely ridiculous performance Tom Hardy gives for this apparent paragon of integrity. He flops around sets like a puppet on strings as Venom pulls him this way and that, and the stuttering, neurotic ticks in Eddie’s voice make him a delightful presence to spend the bulk of the film with. This manifests in surprisingly absurd ways, perhaps most notably when Eddie decides he needs to take a bath in a restaurant lobster tank while babbling incoherently to Anne and her new boyfriend. Hardy is giving his all to comically elevate material that does not deserve it, and that becomes especially clear when his dual roles start getting romantically involved with one another.
I’m as dumbstruck writing that as you are reading it, but an Eddie/Venom romance is a legitimate layer of subtext that pervades this movie, whether director Ruben Fleischer intended or realizes it. Eddie and Venom have an initially antagonistic relationship wherein Eddie is used as a means to powerful ends, but Venom becomes convinced of the value of humanity through continual prodding and playful banter with his new host. Eddie doesn't really come to discover any depth to Venom's hungry personality, and Venom’s change of heart isn’t motivated by anything demonstrably extrinsic to his relationship with Eddie, so the rapport that builds between them is framed less like a parasitic intruder and his reluctant vessel learning to get along than between an affectionately bickering couple. Their relationship closer resembles Robin Williams and Nathan Lane in The Birdcage than any comparable platonic exchanges. And if you think I’m giving this a sexual component that isn’t demonstrated on-screen, there is one scene that absolutely begs to differ. You might assume that Anne’s utility as a character is to be a romantic interest that Eddie needs to win back, but there is, no joke, a scene that punctuates on a kiss that unquestionably frames Eddie and Venom’s reunion as the relationship we are meant to be invested in, and it certainly calls notions of symbiote gender into question in the process, further cementing the text's unintentional queerness. (Whatever you're imagining, you're probably not far off, though watching it play out is next-level bonkers.) Hell, when Eddie and Anne don't end the movie romantically reunited, Venom even raises the possibility of Anne as a mutual partner to them both, so I guess the anticipated sequel will revolve around Eddie and Venom trying to establish a polyamorous triad!
If you’re looking for reassurance that the symbiote action sequences look good, I assure you that it’s pretty much exactly what you’re going to want from the mid-budget movie about the goopy CGI buff alien daddy who eats people. There are a few moments of incoherence that lead one to wonder what the supposed R-rated cut of this film looked like at one point, but what’s here is mindless and frenetic, good enough for government work but not especially showy or inventive. But I’m telling you, the action beats are completely forgettable when compared to the thought of how much queer slash fiction is going to be borne from this movie. I have no idea if Venom is being subversive or clueless, but the queer-coding is incredibly strong in this one, and I'm flabbergasted at how Tom Hardy seems to have singlehandedly made it so much fun. Venom isn’t really what you’d call a “good” movie, but it’s an unexpectedly delicious morsel of gay ambiguously-male-coded relationship comedy. And that sure as hell isn’t a sentence I was expecting to write about the film.