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‘Venom’ Is Actually Bad Bad, Not Good Bad

The Tom Hardy blockbuster cleaned up at the box office, but it could have used more of the go-for-broke mentality found in ‘Deadpool’

Marvel Entertainment/Ringer illustration

First of all, I can’t believe that Miles Surrey’s list of reasons Venom is an “Instant Good Bad Movie Classic” didn’t include the fact it features an eponymous theme song by Eminem, who has now officially become Will Smith 18 years after memorably explaining the differences in their respective rap strategies. In the song, which is also included on the rapper’s new album, Kamikaze, Em name checks Edgar Allan Poe, encroaches on MF Doom’s territory by referring to himself a “supervillain,” makes a Slim Shady allusion to the link between his own parasitic alter ego and the inky symbiote, and basically tries to sound as pissed off and dangerous as possible while generating ancillary content for a $100 million blockbuster.

Verdict: As soundtrack bangers go, “Venom” isn’t going to make anybody forget “Lose Yourself” (or “Wild West West,” still the GOAT, notwithstanding Demi Adejuyigbe’s fake Fresh Prince–style rap for Get Out). Still, it would be pretty funny to see “Venom” go up against “Shallow” in the Best Original Song category at the Oscars to extend the bizarrely intriguing Venom–versus–A Star Is Born rivalry, which has already featured Twitter sabotage, mutual box office domination, and the fact the two movies share a cinematographer.

I listened to “Venom” while standing in the aisle watching the end credits of Venom, which I only did because we were informed before the screening that there would be not one but two extremely crucial “stingers” afterward. This was only half true. The preview clip from the upcoming CGI-animated Into the Spider-Verse, set in an alternate timeline where Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield, and Tom Holland never got the webslinger gig, is kinetic, funny, and promising—the springy Spidey of your PS4 dreams. The sight of Woody Harrelson in a Ronald McDonald hairdo as Cletus “Carnage” Kasady is less promising.

To be honest, the main reason I stuck it out was because Venom’s bonus-scenes-not-included running time of approximately 96 minutes is streamlined compared to all those bloated superhero movies, although there are rumors floating around that the movie was supposed to be longer. In an interview with Comics Explained, Tom Hardy suggested that his “favorite” scenes—“30 to 40 minutes’ worth,” in his words—were all cut out, which is not what you want to hear from your star on a press junket. Hardy’s claim was repudiated (sort of) by the film’s co-producer Matt Tolmach, who indicated that the movie is what it was supposed to be. “There isn’t some phantom version,” he insisted. “Is there an R-rated cut sitting there? There isn’t.”

This is a paradox: Venom isn’t good—nor so-bad-it’s-good—and yet if there had been more of it, and if that more had been a little wilder or gorier, it probably would have been better. The choice to go with a PG-13 rating for a movie about a character whose WWE-style finishing move in his comic book incarnation is eating peoples’ heads (a notch below MacGruber’s signature throat-ripping, but still pretty hardcore) is a sound business decision: It keeps the door open for a proper Venom-versus-Spider-Man crossover, which Sam Raimi botched the first time around. (Besides, there are other ways that Venom can be offensive.)

However it was achieved, the PG-13 rating indicates the distance between Venom and the similarly Avengers-adjacent Deadpool films, which pivot on a similar gimmick—the (anti)superhero who talks to himself in sotto voce asides—but push in a more fully realized hard–R-rated direction. The obnoxiousness of the Deadpool movies aside—or front and center, where the filmmakers like to put it—it’s a franchise that has staked out its target demographic (essentially, grown folks who play Cards Against Humanity) with purpose. And in the process, it exposed the monotonous competence of the MCU proper, which is too carefully quality controlled to permit any kind of extremity. (The Deadpool movies also have Venom beat in the title-track sweepstakes, with Celine Dion’s awesomely post-ironic, quasi-Bond theme Deadpool 2 torch song “Ashes” owning Eminem by a mile.)

In a better movie, Eddie Brock’s frequent morphing would shift the tone of Venom around it into the kind of genuinely subversive or satirical register that would feel like the film’s id was being unleashed. Venom’s director, Ruben Fleischer, isn’t a visionary, though. He’s the guy who did Zombieland, a.k.a. the Deadpool of zombie movies, which got its biggest laugh from a Bill Murray cameo.

Fleischer can do pop culture cuteness, but he can’t do the kind of weird that Venom needed to make it memorable. He’s also too sentimental about a character who should be ruthless. Venom’s marketing insists that its namesake is a bad guy—“The world has enough superheroes,” reads the poster—but the movie ensures that the only people who get devoured or disemboweled (usually in the space of a careful cutaway) are bad guys, and the plot boringly pits Eddie/Venom against a more obviously evil symbiote instead of mining the dramatic possibilities of a story about the enemy within.

Hardy’s performance is an example of an actor doing everything he can to elevate crappy material and coming up short. For all the talk about Hardy’s propensity in recent years to act behind masks, he’s also the leading funny-voice generator of his generation. The fact that the guys from The Trip have both been working on their Bane impressions in between perfecting their ongoing Mick Jagger and Michael Caine shtick suggests that the actor has reached iconic-accent status in the U.K. But outside of the several Hardy performances where he uses his voice as an instrument —whether muffling his dialogue to play the shell-shocked Mad Max or gargling with razor wire as a malevolent trapper in The Revenant—there’s an entire subcategory of movies that we could term “Tom Hardy Talks to Himself.”

In addition to Bronson—the based-on-a-true-story character study of the bare-knuckle boxer Michael Peterson that still stands as Nicolas Winding Refn’s best movie—Hardy did the inner-monologue thing in the wonderful, underrated British drama Locke (in which he is the only actor to appear on-screen). In that 2013 film, he adopted a Welsh timbre that made him sound a bit like Anthony Hopkins, and his ability to make writer-director Steven Knight’s mostly stagy dialogue sing—and to command the screen for 90 minutes while strapped into the driver’s seat of a moving car—is a more impressive special effect than anything in Venom. He followed that up with a brilliant double act in Legend, playing twin gangsters Ronnie and Reggie Kray. He thinned and lightened his voice to play soft-lipped smoothie Reggie and thickened it into gruel as the sociopathic, barely closeted twin Ron—anticipating the Eddie Brock–Venom dynamic (and requiring some less flashy CGI to pull off visually). Legend is ultimately just a phony transatlantic Goodfellas rip-off, but it lets Hardy rip in a way that Venom never quite does.

Look: As long as there are dogs he can talk to, Hardy is going to be fine; the news that he’s been cast in Josh Trank’s Fonzo as Al Capone—a role that inspired Robert De Niro’s funniest-ever movie voice—is pretty exciting—and from the film’s preliminary description as Scarface: The Dementia Years, it sounds like he may get to talk to himself on-screen yet again. Perhaps Venom 2 will even follow Deadpool’s path to a more vicious, blissful self-reflexivity. Whatever happens, hopefully they’ll give the soundtrack gig to somebody other than Eminem—Celine Dion, we’re looking at you.