An unexpected comedic turn in “Venom”

I walked out of “Venom” with the dopiest smile on my face. It’s slightly disorienting that “Venom,” which in its promotional materials leans in heavily, too heavily, on its dark-action-oriented premise, is least effective when it works at being a superhero/action movie. Of course, “Venom” is an anomaly. Despite being based on a Marvel Comics’ character, Venom is not part of the extended Marvel Cinematic Universe from Marvel Studios (that includes last year’s “Spider-Man: Homecoming”), but rather the first in what’s expected to be a series of Sony-produced Marvel-inspired films that include the characters from the Spider-Man Universe, except for Spider-Man, who is currently part of the extended Marvel Comics Universe. (The battle between Sony and Marvel battling for rights to Spiderman is as fascinating as it is confusing, buoyed by ambiguous statement from Sony’s Amy Pascal and Marvel Studios’ Kevin Feige as to whether or not Venom is part of Holland’s Spiderman Universe.)

So, who exactly needs “Venom” in a superhero world already overwhelmed by the exploits of Marvel’s Avengers and DC’s Justice League? What does Sony have to contribute to the superhero film genre? It’s that difficulty of placing the purpose of “Venom” in a larger scale that I suspect has had so many scratching their heads, trying to identify a point to it all. Except, it is this outlier quality of “Venom” that the film effectively harnesses to deliver a superhero that is perhaps less effective at being a superhero, but it is relentlessly rewarding at being something else altogether. For “Venom” works best not when measured in the comic book ethos but as a chaotic and bizarre and relentlessly personable shaggy dog of a comedic character study. For that dopey smile I mentioned earlier? I can’t think of another live-action superhero film that ended on just the right beat to emphasise its casual humour rather than its real-world import.

“Venom,” the film, and Venom, the character, depend on the leading man – Oscar nominee Tom Hardy. Hardy plays Eddie Brock, perhaps the most regular person he has portrayed on screen in at least a decade. He is an investigative journalist, known for his politically charged pieces, and he finds that he cannot keep the personal away from the private when he betrays the trust of his fiancée in an attempt to deliver a hit-piece on the bioengineering mogul Carlton Drake.

 Brock’s entire life is pulled out from under him and at his lowest point – both professionally and personally – the symbiotic life-form Venom enters the picture.

Venom is one of four such life-forms from space that end up on earth for nefarious reasons, and through an unlucky twist of fate, Eddie Brock becomes the unwitting host for one of them.

Whatever you think of “Venom”, Tom Hardy’s performance is a weird sort of marvel in the context of the film and his career. The film depends on him in an aggressive way that is only matched by the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films as far as recent superhero films go in my memory. Even as the machinations of Riz Ahmed’s Dr Drake take up a great deal of the narrative (Hardy doesn’t appear until ten minutes into the film, for example), everything subsequently depends on Hardy and it’s either to Hardy’s credit or my incredibly idiosyncratic taste that this is possibly the most I’ve enjoyed watching him on screen. This is not the visceral manliness of his work in “The Revenant” or the seductive elusiveness of his tiny role in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy;” instead, in a mix of fitful irony, the increasingly anxious and paranoid Eddie Brock and then Brock as played by Venom allow for Tom Hardy to deliver one of the loosest and most naturalistic performances of his career.

Also, reader, he is funny. It’s the funniness that caught me off guard, for even at his best Hardy exudes a quality of seriousness that seems less inherently funny and more amusing after the fact. The gruff demeanour of his Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises,” for example, is cripplingly pseudo-serious but has a delightful memeable quality to it that makes it work in retrospect. But here, Hardy is fun, funny and incredibly moving in my favourite performance in a comic book film this year.

Certainly, the film is less certain of itself, and yet I’m suspicious of the somewhat viscerally negative reaction to it. “Venom” is decidedly low stakes on world building but its structural stiltedness seems charming in a strange way as it argues for the value of the homeless, and ruminates on our destruction of the world on a global scale that feels idealistic and warm, even amidst the body engrossing hosts that seem out of a very 90s horror picture. I tend to be charmed by the sincerely frenetic despite myself, and “Venom” is very much chaotic and frenetic, but tonal symmetry seems pointless in the world the film represents – a world that is destroying itself for no real purpose. And even as “Venom” flirts with romance, horror, and social realism, it is its comedy that keeps it most firmly planted in reality. There’s a plot-defining kiss that occurs late in the film that mixes horror, humour and romance in a way that would be difficult to explain without seeing it. In theory it is almost aggressively ridiculous, and yet if you’re willing to suspend your disbelief, there is a slightly childlike sincerity to it that becomes irresistible. Just like the film.

“Venom” is currently playing at Princess Movie Theaters Guyana and Caribbean Cinemas Guyana

(Email your questions, or comments, to Andrew at almasydk@gmail.com.)

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