Every once in a while, a movie comes along that reminds us how good movies can be. Usually, they do this by being good themselves, by impressing us with masterful storytelling or imaginative directing. Venom accomplishes this feat by providing us with a sharp contrast to the past decade of smartly crafted Marvel movies. Sure, the Marvel Cinematic Universe might not be the pinnacle of human storytelling, but it strives (and often succeeds) to be compelling, funny, and emotionally impactful. Sony has taken the Marvel movie formula and subtracted the wit, charm, and cohesive storytelling that made the MCU so popular. Basically, Venom is lacking everything that made it a feasible endeavor in the first place.
The movie is based off an entirely flawed and unearned premise: take a villain from a Spider-Man storyline, and strip away anything that could possibly relate him back to the original property. That means no New York City (a city that is as inseparable from the Spider-Man universe as you might have assumed Venom was), no Daily Bugle, no Spidey Suit, and very few recognizable characters. All we’re left with is a vague outline of journalist Eddie Brock, the concept of the Symbiote (the alien creature fueled by rage and hunger that fuses with Eddie), and the name “Venom.”
This could have been justifiable; not every superhero movie needs to relate to a larger cinematic universe. But Venom is so intrinsically tied to Spider-Man that the resulting movie feels like a botched amputation. In the original story, Eddie Brock fuses with Venom precisely because of their shared hatred of Spider-Man. This important bit of plot is the justification for Venom’s corrupted-Spider-Man aesthetic and for Eddie’s attraction to the power that the Symbiote provides.
Without the Spider-Man tie in, we just have a movie about a sentient parasitic alien goo that crashes on earth and takes a human host. Again, this could have been fine; there are many fun, entertaining, and original iterations on the alien parasite trope. But since Venom has been so inelegantly ripped away from its host franchise, it is never allowed to figure out what kind of movie it wants to be. It’s confined to a confused and mundane storyline that ends up feeling sloppy. The big bad villain seems to be the result of someone trying to transform ten Elon Musk tweets into a compelling character. The climax of the third act is so poorly set up that, until it was over, I was sure it was going to be a red herring that would lead to the actual climax of the story.
Even the existence of the Symbiote itself, and the events that brought it to earth, are explained so clumsily that it makes you wonder what the draw of the movie was supposed to be in the first place. We never discover why this incredibly advanced alien race needs to devour earth’s inhabitants, and we're barely even dignified with the half-assed explanation of “just because.”
Venom seems to believe that the audience will just accept anything thrown at us in pursuit of enjoying another Marvel property. It fails to recognize that we will give the often over-the-top ridiculousness of comic book plots the benefit of the doubt, but only if they give us a compelling reason to stick around. We’ve seen that people will suspend their disbelief for titles that, in theory, seemed doomed to the DVD bargain bin at Walmart. Who would have guessed that we’d be living in a time with a critically and commercially successful Ant-Man franchise, let alone two genuinely good LEGO branded movies? The difference is, these movies use self-awareness and well-crafted stories to vanquish our urge to roll our eyes at their concepts. Unfortunately, Venom only uses its unconventional origin to dig itself deeper into its soon-to-be-forgotten grave.