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Venom is a fun, twisted rom-com disguised as a bad superhero movie

Tom Hardy is just a reporter, standing in front of a parasitic alien symbiote, asking it not to eat him.

Tom Hardy/Venom
Tom Hardy and Venom in Venom!
Sony/Columbia Pictures
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Venom might just be the most relatable comic book character to grace a movie screen. He’s hungry all the time. He understands that Michelle Williams is an American treasure. He thinks Tom Hardy is embarrassing sometimes, but really just wants the best for him. He’s a loser on his home planet, and honestly, life on any other planet seems like a better option, even it means being in a parasitic, toxic relationship.

It’s not clear what precisely we’ve done to deserve this iteration of Venom and the hilariously goofy movie in which he stars, but it’s a mixed blessing worth embracing.

With the success of Spider-Man: Homecoming and Tom Holland’s winsome turn as Peter Parker, coupled with the ever-growing thirst for anything Marvel superhero, Sony has turned to its trove of Spider-Man-related character rights and found Venom, a Spider-Man archenemy that’s as popular as he is fearsome.

In the Marvel comic books, Venom refers to a character created by the bond between a human and an alien Symbiote, which is both a symbiote, an organism that forges a relationship with another organism to reap benefits, and part of an alien race called Symbiotes — I know, it’s complicated. Venom’s first host was Peter Parker himself, but his most iconic host is a disgraced journalist Eddie Brock.

Venom takes some liberties with this history, as the Symbiote in this film has no relation to Spider-Man and has been brought to earth by a visionary space entrepreneur named Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed, cosplaying as a nefarious amalgam of Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and Elon Musk). However, luckily for purists and journalists alike, Hardy’s Brock is still a disgraced reporter.

The first third of director Ruben Fleischer’s movie is a painstaking exposition of that complicated backstory. But after that, Fleischer loosens up and unfurls Venom’s true nature: a twisted rom-com between Brock and the rude Symbiote that’s attached itself to him. It’s like “Jack and Diane,” except Diane enjoys human decapitation and sadistic taunts.

Anyone searching for a symbolic conversation about the relationship between authoritarianism and superheroes, or a critique of superheroes as a predominantly male and classist power fantasy, might be turned off by Venom’s fidelity to juvenile rudeness. Yet that all may be part of an elaborate joke on Fleishcher’s part: Venom is so terminally juvenile and inappropriate that it brings you to a point where you can’t tell if you’re laughing at it or with the profane Symbiote torturing our protagonist.

After being relentlessly pelted by the Symbiote’s disembodied insults and the ridiculousness of Hardy’s internal monologue with a flesh-craving alien whose pleasures are both carnal and anatomical, it’s hard not to end up rooting for this strange, mismatched pair. If they can make it in this wild world, maybe we can, too.

Venom is about compromising your ideals in service of a greater good

Eddie Brock is a nice guy who truly wants to do the right thing. We know this because he’s one of the only characters in Venom who interacts with and is nice to non-white, non-rich, non-male characters. The other sign that Brock is a good guy is that he’s an investigative journalist who, despite a request from his boss to coddle a billionaire who’s given Brock’s network an exclusive interview, is determined to call out the filthy rich on their bullshit — a choice that leaves him jobless and disgraced.

That billionaire is one Carlton Drake, who’s supposedly very concerned about Earth’s current state of waste, pollution, and overpopulation. Instead of pouring his mountain of money into conservation efforts, though, Drake thinks the best idea is to go galactic and find an entirely different planet for humanity to populate. And while his company is zipping across the universe, they come in contact with the Symbiotes, a race of aliens that need hosts to live.

The Symbiote at the center of all this is named Venom. The film is not particularly concerned with how Venom got its English name, or why it knows English in the first place, but we do know that Venom, for one reason or another, chooses to bond with and never let go of Brock.

With Venom bonded, Brock can perform dangerous, adrenaline-spiked feats like intricately weaving through San Francisco traffic on a speeding motorcycle and soaring up the side of buildings — and, perhaps, fighting injustice more effectively than he ever could as an investigative journalist.

Brock needs Venom’s lethal, completely illegal powers to fight back against the power and corruption Drake represents, even though those powers belong to a feral, selfish alien Symbiote. So he’s faced with a Faustian deal: unleash the full, murderous power of Venom in service of a greater good, or remain in his powerless human state.

The choice is made simpler by the deep, disembodied voice of the Venom Symbiote (Hardy is credited with the voice acting), who, since it’s bonded with Brock and knows his thoughts and tendencies, is quick to point out all of the wrong decisions that led to Brock becoming such an impotent loser.

Because there is no convincing argument for Brock to remain an impotent loser, a cynical but compelling idea emerges amid Venom’s incessant juvenile taunts: If we’re all stuck living in this terrible world together, perhaps it’s time to stop clinging to the better instincts that render us weak and powerless, and do what needs to be done to attain the power to make things better.

In a way, that feels more honest than the strain of idealism that distinguishes most superhero movies, daring to question whether great power and great responsibility are a bonded pair, or mutually exclusive.

At heart, Venom is a twisted rom-com that’s bonded itself to an angsty superhero film

Brock is given a perfunctory love interest in the form of Michelle Williams as Anne Weying, a serious lawyer who is never seen practicing law, but does wear the type of suit that serious lawyers wear. Venom doesn’t really care to spell out what she and Brock see in each other, outside of a cute little computer screen saver showing photos of them together, and a moment when the Venom Symbiote recognizes that she’s special and means so much to Brock.

But it’s hard to believe him, because the real romance of this movie is between Brock and Venom.

Venom’s strongest elements involve Brock and Venom getting to know each other via a sort of prolonged, difficult internal courtship. Even though their symbiotic relationship may ultimately be, as in nature, mutually beneficial, the movie makes clear that such relationships are not always easy.

At first there’s a struggle as Brock has to curb Venom’s carnal urge for human body parts while Venom has deal with Brock’s stubborn human morality. But they eventually learn what drives each other insane (powerful sound waves for one; the growing wealth gap for the other), what hurts their feelings (being called a parasite for one; being told he’s selfish for the other), and what warms their souls (frozen potato objects, human heads, and apparently Michelle Williams in a bad wig).

It all adds up to a twisted, weird, but ultimately sweet sort-of romance that wouldn’t work without Hardy’s commitment to a specific brand of silly, lunky physical comedy.

In the early going of their bond, Brock is harassed by the Symbiote, who asks if he’s going to cry or if it would be okay, just this time, to put a human head in its jagged-toothed gaping maw. Hardy lumbers around gloriously, opening his eyes so wide that it looks painful, sharpening his face and gestures so it looks like he’s plagued with a terminal itch.

But as he and the Symbiote begin to see each other as more than host and parasite, Hardy starts to take on the more expected poses of an action hero (with the help of some ooey, gooey, squid-ink-colored CGI).

But it’s not just Brock who evolves as a result of this relationship. In fact, the movie’s most touching moment might just be when Venom honestly describes that while it may be fearsome and awe-inducing on Earth, it’s actually a bit of a loser back home. Turns out the power fantasy it has on Earth is tempered and informed by a rather melancholy reality. Symbiotes: They’re just like us.

As with any mismatched movie pair, Brock and Venom eventually find a common understanding. They’re literally bonded, yes, but they’re also symbolically bonded by their shared loserdom — though having a common enemy helps, too. Through this relationship, both learn more about themselves, suggesting that even toxic extraterrestrial relationships might have symbiotic silver linings.

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