Venom
Directed by Ruben Fleischer
Starring: Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action and for language
1 hr. 52 mins.

For the last 20 years or so, Marvel has been releasing a steady stream of comic book characters on film. Most of them would fall under the heading of “superhero.”

But in the case of Venom, Marvel has given us a mystery — a character who is alien, has superpowers, yet is not in any form or fashion a hero. While he inhabits a body, he’s his own character and has to be tamed and civilized.

This certainly is a different twist. We’re not really involved with crime fighting here. Rather, it’s more a battle to save people (and dogs) from 1) being taken over in their bodies, and 2) being eaten for dinner.

The San Francisco-based bioengineering firm Life Foundation, owned by entrepreneur Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), has sent a probe into space searching for new life forms. After four are captured, one of the life forms escapes and crashes the probe as it returns to Earth. At the crash site, the entity inhabits an emergency medical technician in Malaysia and begins a long series of transferences from one life form to another to return to its family members in San Francisco.

Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) is a TV news investigator noted for his hard-nosed exposés on corruption. When he interviews Drake, he goes against his editor’s orders and confronts him with confidential information stolen from Drake’s emails. Brock is fired. His girlfriend, attorney Anne Weying (Michelle Williams), who does legal work for Life Foundation, is also fired. When she breaks up with him, Brock’s life falls apart.

Brock is a man without purpose until one of Drake’s scientists, Dr. Dora Skirth (Jenny Slate) reveals that Drake is feeding homeless people to his alien life forms in order to find compatible human hosts. Brock breaks into Life Foundation and tries to rescue one of his street friends. Instead, she attacks him, and the alien Venom inhabits his body.

Now Brock has even more problems. He has scary conversations with Venom. His body is being used for hunting, as Venom is quite hungry for live food. And Drake wants his life form back, which unfortunately includes kidnapping Brock.

If this sounds complicated, get used to it. Venom credits seven different writers. There are lots of moving parts to this plot. What keeps this film afloat is the acting of Tom Hardy (who can inhabit anyone’s body, including his own), plus a reasonable amount of action that gets better as the story unfolds.

The subject of this film, however, Venom himself, remains murky. What is he exactly and where did he come from? You could spend a lot of time arguing about this. A symbiote, yes. Also an alien. But a crime partner? That seems a stretch. Venom is hungry and always looking for a meal. So does that mean that Venom gets to eat the bad guys? That’s a dark premise.

I have to say that this is one of Marvel’s more enigmatic characters, not clearly drawn as good or evil, but his own creature, his own personality. He just happens to inhabit and feed on Brock to stay alive. So where do we go from here? It might lead to more interesting conversations between Venom and Brock, maybe some minimum explanation about human civilization.

For now, Venom is reasonably entertaining and even humorous. But superhero? Hmm, not at this point, though I suspect there is more crime fighting to come.

Venom doesn’t have the heart of Batman or the wit of Spider-Man. But he is unique and stands apart from most Marvel film characters because he’s willing to play in the gray areas of human morality. After all, he’s an alien, unencumbered by human expectations. He can eat whoever, whenever. It’s up to Hardy to guide him. Now that I think about it, I’m glad I don’t have his job!