“Venom” tells the story of a journalist who annoys his editor, develops a horrible diet and devolves into a feral, disagreeable version of his former self, all while unleashing panic and mayhem on an unsuspecting American populace. No, it isn’t a documentary. Nor is it a superhero movie despite its origins in the cavernous warehouse of Marvel comic-book lore. (You might remember an earlier incarnation of Venom played by Topher Grace in “Spider-Man 3,” if only because you couldn’t possibly remember anything else from “Spider-Man 3.”)
Venom is a symbiote, a slimy, sentient, foul-tempered organism that hails from outer space but requires a human host to realize its peculiarly malignant properties. We first see it as a sticky black mass writhing inside a sealed glass canister; imagine if someone had weaponized a bowl of squid-ink pasta and you’re almost there.
Set free from its confines, Venom possesses every body it comes across, infusing them with superhuman strength but also killing most of them in the process. But something happens when it gets its hooks into Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy), an investigative reporter who turns out to be a surprisingly ideal candidate for Venomic possession. It’s a match made in hell — but not, alas, in movie heaven.
Directed with flat, joyless competence by Ruben Fleischer (“Zombieland,” “Gangster Squad”), “Venom” brings with it a laborious, decades-spanning development history. A movie this long in the works should arrive on-screen feeling like more than just an afterthought. But next to the much more visually and narratively elaborate entertainments that make up the Marvel Cinematic Universe — or even compared with other snarky anti-superhero movies like “Deadpool” — “Venom” feels like pretty weak poison.
Which is not to say that it’s terrible, exactly. For a movie conceived as a liberating celebration of badness, it’s probably nowhere near as bad as it should be. A riff on classic body-sharing fantasies dating back to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde — you could also think of it as “All of Me” with aliens — the movie tells a stale, workmanlike origin story, cursorily updated with drive-by references to climate change and fake news, and outfitted with cheaply serviceable visual effects.
The actors, for their part, hit their marks and earn their paychecks with the utmost professionalism, if little conviction or energy. Hardy, in his first big-studio star vehicle since “Mad Max: Fury Road” three years ago, makes predictably fine company as a grizzled San Francisco muckraker. Michelle Williams plays his fiancée, Anne, an attorney whose firm has been retained by Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), a billionaire entrepreneur whose many medical research initiatives include something called the Life Foundation. (Whether this is meant as a callback to the 2017 science-fiction thriller “Life,” which was pegged by some conspiracy theorists as a stealth “Venom” prequel, remains teasingly unanswered.)
As it happens, Eddie is in the midst of investigating the Life Foundation’s shadier operations, though his aggressiveness ultimately gets him fired and swiftly sends Anne packing. But that doesn’t stop Eddie from snooping further, and with the help of a whistle-blowing scientist (an appealing Jenny Slate), he uncovers a lab full of human prisoners, all test subjects in a series of failed experiments to find a suitable human-symbiote match. It’s here that Eddie comes into contact with Venom and finds, unfortunately, that he’s the perfect host — and so, up to a point, is Hardy, who proceeds to toggle between his dueling personalities with spasmodic glee.
Hardy completists will note the actor’s penchant for hiding his rugged good looks behind masks, whether he’s playing Mad Max, Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises” or a fighter pilot in “Dunkirk.” “Venom” finds ways to continue this game of peekaboo. As the symbiote takes hold, Eddie regularly morphs into a leering, overgrown sludge monster with glaring white eyes, an anaconda-like tongue and hideously snaggled teeth, all the better to snap off enemy assailants’ heads with. In scene after rambunctious scene, Venom effectively manipulates Eddie like a rag doll, whether turning him into an expert fighting machine or sending him through the frenzied motions of a high-speed car chase.
For all that, however, “Venom” never fully embraces or maximizes the exuberant nastiness of its premise. This is one instance in which a story that should have been unsparingly dark feels hobbled, even sanitized, by its PG-13 rating, and also by the usual Hollywood franchise imperatives. In time, of course, Eddie and Venom will eventually become a functional buddy-comedy duo, with Eddie partaking of Venom’s extraordinary abilities while bringing those pesky deadly impulses under submission.
At one point, Eddie, desperate to satiate his guest’s ravenous appetite (“Hungry!” is one of Venom’s more frequent exclamations), jumps into a water tank and chows down on live lobsters, in an amusing scene that by rights should have been longer. Hardy might well agree, to judge by a recent Comics Explained interview in which he noted that 40 minutes of footage — including some of his favorite material in the movie — had been left on the cutting-room floor. The slapdash, tossed-together feel of “Venom,” the sense that it’s over just as it’s getting started, would seem to vindicate Hardy’s reservations.
Perhaps we will eventually see a fuller, better version of this movie. Perhaps we already have: This year has already given us the aptly titled “Upgrade,” a viciously clever little biotech thriller starring Logan Marshall-Green (basically Hardy’s doppelgänger) as a man fending off a bodily intruder. You could see it as “Venom’s” more evil twin. Or you could just see it as the good one.
Rating: PG-13, for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for language
Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes
Playing: In general release