‘Venom’ is better than it has any right to be

A quality cast and a sense of humor perform heroics in Sony's new movie

What happens when a cast of Oscar contenders like Tom Hardy, Riz Ahmed and Michelle Williams are turned loose to chew the scenery of a (seemingly wryly self-aware) B movie?

Audiences get “Venom,” the latest bid from Sony Pictures to create its own superhero mega-franchise now that storylines for the studio’s web-slinging centerpiece have merged into the cast of thousands populating Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Audiences may remember the character Venom as the nemesis in “Spider-Man 3,” the last (and least) of the original Spider-Man movies directed by Sam Raimi and starring Tobey Maguire.

There are echoes of its cinematic predecessor in the current “Venom,” but instead of setting up the character of Eddie Brock, and his alter-ego, Venom, as a nemesis to Peter Parker and Spider-Man, the new reboot focuses solely on Brock.

A “loose cannon” in the reporting world, Brock’s bona fides as a righter of wrongs are established early in a montage sequence that has him reporting on the seedy underbelly of a stylized San Francisco, ruled by technology companies that have run more than slightly amok over the city’s population.

Brock’s nemesis, played by the Emmy award-winning British actor Riz Ahmed, is “Carlton Drake” a billionaire tech mogul whose wealth is built on the backs of the city’s poor. They serve as fodder for Drake’s experiments, meant to save humanity from destruction at the hands of disease, climate change and overpopulation. And they’re the focal point of Brock’s reporting.

Drake’s plans to save the world have a whiff of Elon Musk, as he fantasizes about extraterrestrial colonization, sending space ships up to explore other planets that may be suitable for human life — or asteroids that may be suitable for mining.

In these heady times where startups like SpaceX, Blue Origin and Planetary Resources are planning colonization and asteroid mining missions, the plot point isn’t as far-fetched as some might think. But the alien life-form known as a symbiote, which Drake’s crew of astronauts takes back for study and (human) experimentation, is still squarely in the realm of comic books.

Those symbiotes are what give the movie its propellant force, as Drake experiments on humans to try to find suitable hosts for the super-powered aliens (who feed on human organs) to bond with — thus creating a new super species that can survive the coming environmental apocalypse and ensuing space colonization.

Brock, while working to uncover the dastardly deeds of this mad scientist, becomes one of those unwitting hosts — and thus imbued with super powers, fights the good fight with the help of his former fiancée, in an unlikely turn for Michelle Williams, to save the earth, and himself.

With Ahmed forced to deliver clunkers like, “Oh my God, they’re beautiful!” when first confronted with the alien species; or “Release the drones!” during a particularly satisfying chase sequence where his minions are tracking an alien-infected Brock (made the more enjoyable for the wanton destruction of San Francisco), Venom could have been terrible.

But the movie seems to aim for the kind of tongue-in-cheek humor that made Deadpool a hit with audiences … and it mostly succeeds. Hardy delivers a performance that’s shot through with some great physical comedy and sight gags, and the levity goes a long way to lightening what could have been an exercise in morbidity given the darkness of an alien-infected, organ eating anti-hero at the movie’s core. 

To be clear, Venom doesn’t quite hit the meta-movie high notes that made Deadpool a smash, but powered by the performances from Williams and Hardy (who seem to have chemistry) and a script that aims for humor and hijinks and (seemingly) embraces the camp within its source material, Sony should have a solid foundation on which to build a new superhero franchise.

And it needs one. As Spider-Man’s scripting swings off into the arms of Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe, Sony appears to be looking to some of the lesser-known corners and characters in the Spideyverse so it can write its own destiny. Next up for the studio is Morbius: the Living Vampire, which has landed Jared Leto in the lead role, according to recent reports.

Following on the heels of Disney’s surprise breakout hit with “Guardians of the Galaxy” and Fox’s big box office bonanza with “Deadpool” (both lesser known titles in the Marvel catalog), the practice of going with something a bit more off-the-beaten path when it comes to superhero sagas may not be a bad idea.

Perhaps Venom benefited from the extremely low expectations that had been set for it, but the movie managed to score big with the preview audience that attended last night’s premiere.