'Venom' delivers the wrong kind of bite

"Venom" bites, all right, but not with any consistency, and seldom in the manner intended.

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Brian Lowry
(CNN) — "Venom" bites, all right, but not with any consistency, and seldom in the manner intended.

More monster movie than a superhero one, Sony's attempt to expand its Spider-Man franchise with this solo vehicle for one of his more colorful villains makes a mess of the tone, staggering from horror-tinged nastiness to split-personality comedy. The result is a not-so-Marvel-ous misfire that leaves little to latch onto except perhaps for the most invested comics fans.

The whole exercise, frankly, invited skepticism from the get-go, given the idea of building around a character featured in the bottom-rung-of-the-web sequel "Spider-Man 3." Still, casting Tom Hardy prompted some excitement and enthusiasm, even if his face was likely to be obscured a lot -- again -- as it was in "The Dark Knight Rises" and "Dunkirk."

Hardy's toothy performance, however, employs a distracting cadence, even before you get to the movie's other abundant flaws. And the central idea -- a journalist forced to share his body with an alien symbiote, whose presence grants him extraordinary powers -- actually brings to mind less the fringes of the Marvel universe than the 1984 comedy "All of Me," in which Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin found themselves in a similar squabbling predicament.

Hardy's Eddie Brock lands in this situation thanks to the machinations of mad billionaire scientist Carlton Drake ("The Night Of's" Riz Ahmed), who, shades of Elon Musk, has been using his fortune to explore space. Drake's master plan is to bring back these dangerous alien life forms, using human guinea pigs trying to find appropriate hosts.

Brock -- who pays a price for his first encounter with the mogul, which also has implications for his girlfriend (Michelle Williams) -- ultimately gets exposed to the malevolent alien presence, providing the movie a fleeting spark as the man struggles to coexist with his body's ravenous, ill-tempered occupant.

After that, "Venom" descends into a series of uninspired action sequences, including a climactic battle that's so dark, rapidly edited and murky it's difficult to identify who's up or down. It gives nothing away, moreover, to note that the during-the-credits sequences (or Easter eggs) merely add to the malaise.

Director Ruben Fleischer has an eclectic resume that includes plenty of work in sitcoms, and in theory there's nothing wrong with bringing a lighter touch to the genre. The problem is that the movie seemingly can't make up its mind, half the time resembling one of Marvel's gritty Netflix dramas -- only with considerably more lavish (and gruesome) special effects.

Purists who feared the movie might sanitize the violence, alas, needn't worry. While second-guessing the ratings board is generally a pointless task, it's fair to say that "Venom" fell under the bar that would have warranted an "R" rating by limbo-ing as close to it as the judges would allow.

Sony is clearly hoping that "Venom" will help expand its superhero footprint beyond Spider-Man, which the studio secured years ago, having since forged collaborative ties to Marvel over its creative stewardship. Still, if the goal was to spin this introductory strand into a broader web of projects, that thread is already looking awfully shaky.

"Venom" premieres Oct. 5 in the U.S. It's rated PG-13.

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