One of the most common complaints against modern superhero movies is that they all feel the same. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has distilled its process to such a precise formula that even their ‘experimental’ movies are just slight variations on that formula. Though superhero fans long for a satisfying alternative to Marvel boilerplate, other studios seldom deliver. Sony hasn’t had much luck lately: their Spider-Man reboot was so terrible that they gave the character up to the MCU. But Sony’s “Venom”—now that looks like something different.

It announces this difference straightaway by taking place in San Francisco. Investigative journalist Eddie Brock had to move there after being fired from The Daily Globe in New York City, thus severing the movie’s connection to all those cinematic universes on the East Coast. Eddie is known for getting extra nosy in his pursuit of a story: he sees the journalism beat as an avenue for taking down the corrupt, but he meets his match in Carlton Drake, the CEO of bioengineering corporation Life Foundation.

Eddie, ostensibly following his investigative sense that Carlton Drake is a super villainy name, decides to disobey the network’s order to shoot a puff piece on the sinister CEO. He ambushes Drake mid-interview with questions about Life Foundation’s rumored misdeeds—namely that they experiment on poor people and built their empire on dead bodies. This pisses Drake off, which does not bode well for Eddie’s career.

Of course, “Venom” isn’t a movie about investigative journalism. Life Foundation recently brought four alien specimens back from space, and one of them finds its way to a down-on-his-luck Eddie Brock. The origin story that opens the movie is riddled with plot holes from the get-go—but they’re tiny plot holes, and Tom Hardy is the glue holding everything together.

There are few actors working today that are as extraordinary as Tom Hardy, which makes it even stranger that he’s in a comic book movie about a rubbery alien skin suit. But Hardy is always up for a challenge, and his uncanny commitment to character makes “Venom” ten times the movie it would’ve been otherwise. Even before the symbiote attaches to Eddie, Hardy’s unhinged take on the character is eminently enjoyable. But the game changes when Venom fuses with Eddie’s body and becomes one with his mind.

At first, Eddie just hears Venom shout its food-related desires inside of his head, giving Hardy the opportunity to transition his performance from unhinged to neurotic. He writhes around San Francisco in a series of deranged fits, arguing with an alien only he can hear. It’s as funny as it sounds. Eventually, Venom comes into its own and formally introduces itself to its host, at which point Eddie and Venom develop a bizarre interplay with one another. Eddie and the symbiote—both of whom are Hardy using different accents—develop a chemistry that’s downright hilarious. “Venom” starts out as a buddy comedy starring one of the world’s best actors, except the buddies are one guy using two different voices to debate the merits of eating people. It’s really something special.

But then the plot gets serious, the stakes get high, and Eddie/Venom has to save the world from a CGI blob. Shoving the movie’s goofiness through such a conventional narrative results in a bad case of tonal mismatch. When the plot thickens, its holes get bigger and less excusable, and not even Tom Hardy can keep it from falling apart. Previously important issues—like the difficulty of finding a perfect human match for the symbiotes—suddenly stop mattering.

The final fight devolves into a shaky, dimly lit action sequence that resembles a feud between slabs of wet latex. The skirmishes in “Venom” are crippled by its PG-13 rating: Eddie’s alter ego is profane and ultraviolent, but the profanity is toned down and the violence happens off-screen, so the character’s excessive nature goes mostly unrealized.

The movie itself feels like an unrealized project. There’s definitely potential here: Hardy is crazy entertaining as Eddie and Venom, and Michelle Williams’ inclusion in the supporting cast could lead to interesting places. The mid-credits scene all but confirms that a sequel to “Venom” is on the way—if the follow-up keeps the stakes small, obtains an R-rating, and leans into Hardy’s comedic side, it could be a truly unique superhero movie. For now, we’re left with this weird chimera of squandered possibilities.

★★½   (2.5/5)