REVIEW: ‘Venom’ needs a moral compass. Is there any hope?

Have you ever wondered why superhero movies are so popular?

Perhaps it’s because we enjoy watching people with other-worldly skills fly through the sky. Or maybe it’s because we relish films filled with cool car chases, CGI explosions and massive battles to help us escape reality. Or perhaps it’s just because superhero movies remind us of our childhood and of times that were simpler than our modern-day, complex world.

I’m sure there’s truth in all those statements, but I think there’s a deeper reason we enjoy superhero movies. I think it’s because we have a God-given desire for truth and justice – that is, for good to be done and for evil to be judged. That’s what superheroes do, in their own imperfect way.

Which brings me to this weekend’s new release, the Sony movie Venom (PG-13), which is based on the Marvel villain by the same name and who tried killing Spider-Man in one recent film. In other words, he’s a bad guy. Yet it’s not that simple.

The movie follows a down-on-his-luck journalist named Eddie Brock who is investigating a crooked research company when he accidentally gets infected by an alien, life-like substance (called a “symbiote”) that’s looking for a host. Suddenly, Brock becomes Venom — a giant lizard-like creature that has an appetite for meat and that wants to eat every person and animal that crosses its path.

Morals? Ethics? Venom ain’t heard of them.

This Bruce Banner/Hulk-like hybrid – sometimes he looks like Eddie Brock, other times like a lizard – is neither a superhero (someone who fights for good) nor an antihero (a heroic-like protagonist who lacks conventional heroic traits). For much of the movie, Venom simply is an out-of-control villain biting the heads off bad people. (Yes, that happens, but it doesn’t look as grotesque as it sounds.)

Yet because Venom is fighting the evil corporation – a company that is recruiting poor, clueless people for its deadly research tests – we’re inclined to cheer for the lizard, even though Venom is also battling the police, and even though he has infiltrated an innocent man’s body.

In Sony’s defense, it’s not easy making a Marvel movie about a villain. We want good guys in our Marvel films! That’s one reason the official website calls Venom “one of Marvel’s most enigmatic, complex and bada– characters.” He’s also a “lethal protector,” although we don’t see that side of him until much later in the film.

I prefer Spider-Man for my superhero movies, Batman for my antihero movies (go wash your mouth out with soap, Deadpool), and really bad dudes for my films about villains. Yet in Venom, we get a character who is all three, depending on the moment.

This is one reason many critics are panning the film. Venom is a morally ambiguous primary character in need of a moral compass, and the audience is left confused, not certain what to do.

The good news: The final 10 minutes saves the movie for those of us who believe in good and evil and who don’t like to root for the bad guy. It sets up the sequel nicely.

Yet there’s plenty of bad news: This is a very (very) violent movie. It’s also full of coarse language, with about 50 words (including some GDs and f-bombs, and a few misuses of Jesus’ name). It’s not for children.

Venom isn’t the worst superhero film of the decade, as some are suggesting. In fact, I enjoyed lots of it. I just hope – between now and the sequel – he learns to distinguish right from wrong.