Tom Hardy's ever-increasing collection of accents - you might love 'em, you might hate 'em, but you sure as hell can't deny that he sure as hell commits to 'em. I had not even though to live in hope that there might come a day when Hardy would pull up a bigger, loopier, more vivaciously cartoony accent than the "pothead Yosemite Sam" thing he trotted out for The Revenant, but it turns out it's only taken two years and two films. And what do you know, but he has two different voices as the symbiotically linked leads of Venom, and they are both the wildest shit. Amazingly, the voice he uses as giant alien monster Venom, an electronically-aided growl in which he crisply articulates all his syllables while dredging up no end of gravel and phlegm from down in his throat, sort of like if Tony Todd was playing Derek Jacobi, that isn't even the really goofy one. No, that honor belongs to the high-pitched slurry whine he brings to bear as crusading journalist-turned-bum Eddie Brock, a nasal mumble that I suspect is what Hardy thinks of when he thinks of Brooklyn, but God damn me if I can name what part of the Earth people come from who talk like that.

Hardy and his performance - performances? - are maybe the best thing about Venom, and maybe they are not. But this is at least incontestably true: whatever the fuck Hardy is up to, it's the most different thing that happens in a movie that otherwise feels like a comic book adaptation that was scripted in the late 1990s, filmed in the mid-2000s, and given a CGI facelift in the last couple of years (but not a good one). We have here the long-awaited-by-some solo debut of the Marvel Comics anti-hero who was created by Todd McFarlane and David Michelinie in the late 1980s, but who in all ways feels like the pop culture ethos of the '90s distilled into its most unapologetic form: grimdark X-treme attitude, needlessly violent for the hell of it, all in black. The character's first and last appearance in a feature film was 2007's Spider-Man 3, where he was stuffed in by command of the studio, and over the very tangible dismay of director Sam Raimi; the result was a somewhat slack treatment of the character as a sloppy afterthought, greatly disappointing the character's fans (full disclosure: I'm not one of them). Now he's not even a Spider-Man villain, what with Spider-Man existing in a foggy legal time-share with Disney; which I imagine may or may not disappoint the same fans, along with the film's devotion to maintaining it's commerce-friendly PG-13 rating (with the one allowable "fuck" being saved to kick-off the climax).

Instead, he's just an alien blob in the menagerie of thinly-veiled Elon Musk surrogate Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), who is researching possible cures for cancer, or ways to breed a race of extraterrestrial supersoldiers, whichever happens first. At a certain point, Venom melds with Eddie, who has been investigating Drake's obviously shady dealings, and the result is that the sniveling human suddenly finds himself prone to throwing out jets of sticky black goo that murders assailants with a mind of its own; from time to time, the same goo covers his entire body, turning him into a hulking humanoid all in black with a goblin shark's mouth, and a tendency to deliver self-consciously edgy one-liners.

There are two films here: the boring one is being made by everybody who isn't Hardy. It's a fervently by-the-books superhero origin story, with all the trimmings, including a draggy first act, too much time spent explaining the main character's rules and skill set, a talented actress being given insultingly little to do (and to her credit, Michelle Williams insults the film right back, not pretending that she cares even a tiny bit about the words she says or the things she's allegedly feeling), and a final fight with a villain who's just a palette swap of the protagonist.* It's a formula that has revealed its limits pretty hard over the last 15 years or so, and Venom is certainly not near the upper range of that limit; besides Williams flagrantly telegraphing the lack of shits she gives, Drake never turns into more than a generic Evil Capitalist despite Ahmed's best attempt to transform him into a messianic true believe, and the commercial realities forcing the film to play like a nice popcorn movie means that the nihilistic gore that is kind of the only reason to care about Venom has been neatly sanitised. Director Ruben Fleischer is a safe enough hack that there's nothing particularly wrong with the handling of the film (though there is some awfully dubious editing here and there), especially given that it's pretty fast-moving and blessedly short by modern superhero movie standards. But even less is there anything particularly interesting or exciting in the busy, dark action sequences. On the subject of which, this is a shocking misstep for cinematographer Matthew Libatique, who doesn't hit it out of the park with every single at-bat, but who's at least reliable for more than the smeary lighting and overall flatness of these images.

The other film is the one Hardy has privately concocted for himself, aided only a little bit by the three screenwriters. They, to be sure, provide the banter that is Hardy's fuel; but the bizarre, cheerfully kitschy energy with which he delivers that banter, that cannot be written. The film's best moments are a variant on one of the oldest comedy tropes out there, the mismatched buddies: Eddie and Venom are basically the stock character of the harmless wimp and the jolly bully who keeps dragging the wimp along, right down to the way that Hardy keeps his whole bad slack and narrow, despite his movie-star build. We can't have everything: Eddie and Venom are virtually never onscreen together, so all the interplay happens in the form of voice-over, with Eddie-Hardy listening to himself pre-recorded as Venom-Hardy and managing to keep the timing up that way. But there's something enormously wonderful about hearing Hardy playing, essentially, a cannibalistic variant on the Laurel & Hardy dynamic, and while there's not actually all that much of this - 10 or maybe 15 minutes of the whole feature - it's enough to make Venom at least the most off-kilter of recent comic book movies. And, in those precious moments, also the most delectably nuts. I don't think I can bring myself to vouch for Venom as a whole, most of which is just ponderously mediocre, but Hardy's twin performance is unquestionably worthy of something.

*To be fair, there are an awful lot of characters in the Marvel Universe who are basically just palette swaps of Venom.