Warning: The following may contain spoilers.
Somewhere between witnessing a sweaty Tom Hardy chomp on a live lobster and seeing the character of Venom soulfully tell Eddie Brock that he’d made him change his mind about humanity, I realized that “Venom” was not the version of the story that I’d grown up with. For one thing, he was helping people for the majority of his screen time instead of terrorizing them. For another, Spider-Man was nowhere to be found.
The idea behind “Venom,” the inaugural film of Sony’s Spider-Man spinoff universe, seems, on the surface, to be smart. Take a popular supervillain, plug him into the protagonist role and rely on audiences’ pre-existing love for the character to make them turn out. But in practice, this approach is massively flawed. “Venom” and other comic book films that share its formula are doomed to fail because they miss what makes comic book villains great: their relationships with their respective superheroes.
Take the Joker — arguably the most popular comic book villain of all time — for example. The Joker’s enduring legacy and the lasting impact behind successful film and comic adaptations of the character can be attributed to the depth of his relationship with Batman. In a video essay, Michael Tucker examines why the Joker is so successfully adapted in the film “The Dark Knight.” He concludes that the Joker is the perfect antagonist for Batman because he and Batman are “inextricably linked, … two sides of the same coin.” The 1988 graphic novel “The Killing Joke,” often considered to be among the greatest of the Joker’s comic book appearances, adheres to a similar philosophy, painting the Joker and Batman as mirror images by comparing their respective origins.
Both “The Dark Knight” and “The Killing Joke” speak to what makes a great villain great. The Joker isn’t appealing because he’s a creepy clown. He’s appealing because he acts as the perfect narrative foil to Batman, the complex link between them adding depth to their matchups. A Joker without the Caped Crusader just wouldn’t be as fun, and thus versions of the character that don’t focus on or acknowledge this antagonistic relationship aren’t as successful (we’re looking at you, “Suicide Squad”).
Which brings me back to the antics of Ruben Fleischer’s “Venom” and why it so spectacularly fails at adapting a beloved character. Venom’s comic book origins are unavoidably Spidey-centric. The symbiote known as Venom first bonds to Peter Parker, who, upon discovering its parasitic character, rejects it. The symbiote then latches onto Eddie Brock, a journalist who is disgraced after a man he accused of being a serial killer in an exposé is revealed to be innocent by Spider-Man. Eddie’s subsequent fixation on getting revenge on Spider-Man gives him and the symbiote something in common, and the newly created “Venom” sets his sights on Peter Parker.
Venom is not only violent, murderous and occasionally cannibalistic; he possesses all of Spider-Man’s powers and knows his secret identity. Able to terrorize Peter Parker in ways that his other archenemies cannot, Venom acts as the darker, creepier id to Spider-Man’s superego. Just like Batman and the Joker, Venom and Spider-Man are two sides of the same coin.
Even in later comic arcs where Venom acts as an antihero, his connection to Spider-Man never stops being compelling. In both the 1993 “Lethal Protector” arc, which forms the basis for most of Fleischer’s film, and the “Maximum Carnage” arc, Venom must team up with Spider-Man in order to defeat greater threats. Watching these former enemies clash over their differing philosophies adds moral conflict to the stories, and their antagonistic pasts layer their dynamic with tension.
The new “Venom” film is unable to access any of this hostile backstory, and its depiction of the character brutally suffers for it. Instead of bonding over their hatred of Spider-Man, Eddie and the symbiote bond over things like wanting Eddie and Anne to get back together, or their love of Tater Tots. When Venom bites people’s heads off (only off-screen, mind you), the screenwriters make sure to remind us that those people were bad and probably deserved it. The emotional climax of the film is Venom’s heroic sacrifice to save all humankind. Without his arachnid archenemy, Venom is left to star in a much less interesting narrative — one that sends him on a disappointingly by-the-numbers quest to help good people and hurt bad ones.
Instead of acting as a terrifying, complex mirror to Spider-Man, Venom is shoved into a cliched, painfully PG-13 origin story that, despite the film’s edgy marketing campaign boasting that “the world has enough superheroes,” makes painstaking efforts to turn this antagonist into — you guessed it — a superhero. By shoving aside the symbiote’s bloody background in order to be more “family-friendly,” the only thing this film achieves is taking away anything even remotely venomous about Venom.
Despite this, “Venom” has already broken an October box office record. And I’m willing to bet that future superheroless projects with comic book villains in the starring role — among them, a Morbius film from Sony and not one, but two Joker solo films from DC — will enjoy similar financial success. But until studios learn what makes a villain character popular, these solo projects will most likely continue to critically disappoint and leave fans wanting.
Taking away a villain’s superhero takes away a lot more than just a fancy cape and a good jawline. Ignoring years of adversarial history, narratively deep relationships and complex psychology in order to create a formulaic origin story or turn a long-beloved villain into a hero isn’t some genius, subversive move that will change the history of superhero cinema.
It’s just a missed opportunity.