Well, it’s been a long time coming, but the day is finally here. Yesterday’s release of the inaugural trailer for ‘Venom’ marks a culmination of sorts of a pair of longstanding efforts at Sony Pictures, those being the push to launch a series of ‘Spider-Man’ spinoffs (an effort which began in earnest following the release of ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ and for which a clumsy attempt to lay the groundwork fatally undermined ‘The Amazing Spider-Man 2’) and most pertinently, the studio’s desire to get a Venom movie into theaters. These have both been years-long endeavors, with the latter going back over a decade (while the current film only has the loosest of ties to any prior ‘Spider-Man’ outing, the project started life as a ‘Spider-Man 3’ spinoff). Unfortunately, the trailer showcases the sheer wrongheadedness with which Sony has approached both of these efforts.
Let’s hit the low-hanging fruit first, hmm? Sony’s pitiful drive to build a set of spinoffs out of the Spider-Man license. Frankly, they should be embarrassed by the whole thing. Even setting aside the ways in which this derailed the ‘Amazing Spider-Man’ run of films, simply looking at the films they’ve announced over the years reveals the sort of scattershot, “we have no idea what we’re doing, we just want a shared universe” approach that makes Warner’s handling of the DC Extended Universe look like a competent, assured, well-managed affair (as opposed to the increasingly desperate exercise in reactionary filmmaking that it has revealed itself to be).
In fact, speaking of Warner’s reactive approach (by which each film frantically overcompensates for fan criticisms of the last), we can see some of that with Sony’s pre-‘Homecoming’ plans, which involved building up to a film featuring Spider-Man’s iconic villain team-up, the Sinister Six. And I want to be clear, this wasn’t (by most accounts) building toward the Sinister Six as villains in ‘Amazing Spider-Man 3’ or what have you, they were to be introduced in their own spinoff. It’s as though the powers that be noticed fans saying that it would be cool to see the Sinister Six and ran with it, with a complete disregard for what people were actually interested in seeing. (See also, introducing the Lizard in ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’. Fans had been clamoring to see that character on film, yes, but for the specific reason that Curt Connors had been a consistent supporting character in Sam Raimi’s ‘Spider-Man’ trilogy.)
This approach on the studio’s part has given rise to a slate of films – twice over – that could best be described (with the noted exception of ‘Venom’) as “movies that nobody asked for.” That includes everything from their bizarre approach to the Sinister Six and rumors of an Aunt May movie (I wish I was joking with that one, they surfaced in the aftermath of the 2014 Sony hack) to the current slate, which includes ‘Silver and Black‘, a film that for some reason teams up Black Cat and Silver Sable, of all characters. It’s like they tossed Spider-Man characters into a random number generating and paired up the first to that popped out.
It’s old news that Sony is desperate for a big franchise and the reliable cash infusion that comes with it. The Spider-Man films have suffered from that for a while, and now in the wake of ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’, that desperation is leading Sony throw everything at the wall in the hope of piggybacking on the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Nevermind why these characters worked in the first place or how important their connection to Spider-Man himself may be (a connection that will almost inevitably be downplayed in these ill-considered spinoffs).
Which brings us back around to ‘Venom’. One of the interesting things about Venom has always been just how much of the popularly recognized origin story comes from tie-in media and adaptations rather than the original comics themselves. For example, the idea that the symbiote amplified Spider-Man’s physical strength and caused him to act aggressively is completely absent from the original story. Rather, it was introduced in the 1994 animated series. And it’s partially thanks to the character’s convoluted origins (the product of multiple writers introducing disparate elements over a five year period that were only connected by yet another writer when Venom was introduced) that adaptations ranging from Brian Bendis’s ‘Ultimate Spider-Man’ to the various animated series have often taken more liberties with Venom’s introduction than that of most other villains.
I say all of that to say that my issues with what we’ve seen of ‘Venom’ aren’t that it doesn’t appear to exactly match what’s been seen in the comics. Quite the contrary, in fact. If anything, it calls to mind a period in the character’s comic book history from which he arguably has yet to recover. See, if you’re doing a Venom adaptation that doesn’t involve Spider-Man, that really doesn’t leave a ton of options to draw on, particularly if you’d like to avoid the continuity minefield that is the character’s recent history. In that scenario, the natural starting point is ‘Lethal Protector’, a 1993 miniseries that spun Venom out of the ‘Spider-Man’ books and established him as an anti-hero based in San Fransisco. The fundamental problem with doing Venom as an anti-hero is that it’s never been an organic approach to the character, rather feeling more akin to cramming a square peg into a round hole.
Venom, as he first appeared in ‘Amazing Spider-Man #300’ (by writer David Michelinie and artist Todd McFarlane) was a hulking mass of muscle and teeth, driven by a vendetta against Spider-Man. Put simply, he was scary, rendered all the more so by McFarlane’s horror-influenced art. But more importantly, he was unambiguously a villain. Eddie Brock, at the end of the day, was a violent psychopath who found himself physically and mentally bonded with another psychopath – the symbiote. And each of those psychopaths had a specific vendetta against Spider-Man. On the one hand, the symbiote was something akin to a jilted lover, resenting our hero for rejecting it. Eddie, meanwhile was a delusional maniac incapable of taking responsibility for his own actions. As a reporter, he failed to do his due diligence, and when the truth came out (because Spider-Man caught the actual bad guy), he reaped the consequences of his shoddy work. But rather than admit he screwed up, he blamed Spider-Man.
Everything I described in that last paragraph played into the character’s initial, explosive popularity. Of course, Venom is nothing if not a victim of his own popularity. The very traits that made him popular were the very things that eventually had to be downplayed as Marvel decided to position Venom as the sort of anti-hero who could anchor a spinoff. That, of course, brings us to ‘Lethal Protector’, which presented a watered down version of Venom for the sake of sales. And that’s what I see reflected in the first trailer. By presenting Eddie Brock as a sympathetic guy with “demons” and “issues,” it completely misses the mark in terms of who this guy is. Suffice it to say that’s a pretty shaky foundation to build a successful adaptation.
Here’s hoping that the finished film proves me wrong, but Sony’s judgment in handling the Spider-license over the last several years hasn’t exactly filled me with faith.