Apparently Sony is pressing full speed ahead with this Spider-Man license. I suspect they looked at the massive success that Marvel, Paramount and ultimately Disney have had with their series of Avengers films. Releasing a series of relatively independent superhero films that all tied together proved to be quite the financial success, becoming one of the biggest earners of all time. It’s easy enough to understand why other studios might want to follow the business model. The problem? Sony only really has the license to Spidey and his supporting cast. How do you build a multi-character franchise when you only own the rights to one admittedly iconic? You spin-off his supporting characters, of course. In this case, it’s the villain Venom, who is reportedly getting a film from director Josh Trank, who made quite the impression with his début directing Chronicle, and possibly tying into the sequel to The Amazing Spider-Man.
For those unfamiliar with the character, Venom is basically an “anti-Spider-Man” created during the eighties, at a time when comics were generally getting a bit darker and edgier. An alien suit originally worn by Spider-Man, the villain falls into that “direct counterpart” sort of mould – much consciously and physically modelled on the hero than arch-foes like the Joker to Batman or Green Goblin to Spider-Man. Sort of like Sabretooth to Wolverine, or Iron Monger to Iron Man, that sort of thing. Venom essentially looks like a giant muscle-bound Spider-Man dressed entirely in black.
And, of course, the character proves almost inexplicably popular. He was shoehorned in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man III, despite the fact that the director knew next-to-nothing about him. Bill Jemas even forced writer Brian Michael Bendis to devote an early chapter of his Ultimate Spider-Man book to the character, even though Bendis is not a fan. Jemas didn’t argue about the creative integrity of the character or anything like that. Instead he suggested that Venom should exist because he gives the book something to license, because he’s so popular.
The character is also, of course, a villain. Very arguably, the character strayed into the realm of the anti-hero from time to time, known as “the lethal protector” during the nineties. However, the character has generally been shown to have an unhealthy fixation on Spider-Man, preoccupied with the notion that Peter Parker rejected it by tearing the black suit from his skin. Even when Venom isn’t acting like a stereotypical jilted lover, the character is still defined entirely by Spider-Man. He wants to be a hero in order to prove himself better than Spider-Man, for example.
All of the character’s crucial supporting cast, from its offspring (with names like Carnage, Toxin, and so-forth) through to villains in the present series (like Jack O’Lantern and Crime Master), are all a sub-group of Spider-Man’s supporting cast. Even if they aren’t the exact same people, they use the same code-names and iconography. Venom is essentially a popular supporting character of Spider-Man, rather than a franchise unto himself. He’s a borderline psychotic imitation of Spider-Man who depends on the original for his motivation and origin. As a result, I think it’s fair to say that the storytelling opportunities are quite limited.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t hate Venom or anything like that. I think the character can actually work quite well. I don’t mind his introduction in David Michelinie and Todd McFarlane’s Amazing Spider-Man. I think that Venom was one of Brian Bendis’ best Ultimate Spider-Man arcs. I also found myself really enjoying Rick Remender’s current on-going Venom book. If you had told me, a year ago, that I would love an on-going Venom book, I might have laughed at the thought. However, Remender’s book is really good.
And the key to the charm of Remender’s book is that it embraces this idea that Venom is a xerox of Spider-Man, but in black. It’s a darker version of Spider-Man, and so Remender consciously mirrors the book to the Spider-Man franchise, and also moves it a lot closer to the parent franchise. Flash Thompson, the bully from various Spider-Man media, is the new host of Venom. Thompson is, in most adaptations (and the original source material) the biggest fan of Spider-Man on the planet, making him something of an ascended fan. Thompson hooks up with Betty Brant, Peter Parker’s first love in the comics.
Sure, the set-up is a bit different. Flash is a soldier using the alien symbiote as a super-soldier. However, Remender plays up the traditional Spidey storytelling devices. There’s angst as Flash can’t tell his girlfriend or mother about his secret life. His family is targeted by ruthless costume villains. Remender even populates the book with villains who conform to Spidey archetypes. It’s the Savage Six that Flash must face, rather than Peter’s Sinister (or Insidious) Six. Jack O’Lantern is very clearly modelled on the Goblin style of villain, and Crime Master is Flash’s Kingpin.
While this might seem a bit too obvious when writing a spin-off, Remender makes the concept work by pushing the book a lot further than any Spider-Man book could go. When Peter Parker screws up, he makes things a lot more difficult for himself. When Flash Thompson screws up… things get really bad. There’s a lot of violence and cynicism in the book, but it’s really the character pushed to the most logical extreme. Rather than trying to forge a distinct identity for Venom, Remender pushes the character as far as he can towards “dark Spider-Man.” But what does this mean for Spider-Man?
I can pretty safely say that Sony won’t push Venom that far. I can tell you that. The film has to remain accessible to kids and teenagers in order to remain successful, and it has to remain somewhat consistent with the world built in The Amazing Spider-Man. However, I sense that The Amazing Spider-Man is pretty close to as bleak as Sony are willing to let their Spider-Man franchise get. Sure, there are heart-warming moments and the occasional bit of levity, but it’s a fairly dark film.
Main characters die, impaled with prejudice. We don’t just see the aftermath of the death of Uncle Ben, like in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, we see the whole thing. Spider-Man saves the city, but at a high personal cost. He’s even shot by the police for his efforts. The film has a wit about it, and Garfield and Stone are compelling leads, but it’s closer in tone to Batman Begins and The Dark Knight than Superman or Superman II.
Besides, one might wonder what the market for a film that’s basically “darker Spider-Man” might be, especially if it can’t go that much darker than the main series. Iron Man and Thor were two very different films, in terms of content and themes. It’s hard to imagine a big screen version of Venom that doesn’t feel like The Amazing Spider-Man 2.5. However, I think it could be something truly impressive.
The film Kick-Ass worked because it gleefully subverted heroic archetypes – Kick-Ass was loosely a modern Spider-Man, while Big Daddy and Hit Girl were a messed-up Batman and Robin. I’d love to see an entire film devoted to a dysfunctional and a messed up Spider-Man, one deconstructing the character who has become an essential part of popular culture. Spider-Man is actually one of the very few characters who is iconic enough that he could be examined in such a manner. And, I think, it’s something we haven’t seen yet on the big screen – an extended and highly-detailed deconstruction of a single character, rather than the concept as a whole.
Still, I’m willing to be proven wrong. I’d love to see a good Venom movie, but I get the sense that’s not really what Sony are looking for. They aren’t looking to acknowledge and explore the character’s limitations or context as a darker counterpart to an iconic hero – it seems they are literally just looking for characters within their license to exploit in the hopes of building a multi-character franchise. If they can do it, and do it well, more power to them. But I do think that Venom is a character who could be something fascinating, but is also one that could be very easily messed up.
Filed under: Movies Tagged: | Avenger, avengers, Avi Arad, brian michael bendis, Crime Master, disney, Eddie Brock, Flash Thompson, green goblin, Iron Monger, joker, marvel, marvel comics, Rick Remender, sam raimi, sony, spider man, spider-man 3, The Walt Disney Company, venom