For decades, Marvel has been confused about what to do with Venom. While one of their more marketable characters, the company has never been sure what his deal is. Is he a villain, blinded by his own failures and driven mad? Is he a self-described hero, trying to use his status to justify his endless bloodlust? Is he the hulking agent of a corrupt Avengers, existing as a monstrous alien costume controlling a pathetic criminal too desperate for relevance? Is he a handicapped war hero trying to live up to Spider-Man’s example by using the violent symbiote as a weapon against evil? A mafioso? A space knight? A knock off of John Carpenter’s The Thing?
Even with the movies, the two incarnations of Venom are as different as the two Deadpools or the two Banes. While both Topher Grace and Tom Hardy‘s Eddie Brocks are media screw-ups who bond with alien goo that unleash the id, they also represent very different versions of how Venom has existed in the comics. The version from Spider-Man 3 died and that was that, but the one from 2018’s Venom has not only gone on to turn himself into a franchise, but he’s been able to finally settle Marvel’s mind. The movies, including this weekend’s Venom: Let There Be Carnage, have redefined the character.
To understand, you have to go back to the beginning when Venom first started showing up in the late-1980s. Venom was two beings bonded over a shared hatred of Spider-Man. Spider-Man had been spending time wearing a black costume he figured was made of alien technology, only to discover it was a living being that wanted to become one with him. After he removed it, it joined with Eddie Brock, a reporter whose faulty article about a serial killer’s identity was proven wrong by Spider-Man catching the real killer. Rather than realize that he made a mistake, Eddie doubled down and blamed Spider-Man for the way his life crumbled. Together, the symbiote and Eddie became Venom and they wanted to make Spider-Man pay.
But there came a bit of a twist. While Venom was very much dedicated to gruesomely murdering Peter Parker, he was deluded enough to think that this was for the greater good. To him, Spider-Man really was a menace who ruined Eddie Brock’s life. Venom wasn’t spending his off-time robbing banks or trying to take over the world. He wasn’t teaming up with other villains. In his mind, he wasn’t a villain. He was just a good guy pulling off some good old fashioned vigilante justice.
Between Venom’s popularity, his alienation from the rest of the villains, and the fact that he was never going to actually kill Spider-Man, the writing was on the wall. Venom was going to have to actually start fighting crime, even if it was in the Punisher style. A couple What If…? comics from the era played with the idea. There was even a backup story that showed Venom saving a teenager from criminals while preparing for his first fight against Spider-Man.
In 1993, Venom went full-on antihero with the miniseries Venom: Lethal Protector. That started a five-year stretch of Venom comics where the hero went around murdering muggers and getting roped into the occasional superhero team-up, whether it was with Spider-Man, Wolverine, Ghost Rider, or Morbius. As is normal with changes in the comic book status quo, it eventually rubber-banded back to Venom being a full-on villain who wanted nothing more than to kill Spider-Man. It’s always so simple to just go back to the past and treat recent stories as a failed experiment.
Marvel wasn’t sure what to do with Venom for years, but they wanted Venom to be synonymous with villainy. Yet at the same time, they understood the novelty of a heroic Venom, so they tried to have their cake and eat it too. Mac Gargan (formerly the Scorpion) became the new Venom and was treated as genuinely monstrous. In the meantime, Patrick Mulligan was introduced as the new symbiote superhero Toxin. Once he fell into obscurity, Eddie Brock started fighting crime again as Anti-Venom. Then later on, Eddie became host to the Toxin symbiote.
Flash Thompson became Venom for a time, and it was Marvel once again trying to have it both ways. Although the symbiote was evil and overly violent, Flash was able to control it via drugs and willpower. Dealing with the symbiote was treated as a metaphor for recovering from alcoholism. Then when the symbiote took a liking to Flash and became good, it was forced to bond against its will to criminal Lee Price. This culminated in Eddie Brock becoming the symbiote’s host again for the first time in years, and he was again at least trying to do the right thing.
After all this time of playing Hot Potato with alien fashion, we hit the point where Venom was fighting crime again. It was roughly 20 years since his Lethal Protector days, but those days had become a base of nostalgia. Instead of reverting Venom back to how he was in his original handful of stories, writers were starting to remember the antihero stories as the “good old days.”
Now when Spider-Man 3 came out in 2007, it was a little after Eddie Brock got rid of the symbiote in the comics and during the early days of Mac Gargan’s turn. There was nothing modern to latch onto and there was little problem with just going with an early depiction of comics Venom, albeit with some differences. Mainly that Topher Grace’s Eddie was supposed to play like an evil mirror of Peter Parker to the point that he was a photographer instead of a reporter and wasn’t supposed to come off as especially bulky. Bloated as the movie was, this version of Venom didn’t have anything going for him other than being all about revenge, so we have no idea what his next step would have been had he won.
Conversely, the Tom Hardy version of Venom had to be fully formed without Spider-Man’s existence, complete with not only a new origin story but also a new motivation for Brock and the symbiote to stay bonded. That meant going to the Lethal Protector well once more. Both Venom and Venom: Let There Be Carnage are filled with references to that era of Venom. Carlton Drake, the Life Foundation, Riot, Shriek, Eddie having homeless friends, the symbiote hungering for the chemical that’s found in brains and chocolate, and so on. The details of Cletus Kasady’s childhood were taken directly from Venom: Carnage Unleashed.
Even the goofball sense of humor was something Venom had going for him back then, though it was more Eddie than the symbiote (it really didn’t get a “voice” until years later). This was a guy who murdered a room full of goons while singing David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance,” then admitting he forgot most of the lyrics. He once went undercover in a church by cross-dressing as a nun. The dude went on TV and crashed a news broadcast with the Incredible Hulk while doing a Hans and Franz impression!
But more than anything, it went with the idea of Venom being a problematic attempt at being a hero. Eddie is a mess of a man who ruined his own life and needs to be led on the right path. The Venom symbiote is a petulant child that wants to feast on human flesh and unleash havoc, but can be won over to do the right thing and be civilized. While Venom does good overall, it’s also an excuse to do what he wants. Murder and eating people is okay as long as they have it coming. The sequel makes it apparent that such an attitude leads to repercussions and it’s not a sustainable lifestyle for someone who wants to hold onto a normal life.
When Venom made all that money at the box office (over $850 million internationally), it sent a message: Marvel realized that the world wanted Venom as the good guy. He wasn’t there to chase Spider-Man, but to have his own adventure. Be the protagonist. Be the hero. Be over the top about it all.
While Venom’s comic adventures have certainly been weird in the last few years, they have been consistent in making it clear that Eddie Brock and the Venom symbiote are on the side of good. Eddie had a great, cathartic moment where he admitted to the Avengers that he doesn’t know whether to call himself good or bad because once upon a time, he thought killing Spider-Man was the right thing to do. How can he trust his own judgment if he had that going on?
Then he went on to pull this shit.
He’s still not nice enough to let Spider-Man eat his fries, but they’re at least on good enough terms to get lunch together. That’s progress!
The success of Venom: Let There Be Carnage only solidifies Venom in the eyes of the public. Tom Hardy’s CGI space monster is someone we want to cheer for. Let him be redeemed. Let him protect.