Sony is making a Venom movie. Sony is doing so without the rights to include any elements of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, including Spider-Man, the character inherent to Venom’s entire existence. This is clearly a ridiculous idea that cannot work.
Well it is, but only if Sony tries to take the obvious, traditional route. Because while the idea of making a movie out of a Spider-Man villain without Spider-Man (or many of the major elements of his supporting fictional world) seems entirely bonkers – and is an undeniably challenging prospect, on multiple creative and logistical levels – it actually has a great deal of potential. If Sony embraces the idea that limitations lead to creative solutions, and aims for a distinct, thoughtful treatment rather than delivering a Marvel-lite tagalong, there’s huge scope for solving all of the studio’s current superhero problems at the same time as delivering a very, very worthwhile movie indeed.
Here’s how it would do that.
Don’t mention the wider Marvel world. Don’t even be tempted
Without the rights to use Spider-Man, Sony obviously can’t factor him into the story. But I’m going to get really hardline about how un-Spider-Man this film needs to be. No hints, no allusions, no newspaper headlines referencing red-and-blue blurs hurtling through the New York skyline, and certainly no TV news reports cutting off just before they mention him (seriously, let’s kill that lame trope forever). There needs to be no Spider-presence in this film at all. Not even an acknowledgement that he, or any other part of the MCU, exists. Deal with the wider Marvel universe like Christopher Nolan dealt with the DC universe in the Dark Knight trilogy. ie. Don’t.
To acknowledge Spider-Man is to acknowledge that he’s not in this film, which is to implicitly acknowledge that the MCU exists, and that this film is not part of it. That both quietly breaks the fourth wall, and makes Sony’s Venom film feel like the poor relation to the ‘official’ Marvel movies. Fox’s Deadpool gets away with this - with its crashed S.H.I.E.L.D. heli-carriers and references to Samuel L. Jackson - but only because it’s Deadpool. Breaking the fourth wall and messing up the narrative are half the point.
But Sony really can’t afford to do any of that. Its last two Spider-Man movies were largely crap, and directly led to Marvel taking the Spider-Man rights back. Worse, the leaked company e-mail reports from a couple of years ago painted a picture of a creatively flailing studio with simply no clue what it was doing in regard to superhero films. Sony needs to convince with Venom. It needs to re-establish itself as a studio with something unique and relevant to offer in the comic book world. It needs to make Venom a weighty and meaningful film in its own, standalone right. It can’t rely on popular associations, obviously, but it can’t afford to allude to any either. It needs to own this, and do something fresh with the material. As for how to do that…
Ignore everything but Venom, and go deep on what makes him interesting
So if Sony’s Venom movie has to stand on its own two goopy, tentacled feet, then it needs to take a seriously analytical approach to its design. It needs to work out what it is about Venom’s conceptual core that makes him interesting as a character or entity, outside of his place in the wider Marvel universe. And then it needs to find a way to make that substantial enough to carry a whole movie. There are a few unique challenges here, but a few very interesting opportunities as well.
Sporadic dabbles with heroism and anti-heroism aside, Venom is questionable movie protagonist material. He’s the product of a malicious, aggressive, alien symbiote bonding with a human host to create a rampaging, mutant berserker. There are good-guy versions of him - taking in such spin-off lifestyles as secret agent work and a stint in the Guardians of the Galaxy - but they’re not the standard-edition Venom that most people are going to come to see. And besides, to spin off into any of those secondary variants is going to require at least one movie spent establishing the rules of vanilla Venom first. You can’t open with them. And with the absence of the wider MCU precluding any obvious heroic foil or influence, you have to accept that you’re working with nothing more than pure, OG, monstrous, scary Venom here. And you need to work with that, not against it.
Venom doesn’t have a set identity. Although most immediately associated with Eddie Brock, Peter Parker’s bullying Daily Bugle colleague, multiple different hosts have bonded with the symbiote over the years - including the similarly Parker-linked Flash Thompson . Each has had a slightly different relationship with it, thus creating multiple different Venoms with varying goals, abilities, and outlooks. There isn’t really an obvious version to latch on to, and the best-known is too closely related to Spider-Man to realistically build a film around. But the flipside is that Venom’s nature as a hybrid character does present a unique narrative angle. This isn’t a simple ‘get powers, do stuff’ story. There’s a lot of internal conflict and even trauma to play with.
And the third problem is that Venom is fairly one-note. He is, in effect, a hulking, semi-feral tentacle-gorilla. He’s really strong, has an approximation of Spider-Man’s powers, loads of teeth, and likes wrecking stuff. Venom was created to work as a physically imposing anti-Spider-Man, and that’s basically what he does. We are not looking at Tony Stark levels of long-term character arc here. But again, this restriction presents a solution, doubling down on the encouragement to focus not on Venom himself, but with how each host relates to the symbiote. How well they bond, whether they embrace it or fight it, whether they manage (or even try) to control it for the cause of good – using artificial means or pure willpower – and how the symbiote responds to them in kind. The comic book symbiote has already killed at least one host for being an unworthy coward. There’s a lot of narrative meat here.
Go this way, and you have a fantastic source of central character tension and a brilliant hook for a unique dynamic, which can be explored while neatly avoiding the problem of the wider Marvel world, too. If you make the Venom movie about the internal relationship between symbiote and host, rather than the external relationship between hybrid Venom and the outside world, then you have a weighty, focused, mature story conceit that doesn’t require the character to bounce off any established Marvel stars. And you have a whole lot of interesting places to take that. So…
Don’t make a superhero movie. At all
There are enough of them already. And specifically, there are more than enough of the kind that Venom would likely be. No-one needs another unless it’s going to do something special. We really don’t need a tonally confused Venom movie that shoehorns itself toward anti-hero adventure just because that’s the sort of thing that everyone else is doing. The MCU is full of increasingly morally grey hero vs. villain movies. The DC Extended Universe is all about the grim-dark heroes doing grim-dark things for the greater good. A Venom film that went in a similar direction would instantly melt into background noise and static, and make Sony look like the desperate ‘me too’ studio again.
However, something that Sony can take from Marvel’s evolution of the MCU is the idea that ‘comic book movie’ is not a genre - and there are already unconfirmed hints that it might be doing just that. Between the traditional superheroism of the first two Iron Man films, the spy thriller of Winter Soldier, the heist comedy of Ant-Man, the introspective indie-style dramedy of Iron Man 3, and the Technicolor space-opera of Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel has succeeded by understanding that just because characters have superpowers, that doesn’t mean you have to wrap a straightforward superhero story around them.
With Venom, Sony has an opportunity to take this philosophy even further. With no ties to existing continuity, a unique dynamic where the source of the superpowers is malicious and invasive, and a huge amount of physical and psychological drama to explore through that, there’s no reason Venom should concern itself with good guy / bad guy power struggles at all. In fact…
You don’t even need to make Venom the main character
Consider this. Every Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, or Friday the 13th poster has Freddy, Michael, or Jason front and centre. But are those guys ever the lead character? Not at all. Their respective series remain compelling because – Halloween 3 aside – they’re consistently hooked around a clearly defined, powerful antagonist, which is why their monsters remain the defining marketing image. But the reason they’ve each survived a huge number of sequels and reboots is that with their rules, conventions, and horror dynamics are so strongly defined, they’re free to explore them in multiple different directions with new protagonists every time. See also, the original Alien trilogy. No-one ever remembers the hero of a Nightmare or Halloween film - Jamie Lee Curtis and Heather Langenkamp aside - but they do remember the interactions they have with the horror focal point. Successful horror films and thrillers are all about the exploration of that relationship. They are, fittingly, entirely symbiotic.
Thus, with Venom being such a specific and arresting monster - but not clearly suitable for heroic duties - by following this model there’s much greater potential in casting him in an antagonistic role while still making the film very much about him. There are a lot of interesting themes and ideas to explore with Venom, but with so much of his identity built around the violence, threat, and (literal and figurative) alien chaos he can wreak, his essence could be better explored – and made far more potent – by having the audience root not for the marauding beast (tricky in terms of both empathy and character interest), but for innocent, street level characters having to deal with him. Again, it comes back to accepting the limitations of the character and steering into them. There’s much less value in a watered-down, friendlier Venom than there is in a treatment that really ramps up his raw essence.
Spawn creator Todd McFarlane has long touted a similar idea for a lower-budget movie reboot of his own character, and it is, frankly, an excellent one. It would work brilliantly with Spawn, but it could be even better with Venom. And if one of those innocents beset by Venom was the actual host of Venom at the same time, then you have some very exciting material to explore. Alien meets Predator, meets Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and David Cronenberg’s The Fly. That is a film I would pay top dollar to see.
Whatever you do, take it seriously
I cannot emphasise this enough. All of Venom’s potential quality, all the things that can help Sony deliver a unique, original comic book movie with scope for genuine acclaim, rest on taking the material seriously. And I’m talking in terms of both what happens on screen, and the mindset of the overall production. Getting Venom right needs careful thought and creative bravery, and a willingness to follow through on non-traditional angles.
There’s more to be had here than another CG stunt movie. There’s more to be had than another Suicide Squad-style ‘What if good guys, but bad?’ gimmick. And Sony needs it to be more than that. It needs that if the studio is going to establish itself as a serious player in the comic book movie market. It needs it if it’s going to erase the memory of its recent, opportunistically rushed Spider-disasters. And it really needs it if it’s going to persuade anyone that this new ‘Marvel without Marvel’ initiative is anything other than desperation.
Much like with the creative challenges of the Venom character himself, Sony really needs to think about how to make the limitation of operating outside the MCU work for it, rather than against it, delivering not a second-best half-measure, but something unique that stands alone and has specific purpose and value, deliberately distinct from what the Avengers-loving public are used to. It needs to think in terms of Logan rather than The Amazing Spider-Man 2. It needs to get a smart writer, a serious director, take some risks and go to town. If it does all of that, and takes its time about it, then its standalone Venom movie really could be the definition of an idea so crazy, it just might work.