For those who may not know, Venom is one of Spider-Man’s most prolific villains. Introduced in the ’80s, he has all of Spider-Man’s powers, knows all of his secrets, and looks just like Spider-Man’s black costume, but with a great big shark mouth.
He has since switched hosts a few times, and is now bonded with Flash Thompson as a hero, but today we’re focusing on his role as a villain.
More after the cut.
Quick origin recap: Spider-Man got a black suit that responded to his thoughts. Eventually it was revealed that the suit seemed to have a life of its own, taking over Peter’s body while he slept and fighting crime as Spider-Man. Peter got rid of the suit, but it (conveniently) latched onto Eddie Brock, who hated both Spider-Man and Peter Parker in equal measure, and gave him all of Spidey’s powers and memories (maybe that’s not so convenient after all).
Venom quickly became a fan-favorite, and was soon considered one of Spider-Man’s greatest enemies, alongside old mainstays like Green Goblin and Doctor Octopus.
But here’s the thing… Venom never really earned that spot. Because Venom kind of sucks.
Don’t get me wrong, I want to like Venom. By all rights, he should be terrific. All of the pieces are there: He’s got all of Spider-Man’s abilities, but he’s more powerful, which provides a real threat and challenge for Spider-Man, and a unique opportunity for the writers and artists to show off Spider-Man’s powers in the hands of an enemy (not to mention some really unique fights). He looks enough like Spider-Man to impersonate him, which provides the opportunity for some interesting stories (well, one interesting story over and over, but that’s kind of how comics work anyway). He’s got a deep-seeded hatred for Spider-Man, and knows all of Peter Parker’s secrets and memories, which is a dangerous combination. Surely, this will be Spider-Man’s greatest enemy!
And he was definitely pitched and sold that way, and we bought it up. His introduction, where Mary Jane comes home and mistakes him for Peter, is actually pretty chilling. But he was so embraced by fans that he immediately started appearing in his own comics, often as an anti-hero. This ended up taking a lot of bite (pun absolutely intended) out of the character. And, when you look at his career as a villain, he doesn’t have that Moment that sets him apart from the crowd.
Doctor Octopus has that moment.
Green Goblin has that moment.
But after Venom shows up and struts about how awesome he is, he never really delivers on his promise, and by extension his premise.
Admittedly, a major contributing factor to my opinion towards Venom is his portrayal in 1994’s Spider-Man: The Animated Series.
Harsh truths time: The 90s Spider-Man cartoon was not as good as we remember from when we were kids – few things are. But the Venom story, upon going back, is a particularly glaring example of a villain whose bark is worse than his bite (that pun was less intentional).
In the 1994 Spider-Man cartoon, the black suit storyline played out over three episodes, introducing Venom in only episode 10 of the show’s first season. In the final episode of the three-parter, Venom attacks Spider-Man and beats him handily, and declares, “You’ll see us everywhere! Even in your nightmares!” And then, sure enough, Peter starts hallucinating and seeing Venom’s on billboards and in magazines.
But even watching this as a kid for the first time, that moment felt forced. It didn’t feel like Venom had earned that ‘boogeyman’ status, instead just declaring, “You’re afraid of me now!” Which, really, shouldn’t have worked to the extent that it did. He hadn’t done anything terribly scary, he just announced that he WAS scary, and Spider-Man just believed him.
And then there’s the other version everyone remembers: Spider-Man 3.
Look, Spider-Man 3 is not a great film. There are way too many villains, and and a lot of poor characterization. But one of the biggest problems in the film is the way the black suit / Venom storyline is handled mishandled.
In the 90s cartoon, the black suit makes Peter more aggressive, self-centered and arrogant – essentially, he’s a metaphor for drugs. In the film, it makes him smug, cocky, and just kind of a pretentious asshole. It also gives him emo hair and makes him dance on tables just to make Mary Jane jealous for no good reason. It basically makes him impossible to root for as a hero for most of the second act, which seems like sort of a bad move from a storytelling perspective.
And then there’s Eddie Brock, who is introduced as sort of the anti-Peter. He’s a freelance photographer like Peter, and he’s played Topher Grace, much more physically similar to Tobey Maguire, rather than the body-builder Brock from the comics.
And I actually have no problem with the idea behind this change. Eddie Brock is such a non-character (beyond his blind hatred of Spider-Man) that making him reverse-Peter Parker is an interesting way to set him up as the reverse-Spider-Man. However, once again, the whole storyline is truncated and rushed, and Venom, as a villain, feels like an afterthought.
Now, at around this point, you might expect me to say “Clearly Venom is unadaptable, and it’s probably best if people stop trying.” And if I’d written this at the end of 2007, I might have said just that. But then, in 2008, “The Spectacular Spider-Man” premiered, and showed that Venom actually could be handled well.
In this series, Eddie Brock is an old friend of Peter’s – their parents were research partners who died in the same plane crash, and Eddie helped look after Peter, protecting him from bullies when they were in high school together. Now Eddie is a college freshman, and works in Dr. Connor’s lab where Peter and Gwen get an internship. Gradually, as the series goes on, Peter’s “flakiness” (i.e. his Spider-Man-ing) drives a wedge between them… and we also start to see that Eddie has some serious emotional issues.
By the time the black suit finds its way to Brock in the season 1 finale, Eddie is angry with Peter to the point of hatred, and also angry at Spider-Man, so the symbiote embraces him, showing Eddie that he doesn’t have two enemies, but one. Together they team up and become Venom, who goes on to threaten all of Spider-Man’s loved ones, and beat the hell out of him for good measure.
But this version of Venom doesn’t only work because he’s genuinely frightening, or because we’ve seen Eddie’s hate build over 12 episodes; it works because, at the end of the day, the symbiote isn’t a metaphor for drugs or alcohol, at least not at his best – Venom is just a metaphor for the worst, most jealous ex-girlfriend imaginable, and the show plays up that aspect perfectly.
It’s the only time Venom has really ever seemed like a genuine threat to me, and the only time he’s resonated for me as a villain. As detailed by Chris Sims of ComicsAlliance, Spider-Man’s best villains work on some level because of a central metaphor for teenage life. And Venom/the symbiote is the ex-girlfriend who starts dating that guy you hate just because she knows it will piss you off. The ’90s cartoon even carried that analogy further when they introduced the idea that the suit made Peter more hostile and aggressive, even towards his friends (something every adaptation since has used). The symbiote is literally a bad influence that affects his behavior, and none of his friends can understand why they’re still together.
It’s still not the strongest metaphor behind a Spider-Man villain (that honor goes to the Green Goblin), but along with the combination of a dynamic story and fantastic casting, Venom finally felt like a villain to be taken seriously.
Of course, since then he has also appeared on the new “Ultimate Spider-Man” cartoon, but I can’t speak to how well he’s handled there, because I just can’t stand that show.