The Venom Gamble: How Do You Headline a Standalone Villain?

Spider-Man vs Venom artwork

It was recently revealed that Sony is reinvigorating plans for a Venom film, which has been floundering in development limbo for years. Topher Grace’s version of the character in Spider-Man 3 failed to leave much of a lasting impact, but the comic book version has established himself (or him-selves, given his multiple hosts) as an anti-hero capable of teaming up with the likes of the Thunderbolts and Guardians of the Galaxy in recent years… and, more importantly, existing by himself, without Spider-Man. This anti-hero vibe might just be what Sony is going for, particularly after deciding to allow Spider-Man to join the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That still begs the big question: why?

Why, after the confused mess that was The Amazing Spider-Man 2, has Sony have greenlit a Venom spinoff that reportedly will have no connection to new Spider-Man and MCU? Venom is still a primary villain, generally depicted as the evil counterpart to Marvel’s most popular superhero, but that doesn’t mean he should be plucked out of his rival status and made the star of his own movie that's disconnected from the Spider-Man and Marvel universe fans know.

On the very short list of things that Spider-Man 3 did right, you can at least say that Venom looked great at times. He was perhaps a bit more anemic than the hulking brute that comic book fans were used to, but the character was terrifyingly realized when in full Venom-mode. Star power apparently won through, however, and audiences had to have his face peeled back every time he talked, sacrificing the chilling visage of evil for Topher Grace’s gelled hair and attempts at snappy dialogue. The point is, a version of the character has had precisely one big-screen outing, and it didn’t do much to drum up any goodwill.

Topher Grace in Spider-Man 3

Characters have revived themselves from the scrap heap before, of course - Deadpool being a prime example of a character who was a villain in a bad movie before becoming the (highly successful) star of his own movie as an antihero. Then, of course, there's Peter Parker who is now back for the third time. But Venom currently lacks the fan popularity and independent appeal that Deadpool has (which was enough to make Deadpool the star of his own video game before his movie finally got a green light from 20th Century Fox). To anyone who doesn’t keep up with comics (that is, 99% of the viewing audience), Venom's story begins as evil Spider-Man, since Venom is actually an alien symbiote that uses hosts, using Spider-Man as his first to become an ultra-villainous villain. It’s going to take a lot of effort to elevate him above that.

By now, anyone with even the smallest investment in Spider-Man will likely have seen the MCU version of the character in the most recent trailer for Captain America: Civil War. He even has cool little whirring camera eyes so he can express himself without breaking the laws of the universe, which is a nice touch. While the differences in the costume have caused a minor stir, most are just happy to see Spider-Man back where he belongs at Marvel.

The key phrase here is ‘back where he belongs’, since Sony’s two versions of Spider-Man thus far have existed in their own voids - complete with rogues galleries, but no other heroes. It was an unfortunate position made necessary by the superheroes being divvied up between studios in the '90s and not allowed to play with each other, but for the most part Sony did justice to the character. Andrew Garfield’s depiction was particularly praised for his costume and mannerisms, making it a shame that he was dumped in a sea of clichés and hackneyed plots that eventually killed his franchise.

Andrew Garfield in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 Costume - No Mask

All reports at the moment point to Venom starting his own franchise similar to Sony also greenlighting a standalone animated Spider-Man movie from Phil Lord and Chris Miller, but one that won't (initially, at least) include Spider-Man. Despite Venom’s (incredibly) heavy ties to the famous webslinger, the fact that Sony is now sharing Spider-Man with Disney-Marvel could be another nail in the coffin of the Venom franchise before it even begins.

The good will surrounding Sony’s Spider-Men is murky business; Tobey Maguire’s version kick-started a lot of what we love about superhero movies today, but his casting was always a sore point with a vocal minority. Meanwhile, Andrew Garfield’s better-received Spider-Man couldn’t save his own series from early cancellation. Now Marvel has Tom Holland in his more brightly-colored tights and whirring camera eyes, making a superhero landing while holding Captain America’s shield as if to stick it to Sony that he’s now allowed to play with other super folk.

If the Marvel version of Spider-Man turns out to be good - or even great - that’s just another hurdle to overcome if the Venom franchise wants to include its own Spidey - and why wouldn't it? If it's truly going to be a standalone franchise with no Marvel involvement that means we could be getting our fourth live-action version of Spider-Man in recent years, and so help him if he’s not up to scratch because there’s already a potentially beloved version swinging around in the Marvel universe, where fans have wanted him to be for years. This also applies to Spider-Man villains who will need to exist both in the MCU and doubled-up in the Venom universe Sony wants to launch.

This has happened before, with the dual versions of Quicksilver from X-Men: Days of Future Past and Avengers: Age of Ultron. There were the inevitable comparisons, but while one was depicted as an ‘enhanced’ human who ends up riddled with bullets, the other was a brilliantly-realized (if oddly-costumed and missing an accent) genuine speedster with actual ties to his father and his original universe.

There was also the kitchen scene. Nobody will forget the kitchen scene.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson didn’t do a bad job; it was just that the counterpart comparison was too heavy, and it’s hard to compete when you’ve got a version of Spider-Man playing second fiddle to Venom and another one in the still-beloved Marvel universe. That is, assuming Spider-Man exists in Sony's Venom universe.

Venom in Marvel Comics

We were promised a Venom spinoff as far back as Spider-Man 3 when writer James Vanderbilt was tasked with penning a script, which caused more or less the same confusion as it is now, except that Topher Grace’s sneering face was still fresh in our minds, along with the image of Maguire dance-strutting through the streets of New York. The basic issue however, was the same: it’s a bizarre choice of main character in the context of the franchise. The studio might be aiming for a Suicide Squad vibe like they may have done with Sinister Six pre-Garfield-shutdown, but that movie has something that Sony doesn’t: a franchise. Sure, it’s just getting started, but Batman V Superman will already be out by that time and Suicide Squad will presumably fit right into the continuity, sowing the seeds of future installments. And when it comes out, Wonder Woman will be in post-production with Justice League already shooting.

Suicide Squad also has the advantage of a crowd: you might not know or care who El Diablo is, or you could love El Diablo. Either way, you’ve got an eclectic collection of other characters who might be more your style, including mega popular Harley Quinn and the Joker. It doesn’t matter that they’re misfit villains, because the movie is set to play them off each other and has given itself plenty of ammunition. That Batman is making an appearance definitely doesn't hurt.

Venom has none of this. He’s not known for his wide circle of friends, and neither will it cause much of a stir if Sony pairs him up with Mysterio for some wacky, buddy-cop hijinks. Thus the planned Venom franchise hasn’t given itself much of a springboard, as it’s confined to the Spider-Man universe (and not even one that we’ve seen before) and revolves around a lonesome villain/anti-hero. Sure, Venom has teamed up with other villains in the past… to take down Spider-Man. That’s no longer an option.

Venom battles Spider-Man

It remains to be seen if Sony will even go ahead with their plans as they were reported by THR, as their various spinoffs have come to naught before and the Amazing Spider-Man series was brutally cut short. The plans for a Sinister Six spinoff were tanked - an odd choice considering that it could've been Sony’s Suicide Squad with a unique focus. The sharing of Spider-Man was one of the main indicators that Sony was floundering in what to do with the character, so it looks like the studio may have decided to cut the baggage loose and just go with something entirely different.

At this point, it seems like Venom could work far better as a solo movie, as Sony probably wouldn’t have gone ahead unless there wasn't at least an interesting concept for one film (take Joe Lynch's short Venom: Truth in Journalism as an example of how to get creative with the character). As part of a wider, interconnected universe, Venom could be established for future outings and play in a world where the Avengers exist. But as a solo movie, the foundation of his own franchise playing against the MCU?

It’s a tough sell. That’s not to say it has no chance of succeeding, but Sony has locked itself in for a hard slog. No one has yet suggested a Metallo movie without Superman, a Mr. Sinister movie without X-Men or a movie that focuses on Krang without a Ninja Turtle in sight. Then again, maybe Sony has hit on a winning formula and are actually leading the game. We’ll just have to wait and see if the studio can pull it off.

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