A Spider-Man Spinoff Kickstarted the Sonyverse — and Accidentally Created a Queer Icon
How do you make a Spider-Verse without Spider-Man? A little queer subtext and a lot of Tom Hardy might just be the answer.
In 2018, Marvel’s Cinematic Universe was flourishing. The studio had come a long way from the all-but-certain bankruptcy it faced in the early ‘00s — granted, it’d managed to save itself by pawning the rights to its most popular (and profitable) characters, Spider-Man included. But by building an empire on the shoulders of virtual nobodies like Iron Man and Captain America, Marvel became a juggernaut on the big screen. It’d even gained enough clout to lease Spidey from his stewards at Sony Pictures, earning him his official MCU debut in 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming.
But great things for Marvel is rarely as great for its competitors. Sony has held the rights to the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man — as well as his not-so-friendly roster of villains — since 1999, and already had two Spidey sagas under its belt. Though its current deal with Marvel is difficult for anyone to make sense of, Homecoming made one thing pretty clear: Spider-Man would be off-limits for the time being. That wouldn’t stop Sony from continuing its pursuit of an interconnected world. If Marvel could create an empire without its biggest names, how hard could it be to make a Spider-Verse without Spider-Man?
Of course, that logic isn’t 100% sound, but Venom did its darnedest to make it work. The 2010s were all about anti-heroes anyway, from the unlikely John Wick to Marvel’s own Deadpool. Venom slotted well into the new trend, but it also offered a dose of nostalgia. The 2018 film has all the campiness and gore of a late-aughts superhero movie: it wasn’t as “adult” as Blade, but certainly wasn’t as cringey as the likes of Daredevil. Venom worked hard to strike a balance — not just in its unorthodox tone, but in keeping its eponymous villain on the tightrope between good and evil.
To see Venom on such a tame streak wasn’t ideal for the comic fans tuning in, but director Ruben Fleischer and a very-game Tom Hardy made up for it in other ways. The latter plays a dual role in Venom: not only does he lend his voice to the titular symbiote, but he’s also Eddie Brock, the himbo journalist that Venom will eventually share a body with. When we first meet Eddie, he’s newly unemployed after bombing an interview with Elon Musk stand-in Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed). He’s investigating the very-shady bio-corp, The Life Foundation, of which Drake is CEO. Behind closed doors, Drake is attempting to merge extraterrestrial, parasitic aliens with humans, but the Life Foundation had a history of experimenting on unwitting subjects long before Eddie starts probing.
Naturally, Eddie won’t let a little furlough — or the protests of his ex-girlfriend Annie (Michelle Williams, once again in a not-so-great wig) — deter him from discovering the truth. But his already precarious investigation takes a turn for the worse when he encounters and bonds with Venom. Drake, meanwhile, manages to merge with a symbiote of his own. But where Venom had relatively simple motivations (he just wants to snack on a human brain now and then!), Riot is much more ambitious ... and ruthless. They’re your standard take-over-the-world villain, and though they don’t add much to Venom, at least they don’t distract from the parts of the film that actually do work, like Hardy’s gonzo performance — or the thinly-veiled romance brewing between Eddie and Venom.
Venom, it’s been said, is teeming with subtextual themes. Whatever queer implications within the film would later be converted into text with its sequel Let There Be Carnage, which is an outright rom-com — but it might not have been possible without all the groundwork laid in 2018. Venom is Jekyll & Hyde by way of a screwball comedy. Whatever chemistry or tension Eddie lacks with Drake is abundant in his rapport with Venom. Their constant back-and-forth feels charged in the way that a scene from Bringing Up Baby might, only twice as unhinged. Even if the filmmakers hadn’t capitalized on fandom hopes down the line, there’s still plenty in Venom to suggest that this symbiotic pair might be crushing on each other. It’s fascinating to watch, and it might be the very thing that keeps this very-2000s film from feeling too derivative.
Despite all its allusions to bygone eras, there has never been a film like Venom. Sure, Fleischer could have brought a bit more depth to the action here: it’s serviceable in a way that most superhero films are, but lacks the weight or stakes that the MCU’s best films pull off so effortlessly. Venom also struggles to bring its characters out of their traditional stock territory. It’s reluctant to explore Eddie’s more compelling virtues and vices, like his altruistic streak, or the darker side of his anger. Venom’s supporting characters feel similarly neglected, which puts even more pressure on Hardy. But hey, at least it broke ground in other areas.
Fast forward five years, and Sony is still struggling to build its own Spidey-less Spider-Verse. But Venom remains the jewel in its crown, and with another sequel on the way — plus rumors of a true MCU crossover — it may yet present a challenge to Marvel’s impenetrable empire. At the very least, it demonstrates what can go right when a blockbuster dares to have a bit of fun. And if there’s one thing we can learn from the 2000s, it’s that a little camp is hardly a bad thing.