Ruben Fleischer’s Venom may have released to mixed reception, but there are certain things that the film executes undeniably well. In particular, it offers a relatively fresh take on the anti-hero that doesn’t use a jaded hard-boiled persona as a crutch for a “baddie” tag. Venom juxtaposes two very different kinds of anti-heroes in a way that makes them interdependent. This structure could go one of two ways—it can push the hero forward, or it can unleash the anti. It does the former, mostly, but it’s the tension between the two that makes the dynamic of this juxtaposition worth looking at.
Depictions of Venom tend to take cues from werewolf and Jekyll and Hyde stories, a dynamic which the latest depiction of Marvel’s Spidey foil ultimately foregoes. In this version of the story, Eddie Brock is an investigative journalist who wants to expose the bad in the world. However, his relentlessness in doing so is selfish and alienates those close to him—it his hamartia, or tragic flaw. His conviction that he is always right and that this justifies any means aligns him with his nemesis in this film, Carlton Drake, who believes in the greater good at any expense—albeit to a more extreme degree.
While Brock believes he is sufficiently right to put those close to him at risk, Venom is initially unable to distinguish between right and wrong. Despite his outrageous acts of bestial violence, Venom is not inherently evil—he is simply adhering to his nature as a parasitic symbiote. Although the consequences of his actions are far worse than the consequences of Brock’s, he is less conscious of the fact that what he is doing is not right. As long as he remains indifferent to consequence, he effectively remains a villain—however, his later maturity instigates his transition from villain to anti-hero. It is his status as an anti-hero that in fact comes to compensate for Brock’s tragic flaw, as Brock’s heroism is ultimately derived from the formerly antagonistic qualities of his symbiotic counterpart as opposed to any of his own traits.
In previous iterations of Venom—particularly David Michelenie’s 1988 “Venom,” from The Amazing Spider Man 300—Venom is drawn to Brock due to his hatred for Spider-Man. Venom uses Brock’s hatred to fuel the bond between them, and it is this that affords him his power. By contrast, Mark Millar’s 2005 “The Last Stand, Part 3 of 4” from Marvel Knights Spider-Man 11 sees Venom bond with Mac Gargan, the villain formerly known as Scorpion. Spider-Man quickly incapacitates Gargan, noting that this version of Venom was substantially weaker than Brock, as Gargan did not hate Spider-Man as much as he did.
The reason Brock’s 1988 Venom was so powerful was due to the fact each part of the host shared a unanimous hatred for Spider-Man, the original host of the Venom symbiote. Brock’s hatred for Spider-Man in this instance was rooted in the fact that Spider-Man has unmasked the Sin-Eater, a villain that Brock ran a successful newspaper column on. The catch here was that Brock had been reporting on the wrong person. He had told the world that the Sin-Eater was a man named Emil Gregg; however, Spider-Man proved that it was actually police detective Stan Carter. Eddie fell into disgrace, losing his career, his family, and eventually his sanity. That’s when the symbiote known as Venom found him in the church where Spider-Man had left it. That’s when Eddie Brock became Venom.
The fact that Spider-Man is absent from Fleischer’s Venom gives the pair a chance to subvert their comic book history. Instead of allowing Venom to wreak havoc in exchange for revenge on Spider-Man, Tom Hardy’s Eddie Brock seeks to endow Venom with a sense of what is right. It was previously established that Venom drew strength from hatred—this iteration of Venom highlighted that Venom draws strength from unity.
The traditional logic of Venom partially applies to the 2018 symbiosis between Drake and Riot—Drake hates Brock, and Riot hates Venom, but their hatred is directed towards different parts of their foe and is therefore not in unison. Despite their hatred-fuelled powered that initially forces Venom and Brock apart, Venom and Brock’s heroism aligns, causing them to subvert the power of hatred by the goodness imbued in their anti-heroic bond. Although their morality is flawed at best, their desire to do right ultimately trumps Drake’s desire to do wrong, and the villainous Venom comes good when it counts.
This makes sense in relation to Michelenie’s later work on Venom, particularly in terms of his 1995 “Planet of the Symbiotes: Chapter 3 – Monster World” from Venom Super Special 1. In this story, Venom was considered an abomination by the other symbiotes on his home planet, as he desired a genuine connection with his host as opposed to intending to eventually consume it.
In The Present Age and the Difference Between a Genius and an Apostle, Soren Kierkegaard wrote of ressentiment, which “becomes the constituent principle of want of character, which from utter wretchedness tries to sneak itself a position, all the time safeguarding itself by conceding that it is less than nothing.” In this sense, it is Venom’s desire to feel that makes him capable of becoming better, and it is his desire to be better that allows him to overcome the ressentiment that defines the other symbiotes. While the others concede that they are in fact less than nothing without a host, Venom strives to be something, and it is this that eventually humanizes him, allowing his bond with Brock to become the force of good necessary to defeat Riot.
The juxtaposition that initially pits the two anti-heroes against each other is the catalyst that ultimately draws them together into a force of good. During the time in which he is bonded to Brock, Venom learns that what the symbiotes are doing is wrong. In their time apart, the absence of the emotion he experienced vicariously through his host convinces him that humanity is worth saving, which causes him to betray Riot.
Although betrayal is often depicted as an inherently evil act, it is in this case a redeeming quality as Venom completes his transition from antagonist to anti-hero, having learned that biting people’s heads off is frowned upon in polite society. At the same time, the troubled Eddie Brock becomes bonded to the now heroic symbiote, allowing him to overcome his tragic flaw and assume the role of hero. In Fleischer’s film, the duo’s strength is ultimately fuelled by a desire for fulfillment and completion rather than a shared rage. Like friends or lovers, Venom and Eddie need each other to be their best selves.