In a recent interview conducted as part of the promotional tour for “Spider-Man Homecoming,” director Jon Watts said that despite being based on an iconic Spider-Man villain, Sony’s plans for a "Venom" film are not "connected to the Marvel world." Instead, the studio is reportedly planning to take the project in a sci-fi/horror direction, possibly with an eye to creating an R-rated release.
The thought of Venom without Spider-Man likely leaves many comics fans, particularly those invested in ol’ web head’s history and lore, scratching their heads. After all, the villain made his first named appearance in “Amazing Spider-Man” #300 after the alien creature that eventually became known as Venom had debuted in the same series nearly 50 issues earlier as Spider-Man’s [then] new otherworldly black costume.
Heck, if Venom wasn't so intrinsically linked to Spider-Man, Sony wouldn't even have the character’s film rights in the first place. The Venom IP comes as part of the Spider-Man package precisely because of where the character made its aforementioned early appearances.
But if we step back to examine the fundamentals of the character, and how he's evolved over the years, we might be able to make out some possible directions that a non-Marvel "Venom" film could explore.
To start with the basics, Venom is an alien from a race known as the Klyntar, aka the symbiotes. As the name suggests, they're symbiotic organisms that typically pair themselves with a separate living host. The reasons for doing so have been explained at various points as being linked to a desire to vicariously experience other beings’ emotions, or to consume the host’s adrenaline and other hormones. So far, so sci-fi.
Symbiotes are shape-changers and can mimic any clothing, they can also enhance the strength and abilities of their host, with whom they maintain a telepathic link. This link can also allow the symbiote to exert some level of control over their host, although the process apparently work both ways, with particularly a strong-willed host capable of bending a symbiote to their will.
The symbiote that became known as Venom first encountered Spider-Man during “Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars.” At the time, Spidey was just looking for a way to repair his old costume when he then came across what appeared to be a little black ball. The ball quickly expanded, enveloping first the hero’s hand, then his whole body, giving him a striking new black costume with a white arachnid motif on the chest and back.
In subsequent stories, it became apparent that the alien costume, as Venom was initially known, was sentient. Furthermore, it had seemingly developed a quasi-romantic attachment to its host, Peter Parker. Eventually, Peter discovered that the symbiote was sensitive to sound, and he was able to use that knowledge to literally disentangle himself from Venom’s tender embrace.
Spurned, resentful, and now alone, the symbiote sought out another host, finding the prefect candidate in the form of failed tabloid journalist Eddie Brock, who had his own grudge against Parker. Together, the pair adopted the name Venom, a name has since been used to describe the symbiote regardless of its host.
Venom's signature look developed in stages over its first few appearances. At its debut in “Amazing Spider-Man #300,” Venom was drawn by Todd McFarlane and was initially portrayed as being simply a more muscular version of black-costumed Spider-Man. It was shown to be capable of doing all a things a Spider-Man can, (spinning webs, any size, etc. etc.) However, the artist also added some flourishes of his own, giving Venom claw-like hands, large white eyes and a gaping mouth filled with sharp teeth.
The teeth became more elaborate when Venom returned in “Amazing Spider-Man” #316 and #317, but it wasn’t until McFarlane was succeeded on the title by artist Erik Larson that the character began to sport its improbable tentacle-like tongue. These visual elements ended up becoming Venom’s main identifying characteristics, over and above whatever other traits and attributes the symbiote might also pick up from its host.
In Sam Keith’s covers to Venom’s 2003-4 solo series, the character was interpreted as a big, black shape with huge white eyes, sharp, pointy teeth and a lascivious tongue that at times seems to resemble a gymnast’s twirling red ribbon. And yet, the character is clearly identifiable.
It has also been revealed that the Venom symbiote is unusual among its own kind, in that it seeks a lasting sustainable bond with it host rather than simply parasitizing them to the point of death. This aspect of the character presents some solid storytelling choices for potential scriptwriters. Do they want a film where the symbiote is the villain, akin to the xenomorph in “Alien?” Or do they want to tell a Venom tale along the lines of X-O Manowar, a living battle suit for the hero to wear while combating one or more evil enemy symbiotes.
Both options have their appeal, though the former seems to have more focused horror potential. It would also lend itself to having a comparatively smaller cast and require fewer VFX shots than an all-singing, all-dancing symbiote on symbiote fight. The latter approach would also make Venom effectively a superhero, albeit one that, if he remains faithful to the comics, talks a little too much about wanting to eat brains.
RELATED: Did Venom ever actually eat brains?
It is interesting that while Sony has apparently expressed a desire to make “Venom” a sci-fi/horror film, and the “Spider-Man: Homecoming” director has mentioned the “Venom” film is not going to be connected to Marvel Cinematic Universe, this doesn’t necessarily preclude “Venom” from being a superhero movie.
Casting Venom as the hero is certainly not without precedent. Even in its earliest comic book appearances, when portrayed as highly dangerous adversary, Venom nevertheless adhered to a twisted sense of honor. While it wanted revenge on Spider-Man (brain eating included), it didn’t seem interested in attacking anyone else, instead actively seeking to protect the lives of innocent people along the way.
Although the character rapidly became more and more popular with readers, its single-minded interest in Spider-Man coupled with its moral rigidity, a trait that it seemingly inherited from its host Eddie Brock, actually made Venom a pretty ineffective villain in the wider Marvel Universe. If all Venom wants is Spider-Man, it is tough to write it into conflict with any other heroes, although Danny Fingeroth did succeed to an extent when he included the character in his Avengers/prison escape graphic novel "Deathtrap, The Vault." Interestingly, the book was subsequently republished as a Venom graphic novel, with the symbiote getting top billing.
A further potential story angle for “Venom’s” scriptwriters could stem from the spurned alien lover aspect of Venom’s origin. While including Peter Parker is apparently a no-go, a romantic connection between the symbiote and a previous host could prove interesting. In what way is Venom’s symbiosis with its host equivalent to a relationship? There could be shades of Yorgos Lanthimos’s absurdist dystopian film “The Lobster” here, though that's probably not something Sony is aiming for.
Venom’s popularity in the comics eventually led to a series of solo titles and other appearances over the years, with a variety of different writer and artists exploring different aspects of the character. Some attempted to turn Brock’s Venom into a quasi-heroic vigilante, others sought to pair the symbiote with other hosts, including a US Senator, Brock’s ex-wife Ann Weying, and another Spidey-villain Mac Gargan (aka the Scorpion), as well as Peter Parker’s school friend Flash Thompson, and even Deadpool. As a result, the Venom symbiote has shifted considerably from his original all-consuming Spider-Man fixation.
Which brings us to the last element for "Venom's" scriptwriters to consider: the setting. If Venom isn’t focused on Spider-Man, there's no reason the character needs to be in New York City -- or on Earth, for that matter.
As an alien, the symbiote lends itself to that ultimate of sci-fi settings, deep space. It would easily fit into a “haunted spaceship” narrative such as those found in the 1997 film “Event Horizon” and the 2008 videogame “Dead Space.” Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic “Alien,” would also seem to be an obvious source from which to draw inspiration, though such a move could prove quite dangerous. Borrowing from such a universally acknowledged horror/sci-fi classic inevitably invites comparisons that are hard to live up to.
At its core, the concept of a strength-enhancing intelligent alien symbiote in search of a host is a pretty strong sci-fi concept, and its key look — teeth, tongue and eyes all on a powerfully built black body, fits well with a horror film. It doesn’t need the continuity clutter of a 50-odd-year-old spider-themed superhero to make it an interesting protagonist or antagonist in a feature film. What it will need is an interesting script, brought to life by engaging actors and an ambitious director, and aren’t these things that all successful films need?