2018 could be called the Year Of The Surprise Hit Movie. Early on, Black Panther -- a film by no means expected to perform poorly -- brought more money and critical acclaim to Marvel's Cinematic Universe than the studio could ever have hoped. Fast forward to December, and the flagging DCEU and Transformers franchises were given miraculous boosts by the success of two secondary characters' solo outings, Aquaman and Bumblebee respectively. (Aquaman's billion-dollar global plunder is still piling up, and while Bumblebee's earnings might be conservative compared to its predecessors, its 93% critical rating on Rotten Tomatoes is its own reward.)
None of these hits, however, are as surprising as Sony's Venom.
Venom's first cinematic appearance was in 2007's Spider-Man 3. While the film was the most profitable in Sam Raimi's trilogy, it didn't exactly go over well with critics or fans. The symbiote's storyline was a particular sore point, which Raimi attributed to not being able to "find the humanity" in the character, explaining that the villain had been forced on him by producer Avi Arad. Though he ended up playing third fiddle to Sandman and Green Goblin, Venom had once been set to star in his own movie in 1997, one that would have been produced by New Line Cinema from a script penned by David S. Goyer. Of course, those plans were scuppered once Columbia Pictures/Sony acquired the Spider-Man rights.
After Raimi and Sony parted ways, development on Spider-Man 4 was stopped in favor of rebooting the series as The Amazing Spider-Man. The first instalment performed well -- well enough, in fact, for Sony to revisit the idea of a Venom movie again as part of an extended Spider-Man universe. Screenplays for Venom and Sinister Six were ordered, but once again, never saw the light of day; partly because of the underperformance of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, but chiefly because of the revelatory news from the 2014 "Sony Pictures Hack" that the Powers That Be at Sony and Marvel Studios were in the early stages of collaborating. The good news that Spidey was coming home to the MCU was bad news for Venom, which would now have to kickstart a Spider-Man movie universe... without Spider-Man.
Worse still, the first teaser trailer seemed to be for a Venom movie without Venom, an absence that made the accompanying "embrace your inner anti-hero" tagline pretty ridiculous. Critics far from embraced the movie when it was released in October, instead giving it an overwhelmingly negative response that should have been the final nail in the coffin of Sony's "Spider-Verse" dreams, and a sad end to a film 21 years in the making.
But against all odds, Venom became a commercial hit and a social media sensation. On Rotten Tomatoes, its audience rating of 84% sits in sharp, defiant contrast to the critical consensus of 28%, as does its $855.5 million worldwide total at the box office (as of this writing - it may yet go higher). It seems that Avi Arad's instincts about the character's popularity were right on the money a decade ago, but Venom didn't become a monster hit on sheer name recognition alone.