For my money, the most comics-accurate adaptation of Spider-Man so far — both in terms of nailing the character, and incorporating iconic storylines — has been the animated FOX KIDS series from the mid-90s. Show runner John Semper, Jr. loved Spidey, and it shows. Unlike other programs of the era, SPIDER-MAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES began season-long arcs beginning with its second year, and both required and rewarded viewers who tuned in each week to watch unfolding drama. This was atypical of adult programming, to say nothing of a Saturday morning cartoon that was, presumably, designed for kids.
Semper did his homework, diving deep into Spider-History to pull out some unexpected stories (Spidey grows six arms!), unexpected cameos (Deb Whitman!), and unexpected villains (The Spot???). But while Michael Morbius offered a fun, plasma-sucking subplot for hardcore fans (and the kids who might have wondered why his goatee kept growing back every time he vamped out), there were toys to sell, which meant familiar faces needed to line the shelves, and show up to annoy Spidey on the small screen. You can pretty much guess the roster: there was the Vulture, Doctor Octopus, and even third-stringers like Tombstone. And there was, of course, Venom.
Venom: just his name conjures up images of early 90s cash grab “collectibles.” I was working in two separate comic stores that went under following the death and return of Superman; the speculator boom was the death knell for both the retailers, and nearly the industry as a whole. During the Age of Image, there was terror within the halls of The Big Two (who, for about five minutes, had to share the spotlight with that third publisher who produced badly-drawn comics that rarely met their shipping date, if at all), and amidst the turbulent upheaval, one character best represents an era of holodisk covers and polybagged Event Issues. Venom, like Mountain Dew and snowboarding, is so 90s that it makes you want to grab that flannel shirt you tied around your waist, fashion a noose out of it, and hang yourself while listening to Eddie Vedder warble some bullshit about the evils of the death penalty, in a voice that sounds like an elderly Alzheimer’s patient who is trying to approximate the lyrics by making up words that don’t exist. Like Kurt Cobain, Venom gave comics a shotgun facelift consisting of glow-in-the-dark ink, and the promise that, seriously, guys, if you horde extra copies of MAXIMUM CARNAGE, you’ll be a millionaire before you’re thirty. Hey, anyone check the dollar bin recently…?
As a character, he was barely there. When Spidey’s black costume was introduced in SECRET WARS — a minseries that readers were forced to buy in order to understand things like why the Fantastic Four’s lineup had changed, only to find it didn’t really matter — it created a minor sensation. Indeed, it was the only twist SECRET WARS introduced in its efforts to shake up the main titles; but the impact was brief, as most Spidey fans couldn’t reconcile a street-level hero with Real Life problems, having a sentient oil slick that that responded to his mental commands and could generate any clothing he could imagine. While Spider-Man has since worn various high-tech, A.I.-based leotards, the alien symbiote was a bridge too far back in 1984. Ten issues later, the Amazing Spider-Man had already returned to his familiar tights, and the rejected costume was having a hard time coming to terms with getting dumped. There would later on be something of a hostile reconciliation between the two, leading Peter to shake it off with the assistance of some very loud church bells. After that, it was assumed that the alien had been pounded to goo from the deafening noise, and this weird sci-fi subplot was over — even if the black suit, as a look, had proven so popular that Peter began sporting his new makeover, albeit in traditional spandex.
But wait…! Writer David Michelinie saw the dramatic potential of the spurned symbiote finding a less savory host, and returning to make Peter Parker’s life miserable.* Manufacturing a retcon from hell involving a character called the Sin-Eater, Michelinie told the story of Eddie Brock, a journalist from The Daily Bugle’s NYC rival, The Globe; and after writing bogus stories from the POV of a serial confessor who claimed he was the Sin-Eater (he wasn’t, and Spider-Man proved it), Brock was summarily dismissed from his position. Blaming the Wallcrawler (instead of the weirdo who copped to the crime for attention), Brock planned suicide in the very church where Peter and his former outfit parted ways…and wouldn’t you know who should just happen to show up and make Eddie’s acquaintance?
Venom was all look. There was nothing to him as a character. His motivation made no sense, and his (distressingly frequent) appearances were all more or less the same: he’d show up, and Spidey, in characteristic fashion, would run the hell away. Our hero was basically a coward anytime Brock landed on the doorstep, but, to be fair, who could blame him? Venom was essentially the black-suited Spider-Man, bulked up to the point where he resembled a tumor; and superstar artist Todd McFarlane gave him an addition that really sealed the deal — a huge, grinning mouth. It wasn’t until McFarlane left to write his bizarro, horror-themed solo title, NO ADJECTIVE SPIDER-MAN, that replacement artist Erik Larsen added the famous tongue, fangs, and green puke-spit that seemed charmingly inspired by punishment porn. A shallow character became, frankly, ridiculous.
What SPIDER-MAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES did with the character was legitimize him. Using the season-long arcs I mentioned, Semper introduced Brock early on. Rather than working for another paper, Eddie was Peter’s rival at The Bugle: both were freelance photographers going after the same super-villainous stories, but guess who always beat Brock to the literal punch? It gave the character a reason to genuinely hate the Peter half of the Spider-Man package, as well as the costumed adventurer himself, who frequently made Eddie look like an idiot during the course of an action-packed photo shoot. Eventually, Eddie Brock loses his camera, his job, his apartment, and his reputation. Sure, the whole thing was simplified for Saturday morning audiences, but there were actual human motivations injected into the story, and they made sense.
The method of delivery certainly helped. “The Alien Costume” was a three-parter, and the first chapter was damn near cinematic in presentation, and a far cry from what might be expect of kiddie fare. Semper bypassed all that SECRET WARS nonsense — which told, in twelve issues over the span of an entire year, a (literally) paper-thin plot that can be boiled down to “Good guys and bad guys are sent to an alien world and fight a lot.” Instead, he opened the story with a major set piece involving J. Jonah Jameson’s astronaut son returning from space flight, unwittingly carrying alien goo that begins frying his shuttle’s operating systems upon entering Earth’s atmosphere. There’s a spectacular crash landing on the George Washington Bridge,** Spidey shows up, and the next thing you know, he has a new, mind-controlled costume. From there things more or less follow a loose reinterpretation of the comic, only one hundred percent less stupid.
What Semper accomplished was making Venom a logical component in Spider-Man’s universe. Brock had reasons for hating both Peter Parker and Spider-Man as separate entities, and is established early on as kind of a duplicitous jerk. Similarly, the alien symbiote is itself given a personality makeover, as we learn that it amplifies one’s anger, and feeds off of heightened emotional states. Not only does this make Eddie’s irrational behavior make more sense than Me mad at Bug Man because he make me look dumb, but it adds a better and more character-based wrinkle to Peter’s decision to discard the suit in the first place: he starts becoming violent when dealing with criminals, and is forced to confront the darkness dwelling within. I cannot stress enough that if you haven’t seen this, you should, and it’s a crime that the entire series has yet to be released on home video outside of a few villain-themed DVD sets.
There are two very good reasons to go on at such length about a cartoon show when addressing Sam Raimi’s SPIDER-MAN 3. The first is obvious, if you’ve paid attention thus far, and it’s the fact that Venom’s comic book origin sucks, and literally every writer who has been forced to adapt it has gone out of their way to give it a major overhaul. This has been the case with SPIDER-MAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES, SPIDER-MAN 3, the ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN comic book, and any number of video games or ancillary tie-ins. No one, ever, has bothered with Jim Shooter’s SECRET WARS, or David Michelinie’s story as told in the pages of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN. The second reason should also be obvious, and that certain “givens” accepted by casual fans of Nerd Culture — such as the symbiote acting as a rage booster — began with John Semper, Jr. Accordingly, Raimi and his screenwriters seemed to have used THE ANIMATED SERIES as their launch point when tackling Venom’s origin.
Now, the elephant in the room. Sam Raimi was basically strong-armed into including Venom in SPIDER-MAN 3; the director was publicly vocalizing his contempt (at worst) or sheer indifference (at best) since the first reporter asked about whether the character would appear in SPIDER-MAN 2.*** As previously mentioned, the first SPIDER-MAN was hardly a guaranteed blockbuster until it was — then, Sony more or less gave Raimi carte blanche to make the very Sam Raimi SPIDER-MAN 2. When that film turned out to be another hit with critics and audiences alike, the studio did the absolutely sensible, reasonable thing, and forced him to include a villain he couldn’t stand, and had no idea how to make heads or tails of. Sure, he later hemmed and hawed to the press about how catching up on the story of Eddie Brock had given him new appreciation for the character, but this reeked of spin. The original plan was to feature Sandman and the Vulture, in addition to tying up that unresolved Goblin Jr. thread that was left dangling; then Avi Arad flexed his toy making muscle, and suddenly Adrian Toomes was out, the symbiote story was in, and with that, everyone down to the mail room interns were suggesting things like the incongruous (and wasted) appearances by Gwen Stacy, and the collapse of what was turning into a two-part story, down into a single film. While there are a litany of problems with SPIDER-MAN 3, the fact that it’s clearly a heavily compressed duology crammed into less than three hours is what ultimately hobbles it, and though there have been excuses made (such as the screenwriters’ combined inability to find a satisfying midpoint break), there’s no avoiding the fact that the cast had originally been signed for a three-picture deal in what was now one of the biggest franchises in history. Those contract renegotiations must have seemed pretty daunting if SPIDER-MAN 4 was genuinely planned to finish this story out, rather than the way SPIDER-MAN 3 finished it off.
Then there’s the clear fact that Raimi is openly hostile toward Venom, and the forced inclusion of the character. It wasn’t enough that the slobbering villain had to be introduced — his presence necessitated 1) the origin of the symbiote, 2) Peter’s usage and then rejection of it, 3) the introduction and establishment of Eddie Brock, and his bizarre “marriage” with the alien in the church; and 4) Venom’s appearance on the scene, followed by some sort of story that involved him as a threat to Peter, and a last, a satisfying conclusion. Basically, you’re talking about several films worth of material. Semper needed three episodes of the Saturday morning cartoon, and that was after already introducing Brock much earlier. Instead of playing the Studio Man and assuming that if he made nice with the execs and gave them the best Venom movie he could, and one that juggled all these plot points to the best of his ability, all while holding off on his Sandman/Vulture concept for the inevitable SPIDER-MAN 4 (the Contract Gods willing), Raimi instead gave the biggest EAT SHIT & LIVE possible in the way he approached this unwelcome obligation. Basically, he more or less made the movie he’d originally planned, and then jammed the Venom stuff in there in such a way that felt out of sync with everything around it, and then skimmed through it all as quickly as possible before finally putting the character onscreen for the Third Act, and then killing him a few minutes later.**** If ever there’s been a Studio Hatefuck committed to film, it’s SPIDER-MAN 3.
A lot of people were thrown for a loop by the casting of Topher Grace as Eddie Brock, including Topher Grace. It actually makes quite a bit of sense once we ditch the idea that Brock’s a dude who, in the span of a few years, went from being illustrated like a Marine to Patrick Swayze with a blonde mullet. Instead, Raimi takes the “mirror image” angle literally, and shows us the actor who probably should have been cast as Peter Parker from the beginning, but gets the consolation prize in playing his Twinner. If Peter has the whole With great power comes great responsibility angle, then Brock, as presented here, is all power, and no responsibility. We get the sense that he’s Peter Parker had there been neither an Aunt May nor an Uncle Ben; he even gets to fool around with a parallel universe version of the girl Peter accidentally killed in the comics, but didn’t die in the movies, despite the Green Goblin having already appeared and then kicked the bucket himself; but it was Mary Jane the Goblin took to the bridge, and who Peter loves, even though in the comics, Peter only falls for MJ after Gwen’s death, and if you could see me right now, you’d know my head hurts, and I need sleep.
Topher Grace works for me, because this is Eddie Brock in name only. The comics character was a reporter, not a photographer in competition with Peter for a staff job — again, this gies back to Semper — but Raimi goes so far as to have Brock commit an intentional fake to impress Jameson, making him deserving of his banishment from the Press. However, this circles back around to the same problems inherent with the original conception of the character, as he blames Spider-Man for something Spider-Man didn’t do. Sure, you can point to the fact that Eddie is shown praying to God to kill Peter Parker, and I’m fairly certain this is the first and last time anyone will ever be shown asking Jesus to murder someone for anything, ever…particularly when the chief sin is exposing an easily-verifiable Photoshop hoax.
So we wind up with a Venom who, like Tobey Maguire, seems to have it written into his contract that he’ll spend the entire Third Act without his mask on, because Actors. In fact, the creature Eddie becomes doesn’t much resemble the source material as much as he resembles Topher Grace with fangs. Then again, the Nu-Goblin doesn’t much resemble the Green Goblin, and that whining hag doesn’t much resemble Mary Jane Watson, either. Dark Peter doesn’t really have a lot in common with what fanboys think they remember from the comics, misremembering that this is, yes, from THE ANIMATED SERIES rather than AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, the comic book. One might be tempted to complain that Raimi ought to have gone further with the concept beyond eyeliner and an Emo hairstyle; Peter’s Travolta strut draws particular scorn. However, it’s also worth pointing out that the Peter Parker of this particular film series never grew out of his soft, wet-bread nerdiness, and that the behavior seen under the influence of the symbiote is what a nerd might actually consider “dark,” or at the very least, “cool.” It impresses Betty Brant, at least, and Elizabeth Banks in a bob is certainly worth the heckling of pimply nerds complaining in AICN talkbacks, circa 2007.
And now that we come down to it, we’re right back to the where the Venom problem begins: the alien costume. There’s no big shuttle crash opener for SPIDER-MAN 3 (despite the pains taken to introduce Jameson’s astronaut son as Mary Jane’s jilted fiancee in the previous film); instead, the goo just happens to crash land on Earth a mere five feet away from Peter’s scooter, and hitches a ride back to his apartment. I can accept that it might be a stretch that the symbiote attaches itself to the one NASA craft that goes down in the one city overpopulated by superheros; but what SPIDER-MAN 3 gives us is bad writing. Something, anything, would have been better than this. Imagine if the alien had landed downtown, and latched onto a garbage man. He’s an unsuitable host. Then it moves onto the guy’s teenage kid, who takes it to school; then it jumps onto a teacher, and on and on, until it finds Peter, whose powers cause it to “love” him. This seems like something Raimi would have done, should have done, and successfully, too, had he been inspired rather than coerced.
And what happened to the notion that the alien can read its host’s thoughts? That it can change into any article of clothing imaginable? This, again, seems like it’s begging for Raimi to go crazy with. SPIDER-MAN 3 can’t seem to make up its mind: is the black suit one of Peter’s Spidey outfits with the goo stuck on? That’s how it comes across, until the bell tower scene, where Peter is trying to force it off, and we see he’s just wearing skivvies beneath. And how does Brock know Spidey’s identity, since the telepathic, split personality relationship between the alien and its human mate seems to be completely ignored? I can’t tell you, because every time I watch SPIDER-MAN 3, looking for answers, all I see is Raimi’s gigantic middle finger filling up the screen.
There are many times when writing a lengthy piece such as this one, that I become stuck on a complex sentence, and waste five minutes poking at it and trying to find its rhythm; then I remember that if it’s requiring that much time and effort to make work, something’s wrong with it on a basic level, and it just needs to go. That’s Venom, for you. Even at his best, he’s just kind of lame, because he’s one-note, and Spider-Man’s villains are not one-note unless they’re supposed to be one-note, at which point Spidey’s making fun of them because they’re lame. Venom was only cool in a Poochie the Dog kind of way, and had more potential as a truly dark version of Spider-Man — one who was terrifying because we see just how fine a line exists between a selfless hero and a selfish madman. Raimi seemed poised to tell us that story during the first half hour of SPIDER-MAN 3; then, all of the sudden, Harry Osborn took a backseat to Eddie Brock, the villain people thought they wanted to see until they got him.
*Michelinie’s original concept involved a female host, who hated Spider-Man for causing her miscarriage during one of his dust-ups. The Powers That Be put the kibosh on that idea, and quickly; after all, what kind of threat could a girl pose? What was she gonna do: beat Spidey with a vacuum cleaner, or viciously give him the side-eye while she did the dishes…?
**Or maybe the Brooklyn Bridge — only Gerry Conway can weigh in on questions related to bridges, whether he wrote the story or not.
***To be fair, the first SPIDER-MAN contains a throwaway line that Daily Bugle photographer “Eddie” has been trying to get pics of Spider-Man for weeks, which seems like an attempt to establish the character in the same manner as “Doctor Connors.” It’s also another example of going with Semper rather than Michelinie.
****I have always found it unintentionally hilarious — and at times, outright bewildering — that Venom’s late appearance and almost immediate death has caused such an uproar among comics fans, but Christopher Nolan’s nearly identical treatment of Two-Face always gets a pass. In both cases, the director wasn’t interested in the character’s ultimate form; he found the pre-villainous depiction and their subsequent fall from grace to be far more compelling. Both SPIDER-MAN 3 and THE DARK KNIGHT seemed poised to guide us through the tragic stories of Edward D. Brock, Jr., and Harvey Dent, and to then allow each film’s respective climax to introduce their monstrous alter-ego, and poise each as the primary threat in the following chapter. Instead, they’re killed. Nolan, who has been very vocal about not being particularly interested in the “comic book” elements of the source material (despite taking the paycheck and opportunities the Batman character has afforded him), threw Two-Face down some stairs as soon as he had to deal with a villain and a gimmick; Raimi did the same thing, and with a far less interesting character, but has never lived it down.
Erik Kristopher Myers (aka ekm)