The Tangled Web of Studio Deals That Got Venom His Own Cinematic Universe
Venom is one of the most prominent Spider-Man villains-slash-antiheroes, a big, bad alien symbiote with too many teeth, giant milky lidless eyes, a slithery tongue, and a hunger for human flesh. Now, Venom is the star of his first-ever movie, played by none other than Tom Hardy. The story of Venom the character is innately tied to that of Spider-Man, but don't expect to see Peter Parker in this movie. Which begs the question: Why isn't Venom in the Marvel Cinematic Universe while Spider-Man -- an honorary Avenger -- is? And furthermore, why isn't Spider-Man in the Venom movie even though Venom canonically exists because of Spider-Man?
It's all just a bit complicated. Historically, Venom is an alien symbiote from another planet whose first host -- and the reason he looks the way he does -- is Spider-Man. Venom the character has evolved over the last 30-some years to become a fan-favorite baddie, but his conceptual origins are a little humbler: He was dreamed up as a biological self-healing material with which Spider-Man replaces his torn up suit. An artist for Iron Fist first had the idea, and the black-and-white costume came from a fan from Illinois who literally just wrote Marvel a letter with the idea enclosed. Marvel's then-editor-in-chief Jim Shooter purchased the rights for $220.
Long story short: In the 1984 Secret Wars crossover comics series, a maniacal and super-powered cosmic being called Beyonder teleports Spider-Man, along with a bunch of the Avengers and X-Men and a few other Marvel heroes, to a planet called Battleworld, on which the heroes and villains of Earth are forced to fight to the death. While on Battleworld, Spider-Man learns of an alien technology that can create any material he wants, and he programs what he thinks is the correct machine to make him a new Spidey suit after his old one is damaged beyond repair. The machine spits out a black orb that attaches itself to Spider-Man and bonds to the fabric he wears, becoming his new black suit.
The black matter is not revealed to be a symbiote until a May 1984 issue of The Amazing Spider-Man -- fun fact, the story, #252, is called "Homecoming!" -- after Secret Wars have ended. Back on Earth, the suit uses Peter Parker’s sleeping body to go out at night and fight crime, and he wakes up every morning feeling exhausted. Knowing something is amiss, Peter figures out what the creature is doing and ejects it off of him, using the sound of church bells to target its sensitivity to high-frequency noise -- a scene you’ve seen if you watched Spider-Man 3. (It's on Netflix.) The symbiote leaves Peter and finds Eddie Brock, bonding with him over their shared hatred for Spider-Man. (Brock was a journalist who thought he caught a serial killer, only for Spider-Man to actually catch the real killer, humiliating and disgracing Brock.) The first appearance of Venom fully bonded with Brock was four years later, in The Amazing Spider-Man #300 (May 1988).
Now forget all of that, because none of it is in Venom the movie. Why not? It has to do with the very same deal between Sony and Marvel that allows Spider-Man to swing into the occasional Marvel Studios movie.
Back in the '90s, Marvel licensed the rights of various superhero properties out to different studios like Sony and Fox, the deal being: As long as those studios kept paying a fee to Marvel for the rights to make movies about its characters, Marvel couldn't take them back. That's why we've gotten so many Fantastic 4 films over the years, each one somehow worse than the last. After the formation of Marvel Studios in the mid-2000s, the company did the impossible with the Avengers -- introducing the public to B- and C-level superheroes most of us had never even heard of, and swiftly making them household names, with the help of its $4 billion dollar acquisition by Disney. Everything owned by Marvel Studios (the Avengers, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., everything under Netflix's and, soon, Disney's streaming banner) exists in the Marvel Universe. The X-Men and the Fantastic 4 are off in their own 20th Century Fox universes, and Spider-Man, until recently, was all by his lonesome over at Sony.
Then came the unprecedented deal in 2015 between Marvel Studios and Sony for shared custody over Spider-Man, a coveted property with more name-recognition than any of the Avengers 10 years ago, rebooting the superhero after Sony's The Amazing Spider-Man flops and integrating him into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, first as a cameo in Captain America: Civil War. With this deal, Marvel Studios got the ability to add in whatever it likes from the Spider-Man universe (and merchandise it) into the MCU, but Sony remained the primary owner. That's why you see the Marvel Studios AND the Sony logos at the start of Spider-Man: Homecoming, and why other Marvel movies like Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok are available on Netflix, but Spider-Man: Homecomingisn't.
How, then, has Sony made a Venom movie without Spider-Man, given how entwined both of those characters are? It's pretty easy, actually: Venom simply has zero references to Spider-Man. Because Sony still owns Spider-Man and all the characters in his universe -- including other variations of Spider-Men, and Spider-Man villains like Green Goblin and the Lizard -- the company can circumvent Marvel by making as many live-action movies as it wants with everyone who's not Spider-Man. For Venom, it would be easy enough to just rip the "symbiote from space" part and leave out everything that has to do with Spider-Man, creating something of an original story while staying true to Venom's character, if not his canonical origin.
If Venom and those following in its wake take off and form their own universe, it would have to be one that's completely divorced from Spider-Man. The Peter Parker we know won't show up in Venom -- though Venom does have a Spidey-affiliated post-credits clip that you should stick around for. The other mid-credits scene teases a possible sequel featuring a much-rumored character whose actor’s appearance, in my screening, elicited screams of delight. If Venom is a hit, Sony will have capably bypassed its Spider-Man albatross, and -- as Marvel has already proven -- sometimes it's the smaller, weirder characters who are the easiest to form into major hits.