Entertainment

Venom's Improbable Rise from '80s Novelty to $100 Million Marvel Sensation

venom 2018
'Venom' 2018 | Sony Pictures
'Venom' 2018 | Sony Pictures

Tom Hardy's Eddie Brock, the human host of the alien symbiote known as Venom, is the second big-screen depiction of the disturbingly tongued character and, practically by default, an improvement over the first. History has not been kind to Topher Grace's portrayal in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 3 (2007), something even the director has acknowledged about introducing Venom in a movie already overstuffed with villains (Thomas Haden Church's Sandman and James Franco's hand-me-down Green Goblin). Eleven years and two cinematic Peter Parkers later, most Marvel fans seem to agree that Grace's Venom set a very low bar for Tom Hardy's.

Of course, Venom's comic-book origin was just as inauspicious. In the early 1980s, Marvel entered a licensing partnership with Mattel, which wanted to launch a line of action figures. Editor-in-chief Jim Shooter pitched a massive crossover event with a sprawling storyline that would suddenly whisk away the company's major villains and heroes to an unknown planet, where they would be made to do battle by an all-powerful being named the Beyonder. The toy company influenced some of the event's important aspects, including its title (Secret Wars). Mattel also requested various costume changes.

Shooter, remembering that he was sitting on an idea for a black Spider-Man suit that he'd bought from a fan for $220, found a way to work that into the Secret Wars storyline: On the Beyonder's Battleworld, the webslinger would discover a black alien goo that somehow morphed into a form-fitting costume, complete with a white spider logo on the chest. Since Secret Wars was filled with otherworldly items that Mattel could make into playsets and vehicles for the action figures, a goo-suit didn't seem like the biggest leap.

amazing spider-man venom
Marvel Comics

Secret Wars (1984)

The story for the Secret Wars limited comic series was written by Shooter himself, which meant that writers working on individual titles of the characters involved had to adapt to the crossover. Spider-Man returns to New York from Battleworld in The Amazing Spider-Man #252, published in the spring of 1984. People are a little shocked at his new costume, which writer Tom DeFalco fleshed out into the symbiote we know today. After returning from Battleworld, Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four discovers the black costume is actually an alien being trying to permanently bond with Spider-Man, so he blasts it off Peter with a sonic gun and the Human Torch contains the costume in a circle of fire until they can put the symbiote in a containment unit (this is all in Amazing Spider-Man #258). The symbiote gets mad at Spider-Man for abandoning it before it could merge with him completely, so when it escapes the Fantastic Four's Baxter Building (ASM #262), it returns to Peter Parker to try again. Understandably Peter freaks out, and that's when he remembers sonic attacks hurt the symbiote, heading to a church bell-tower as the clock strikes. Spider-Man is in a fight with some flying goons at the time, and the separation process weakens him, so the symbiote risks its life to drag an unconscious (and costume-less) Peter to safety before slinking off to die (it seemed at the time, in Web of Spider-Man #1, April 1984).

amazing spiderman
Marvel

The Amazing Spider-Man (1988)

It all changed in The Amazing Spider-Man #300, which came out in 1988 when Tom DeFalco had been promoted to Editor-in-Chief at Marvel while David Michelinie wrote for Todd McFarlane's pencils for Spidey. A mysterious villain that didn't set off Spider-Man's spider senses had been teased in the pages of The Web of Spider-Man for awhile, but it wasn't specifically planned as the spotlight baddie of Spider-Man's tri-centennial issue. Todd McFarlane knew that Marvel was interested in bringing back Spider-Man's classic red-and-blue costume full-time, and drew an "alien/monster" look that inspired... Venom. Michelinie brought back the symbiote, but now the alien costume had a new host: Eddie Brock.

venom
Marvel

To promote in-universe continuity, Michelinie's Eddie Brock was a journalist who was "disgraced" by Spider-Man when the hero busted a villain called the Sin-Eater, revealing that the exposés Brock had been publishing were by a "serial confessor," not the real bad guy. This gets Brock fired from his legitimate journalism job, and the guy is so pissed he starts habitually working out to de-stress. It doesn't work, and Brock is forced to take any writing job he can get, even at crappy celebrity tabloids. The once-great (but not good enough to know he was being jerked around by a fake Sin-Eater) journalist contemplates suicide. Brock is a Catholic and knows suicide is a mortal sin, so he goes to pray for forgiveness when a black goo drops on him from above. Brock hates Spider-Man for catching the real Sin-Eater and the symbiote feels rejected by Spider-Man, so together, they form one being that stalks Spider-Man seeking revenge. On the last page of Amazing Spider-Man #299, Eddie in the black suit, sporting a now-recognizable toothy grin terrorizes Mary Jane Watson-Parker in their apartment. In the following issue, he tells his tragic story, calling himself Venom, because he's been forced to write venom at his tabloid jobs. Seriously, that's why he's called Venom -- it's not a spider-related thing at all. If the character were created today with the same motivation, his name could be Fake News.

The symbiote enhances Brock's strength and endurance, and since the guy was already addicted to working out, the result is almost equal to Spider-Man in raw power. The symbiote can mimic any other fabric or clothing, allowing Brock to look like he's wearing street clothes until he wants to reveal himself as Venom. The symbiote also remembers/has absorbed some spider-powers from Spider-Man, like the ability to create webs, but also cannot set off the hero's spider-sense. Spider-Man fights off Venom, not wanting to use a full sonic blast because the symbiote has fully bonded with Eddie. Eventually, Venom is temporarily imprisoned by the Fantastic Four (again), and Mary Jane is so disturbed by the whole big-tooth, long-tongue alien thing that she makes Peter burn his cloth black suit he'd been wearing as Spider-Man and return to the classic look.

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Venom in 'Spectacular Spider-Man' TV series | The CW

Venom as his own character (1990s)

As the history of Venom progressed through the comic-book ages, several retroactive continuity changes have tweaked the Venom origin story a bit. Once Venom gained popularity as his own character, he slowly transformed into an anti-hero: He had an offspring named Carnage, made a short trip to San Francisco in his first solo-comic Venom: Lethal Protector, teamed up with Spider-Man to stop his crazy son in the Maximum Carnage event, and saved his ex-wife, Anne Weying, from Sin-Eater (another one, not the one that kicked off the whole gossip journalism thing). The mid-'90s Planet of the Symbiotes / Spider-Man crossover event revealed that the Venom symbiote was different than the other symbiotes because it wanted to bond with a host rather than just dominate a physical body, like Carnage or the rest of the symbiotes we've seen in the series. Venom had been cast out from his collective of mean, dominating symbiotes and ended up... on Battleworld!

Venom's popularity as a Spider-Man villain maintained throughout the 1990s, with the character popping up in every Spider-Man animated series since his creation in 1988. Fox's Spider-Man, Spider-Man Unlimited, and the Spectacular Spider-Man animated series both stuck pretty close to the comic book origin story with Eddie Brock merging with a symbiote. In the Ultimate Spider-Man animated series, the symbiote was created by Doc Ock from a Spider-Man blood sample and ends up taking over Harry Osborn instead of Eddie Brock, which makes a lot of sense in that series that eventually skips over Eddie to do the Agent Venom story. In the newest animated show, Spider-Man (2017), Venom is back to the basics. Venom also appears in Avengers Assemble, another animated show, when some space debris crashes into Kun-Lun where Iron Fist is keeping... Dracula. That show wasn't nearly as serious as the others.

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Marvel

In 2003, back in the comics, the origin story of Eddie Brock was slightly changed once again in The Spectacular Spider-Man Vol. 2, #4 when it is revealed that Eddie has always had cancer since his introduction to the comics in the 1980s. He wasn't just going to kill himself because he was forced to write gossip columns, he was also terminally ill and was working out a bunch in a bid to stave off death. The symbiote helped him hold his cancer at bay, but by that time in comics history, Brock had abdicated the full-villain symbiote role to Carnage. Eddie swore off vigilantism and villainy and sold the symbiote to a crime family, resigning himself to death. The symbiote would go on bonding to others like Marc Gagen (the Scorpion, who produces an evil villain Venom once again) and Flash Thompson (who is a war veteran that makes a good version of the symbiote that works for the US government as Agent Venom).

Through a bunch of interesting, but ultimately inconsequential events take place while the Venom symbiote is off doing other things with other people, Brock manages to get Venom back only fairly recently in the comic book timeline. Brock had his cancer cleared through a whole Anti-Venom experience (long story short: he's back to not having cancer), and eventually tracked down the Venom symbiote who now wildly alternates between the no-kill vigilante that Brock wants to be and the lethal protector the symbiote wants to be. Seeking answers to these questions has led Eddie into other universes where symbiotes took over key heroes we know from our Marvel-verse (that series is called Venomverse, because why try too hard?) and into space!

venom tom hardy 2018
Sony Pictures

Tom Hardy's Venom origins

2018's development to the symbiote storyline is the revelation of Knull, the Symbiote God. Back during the 1990s Planet of the Symbiotes run, we were meant to believe that the symbiotes (actual alien name Klyntar, in case that’s important to you) rejected the Venom symbiote for wanting to bond with a single host, not dominate entire species. Knull reveals even more backstory, which is super complicated and involves dead Celestials and a first symbiote that was a sword. But the short version is that Knull created the Klyntar to be evil, then they decided they wanted to be good, but because they need to absorb hosts, if the symbiotes come in contact with an evil host, they can become corrupted. Venom himself is something like the 998th generation of Klyntar, and it turns out that Venom was supposed to be good, but then he got corrupted by his first host (not Eddie, but a Kree, one of the blue aliens with a major presence in Captain Marvel and Guardians of the Galaxy) fell in with corrupted Symbiotes who cast him out to die on a planet, that was Battleworld. Venom fights Knull and seemingly wins, and can maybe manifest big dragon-wings when he wants, because comics have to stay interesting somehow.

The two Venom series that Ruben Fleischer and Sony reportedly based the new Venom movie on are Venom: Lethal Protector and Venom: Planet of the Symbiotes, so these symbiotes are still aliens and Eddie is struggling with the alien to be good. That's been the Venom status quo for about half of the character's 40-year history: living somewhere in conflict between being a hero and allowing the alien monster (who is good/bad/good/bad depending on who you ask and when) from taking over.

Here we are at the end and after all that, the major takeaway is... Venom is an angry Spider-Man suit. Which is 100% true and also entirely incorrect for this modern incarnation. Since the movie doesn't have Tom Holland's new Spider-Man involved to pass off the white-chest spider and the ability to create organic webbing -- due to Business Deals -- we can only assume that the symbiote is keeping its pre-Spider-Man power load out of camouflage, increased strength, and healing capabilities (who knows if Eddie will need it to stop cancer, but the symbiote has occasionally passed on to others temporarily to protect or heal them).

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Dave Gonzales is a contributor to Thrillist.