On the list of clues suggesting we’ve all fallen into an alternate timeline where the entire world has gone wrong, the fact that a movie about a Spider-Man villain where Spider-Man is literally never once mentioned just made $200 million this weekend should be near the bottom. It’s not awful—it’s just not supposed to happen. But it definitely did.
There is no reason that Venom, a very odd superhero film, should have just had the most lucrative October movie opening ever. There are, however, many reasons it shouldn’t have — first and foremost being the aforementioned lack of Spider-Man. Venom’s entire character has been defined by the MIA hero. The “symbiote,” as the black alien sludge is called, first appeared in Marvel Comics in 1984 as a snazzy new black costume created by an alien machine. (Long story.) Eventually, Spidey discovered that Venom was an evil parasite and managed to free himself from it. The symbiote quickly bonded with Spider-Man-hating disgraced journalist Eddie Brock (played by Tom Hardy in the film), and the two bonded, figuratively and literally, over their hate of Spider-Man. This is why Venom looks so much like Spidey, right down to the white spider emblem on his chest — a cosmetic choice notably missing in the movie. Only five years after his 1988 debut, Venom became so popular that he turned into an anti-hero (think Wolverine, but with more biting off bad guys’ heads) and the star of a few solo comics. On paper, a solo Venom movie is not the craziest idea, which is why Sony’s been trying to make one forever.
While its lack of a Spider-hero wasn’t a big deal for audiences, it’s also weird that Venom is as big a success as it is, since it’s actually pretty dumb. I offer no insult if you enjoyed it, because you’re obviously in good — and huge — company. However, critics have panned the film, and I can assure you that they were correct to do so. It takes a staggering amount of time before the title character appears fully onscreen. Tom Hardy’s accent is an attention-siphoning enigma. And the movie has more holes than plot; my favorite is how the bad guys send 100 men in black sedans to open fire on Eddie as they chase his motorcycle through the busiest streets in San Francisco, and then also send drones that can shoot rockets, and then destroy dozens of cars in front of hundreds of witnesses in their attempt to murder Eddie. Then, after they finally catch him, they decide to walk him deep into the woods to execute him where no one can see.
There’s a good amount of action in the film but practically no stakes. There are no anguished realizations or hard choices. I suppose we’re supposed to care about Eddie getting back together with his ex-fiancée Anne (Michelle Williams) early in the film, but their relationship is so cartoonishly shallow that even the film doesn’t seem to care about its success or failure. Heads are bitten off and eaten with mild, momentary discomfort. The world needs to be saved, but from a vague threat that we never see and that never comes particularly close to happening.
Of course, things like “plot” and “drama” only matter when you’re not having enough fun to ignore them, and Venom certainly has its moments. There are the action scenes, which are entertainingly violent. The movie also makes the effective choice of making doofuses out of Eddie Brock and the alien parasite attached to him. Eddie screws up his entire life within the film’s first few minutes and later spends a great deal of time as merely Venom’s bewildered passenger. Meanwhile, Venom is much more interested in looking cool and being Eddie’s bro than doing anything evil. (I believe this is the first movie ever where an alien parasite does a front-end wheelie on a motorcycle.) Even the occasional bad-guy meals veer much closer to comedy than horror; likewise, Eddie and Venom also veer closer to being a straight-up hero than an anti-hero, and there’s something lovable about these two losers becoming intergalactic BFFs.
Venom is a simple film, but after the past decade of superhero movies, it also feels like a relief. Its simplicity is what makes it enticing. It’s like Guardians of the Galaxy, but without the burden of lugging a giant, shared cinematic universe along with it. There aren’t a million characters to keep track of, like Avengers: Infinity War. It’s Deadpool without trying so damned hard to be extreme, clever, or loaded with in-jokes. There’s nothing you need to know to watch Venom, there’s nothing else you need to have seen, and, honestly, you don’t even need to worry about its relationship to Spider-Man, since it technically does not exist. The movie is not obligated to anything but itself… for now.
Because of course — of course — Sony has slated Venom to be the start of its Spider-Man Cinematic Universe in Which Spider-Man’s Involvement Is Completely in Question. As silly as that name sounds, Sony’s official name for all the Spider-side stories, revealed back in August, is even clunkier: “Sony’s Universe of Marvel Characters.” I have no idea how this will work, given that the one thing that binds all of the Sony-owned Marvel characters is that they’re all supporting characters of Spider-Man. There’s chatter of Tom Holland eventually making an appearance — Venom director Ruben Fleischer said that a Venom/Spidey tussle may come “at some point down the line” — which indicates that there are zero immediate plans to bring in the guy all these characters actually know.
Without Spider-Man, what’s the point of pretending these movies take place in a shared universe? How many of these characters can actually headline a film? Who will give a shit if Venom meets Black Cat, the distant second place of sexy cat-themed thieves in comics, or Silver Sable, a mercenary who wouldn’t make a Top 200 list of Marvel’s best-loved characters? (Sony is currently planning movies about each of these characters.)
In fact, Venom might lose its best quality if Sony wants to make it the center of this Spider-free galaxy. Forcing the square peg that is Venom into Spider-Man’s round hole will not go well for either peg or hole, and what would be the point? What’s the endgame of “Sony’s Universe of Marvel Characters”? Is there a reason these supporting characters need to stop by the movies of other supporting Spidey characters, other than to prove to people that, yes, this is very technically a shared universe? Will Tom Holland’s Peter Parker ever even show up in one of these films? And if he does, how the hell will he work with a goofball Venom and whatever else Sony has in store for “Sony’s Universe of Marvel Characters”?!
To be fair, in the match of wits between Sony Motion Pictures Entertainment and Rob Bricken, Sony is currently undefeated at 1–0. I thought Venom was not going to do well because of how isolated it was from the rest of superhero entertainment, when instead I think that became its biggest strength. So maybe Sony knows exactly what it’s doing and has a meticulously plotted Spider-Manless universe, and the moviegoing people of the world have been dying for a Silver Sable movie without realizing it (and without having heard of the character).
But I suspect the studio should let Venom be Venom. And when thinking about the inevitable sequel, I was surprised to realize I wouldn’t want Spider-Man to stop by, because he just wouldn’t fit into the frivolous, lighthearted first film. Hopefully Venom’s success will spur Sony — or Warner Bros., or, hell, even Marvel — to make more films this fun. I don’t even think doofuses are required. But best keep the headless corpses, just in case.