“Maybe it’s a breakup. A death. An accident. Whatever it is, you used to be one thing. Now, you’re something else. We all have our own problems. Our own issues. Our own… demons.”
Sony’s Marvel-linked “villain universe” is off to an auspicious start. With massive box-office sales set to pass those of both 20th Century Fox’s acclaimed Logan and Warner Brothers’ superhero team-up Justice League, the news couldn’t be better for Venom. Still more surprising is the fact that the film – directed by Zombieland’s Ruben Fleischer – has risen to the top of the global box office in spite of a decidedly negative critical response. According to review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, movie critics have handed Venom a dismal 31% average positive rating, while audiences have responded with a positive rating of 88%.
Better still for Sony, the film is showing no signs of slowing down, making a bigger-budget sequel all but guaranteed.
Venom follows the chameleonic Tom Hardy (The Dark Knight Rises) as Eddie Brock, an idealistic journalist riding a wave of success in his efforts to protect society by exposing corruption in San Francisco. For his efforts, he has won a darling fiancée in Anne Weying (Michelle Williams), a lawyer whose firm happens to work for the Elon Musk-like tech titan Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), head of the satirically-named Life Foundation and a man who Eddie bluntly refers to as “The evil person.” Hoping to do Eddie a favor, Anne uses her firm’s connections to help him score an interview with Drake, on the condition that Eddie “behave” during their discussion. However, forever the idealist, Eddie is unable to resist the urge to put an amoral corporatist on the hot seat. Eddie accuses the Life Foundation of murderous experiments and is quickly fired by his newspaper’s chief. Worse, his fiancée’s is fired by her firm, and returns her engagement ring to him for betraying her trust.
Months later, Eddie’s once-idyllic life is a mess: He’s subsisting on Chinese carryout, begging for work in the classifieds, and living in a cheap inner-city apartment. The love of his life has moved on, and he’s given up on his lofty ideals as he struggles for his own survival. Suddenly, a Life Foundation employee with a guilty conscience comes to Eddie promising him the story of a lifetime and a perfect opportunity to strike back at Carlton Drake, the man who ruined Eddie’s life. Breaking into the Life Foundation’s most secretive laboratory for his new scoop, Eddie comes into contact with a black ooze that seeps into his body and makes him decidedly ill… at least, for a time. But before long, Eddie hears a deep, inhuman voice speak to him from inside his own mind. The ooze – a sentient alien “symbiote” named Venom – has bonded to him as its host. “Just think of yourself as my ride”, Venom tells Eddie as it covers his body and transforms him into a monstrous creature with long fangs, hulking muscles and a tongue that would make Gene Simmons envious.
What ensues is little more on the surface than a darkly comedic antihero origin story. Empowered as Venom, Eddie is granted the ability to hit back at the corrupt elements of society that he failed to vanquish as a mere human. Carlton Drake’s nefarious experiments have continued in Eddie’s absence, and only his new powers stand a chance at preventing the mad tech titan from executing a genocidal plan to transform the human race to suit his own twisted vision. “You can only hurt bad people”, Eddie tells Venom, who responds, “How does one tell the difference?” If Eddie can learn to live with his body’s new co-pilot, he can be more than an idealist: He can be a protector.
However, these new powers come at a price: If Eddie isn’t careful, the living alien costume will kill and consume him.
For a film whose star pummels and devours villainous henchmen by the dozen, the tone is surprisingly light. Accurately described as a body-sharing buddy comedy, it’s a far cry from the R-rated thriller that was predicted by some genre enthusiasts. The action set pieces are entertaining, but not groundbreaking, and one could complain that the supporting cast is given little original material to work with. But movie critics would be wrong to rate Venom poorly for its lack of originality, for it is precisely in its observance of traditional storytelling techniques that it reveals its true motivation: An exploration of a man’s journey towards integrating his shadow self.
The idea of integrating one’s shadow is elucidated in the following quote by legendary Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung:
“This confrontation is the first test of courage on the inner way, a test sufficient to frighten off most people, for the meeting with ourselves belongs to the more unpleasant things that can be avoided so long as we can project everything negative into the environment. But if we are able to see our own shadow and can bear knowing about it, then a small part of the problem has already been solved: we have at least brought up the personal unconscious. The shadow is a living part of the personality and therefore wants to live with it in some form. It cannot be argued out of existence or rationalized into harmlessness. This problem is exceedingly difficult, because it not only challenges the whole man, but reminds him at the same time of his helplessness and ineffectuality.”
“…this integration [of the shadow] cannot take place and be put to a useful purpose unless one can admit the tendencies bound up with the shadow and allow them some measure of realization – tempered, of course, with the necessary criticism. This leads to disobedience and self-disgust, but also to self- reliance, without which individuation is unthinkable.” (A Psychological Approach to the Dogma of the Trinity, Carl Jung)
Venom may wear the disguise of a darkly comedic Spiderman spinoff, but its concerns are nothing short of the mythological representation of man’s need to face his inner demons in order to overcome the chaos that would otherwise destroy his life. The depth of these themes are not obvious on the first viewing, but Eddie Brock’s relate-ability as a man devastated by the loss of his career and his true love thanks to an encounter with evil is something many audience members will relate to for the simple reason that such encounters with chaos are a universal human experience.
Venom probably won’t be taking home any Oscar nominations, but it has already won the hearts of millions of new fans and will likely hold its own as a cult favorite for years to come.
If casual viewers can get past the film’s superhero genre trappings and sometimes rude sense of humor, they will find that Venom explores the Jung’s theory of the shadow self with an unanticipated level of mythological precision. In short, the film posits that a man’s “dark side” if resisted, is of no help to him in his battle against corruption. But, if integrated into his whole self in a healthy manner, the shadow self can be a source of strength and courage against the true evils of society.
To use the words of the Canadian clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson: “You should be able to be a monster, and then not be one.”
Venom is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for language.