'Venom,' starring Tom Hardy, suggests superheroes and monsters have more in common than we think

Giving a noble empowerment story to a nightmare demon with a Gene Simmons tongue is obviously ridiculous. But it's charming too.
Tom Hardy in Venom.
A face only a mother could love.Sony Pictures Entertainment
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It’s well known that superhero films are empowerment fantasies. It's less well understood that horror films can be too. Yes, Jason and Freddy and Michael Myers stalk and terrorize. But at the end of each movie, some final survivor gets to pick up the axe and kill the monster while the audience cheers. More, horror movies often encourage you to identify with the monster itself. Who doesn't get a rush of satisfaction in “Aliens” when the xenomorph devours smug, oleaginous Paul Reiser? Superhero and horror narratives both imagine beings with great power. And it's fun to imagine yourself as having great power, even if that means wearing embarrassing tights or trailing chunks of gore.

“Venom” takes the parallels between superhero and horror films and squeezes them into a single gleeful glob of ooze. The movie follows investigative reporter Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) as he discovers that wealthy mad scientist Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed) has brought gelatinous alien life forms to earth. Drake is worried that earth is overpopulated and doomed; he hopes humans infected by the alien parasites will be able to survive on other planets. Eddie inevitably gets possessed by an alien named Venom, giving him (you guessed it) superpowers and an appetite for biting people's heads off.

The movie grinds through its first half, and takes far too long to get Venom and Eddie together. But once the monster and man do become one, the plot picks up dramatically. Eddie early in the movie loses his job, his fiancé and his self-respect after failing to expose Carlton Drake. He's depressed and useless, living in a run-down apartment next door to a rocker who plays his guitar at ear-melting volume in the middle of the night. Once Eddie is possessed by a demonic toothy alien, however, everything changes. He beats up phalanxes of thugs. He engages in awesome car chases. He even terrorizes his neighbor into turning the music down.

Many of the film’s funnier moments involve Eddie and Venom’s internal conversations, in which they essentially argue about whether they're in a superhero film or a horror one. In a deep, guttural, voice Venom keeps urging Eddie to feed on the bad guys. Eat their heads and pile the bodies in a corner, the parasite insists.

Eddie, for his part, tries to explain to his symbiote that in superhero stories there are good people and bad people, and you're not supposed to murder the good people. "How can you tell them apart?" Venom asks, speaking for horror films in which everybody is guilty, and everybody is eaten.

“Venom” ultimately leans much more towards the superhero genre than the horror one. The monster eats a few people's heads, but the movie keeps the gore to a minimum.

“Venom” ultimately leans much more towards the superhero genre than the horror one. The monster eats a few people's heads, but the movie keeps the scenes of gore and dismemberment to a minimum. Venom himself actually has a character arc that feels more like a hero than a demon. The alien glop admits that he was a "loser" on his home planet. But inspired by Eddie's selflessness and general nobility, he decides to become a heroic glop and fight for what's right by joining with Eddie to try and prevent an alien invasion of earth.

Giving a noble empowerment story to a nightmare demon with a Gene Simmons tongue is obviously ridiculous. But it's charming too. Horror movies are sometimes denigrated as violent fantasies which appeal to viewers’ worst sadistic impulses. But “Venom” suggests a less invidious reading. Maybe horror films are really just a chance for people to imagine they're stronger, faster and more effective than they really are. We don't watch horror films because we are filled with hate and rage. We watch them because we all want to be like Venom, that little ichor that could.

If "Venom" allows us to see the innocuous side of horror films, though, it also points to the toothy maw hidden beneath the superhero narrative's mask. Superheroes are generally careful not to kill people — but deep down do they really just want to tear people's arms off?

“Venom” has some of the same queasy charge as Robert Kirkman's Marvel Zombies comics, in which noble characters like Captain America are infected with a zombie plague and murder everyone they hold dear. Spider-Man even eats his beloved Aunt May. With great power comes great appetite. After watching Venom, you half expect superheroics in other films to be accompanied by that distorted monster voice bellowing, "feed me!"

This is the darker side to the empowerment narrative. There’s nothing really wrong with dreaming about being able to get far above all your troubles, as Venom does when he climbs a skyscraper and looks down admiringly on the city below. But there’s something more insidious about a yearning for dominance, control and satiation. You can want power to right wrongs, or you can want it to revenge yourself on everything and everyone who ever dared to thwart your ambitions.

Superhero stories usually focus on the good impulses, but “Venom” suggests the darker ones are there too, crawling around inside. The desire to be the noble savior and the desire to eat everyone are symbiotic, so twined around each other's black tendrils that you can't pull them apart. “Venom” is an indifferent movie. But it deserves some credit for suggesting that inside many heroes lurks a nightmare horror, with teeth.

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