So here’s the thing: I’m currently telling the story of the development of blockbuster superhero movies in chronological order, and at the moment, I’ve only gotten as far as 27 minutes into the genre’s first film, 1978’s Superman: The Movie.
But while I’m doing that, the world is moving on, churning out new superhero movies at an unbelievable clip, and leaving me even further behind. Out in the world, this history is still unfolding, and if I ignored what’s happening right now, then this project would be a dusty museum piece, rather than a living story that’s connected to who and where we currently are.
So when a new superhero movie is released — which at this point might as well be every couple of weeks — I want to take the time to compare the new film with the movie that I’m currently writing about, to draw connections between them, and explore where this genre is headed. As of this weekend, the latest release is Sony’s Spider-Man spinoff Venom: Let There Be Carnage, which as far as tone is concerned is about as far away from Superman: The Movie as you can get.
Here we stand, on a family farm in Smallville, Kansas, where Jonathan Kent is about to deliver some inspirational words of advice about restraining our darker impulses in order to find our true purpose in life, and then along comes Venom, who encourages us to do exactly the opposite.
For the folks who aren’t familiar, I’ll shoot you a little backstory on where this weekend’s barnburner comes from. Venom: Let There Be Carnage is a sequel to the 2018 Venom, which is based on a character created in a mid-80s Amazing Spider-Man storyline.
The original idea that led to Venom was inspired by a toy line produced by Mattel in 1984, which featured all of Marvel Comics’ popular heroes and villains. Mattel asked Marvel to produce a comic book that would promote the line of action figures, and their marketing department had discovered that kids were excited by the words “secret” and “war”. So Marvel created a year-long crossover event called Secret Wars, which magically transported all of their characters to a place called Battleworld, where the heroes could play out mix-and-match fights with each other’s rogues’ gallery.
Marvel had already been thinking about changing Spider-Man’s traditional red-and-blue look to a cool new all-black costume, and Mattel was thrilled to hear it, because that meant they could sell two Spider-Man figures.
So in Secret Wars #8, Spider-Man acquired a fluid, self-repairing black costume, and after the event ended he kept it for about seven months, until he discovered that it was actually a sentient alien symbiote which was feeding off of him, at which point he got sick of it and threw it away.
Four years later, the black alien symbiote bonded with Eddie Brock, a reporter who had a kick against Spider-Man, and they collectively became Venom, a fearsome Spider-Man lookalike with shape-changing powers.
At some point, you and I will have to discuss what happened to superhero comics in the mid-1980s, but the short version is that people got a taste for violent body horror/splatter imagery, which Marvel channeled very successfully into their superhero line, elevating their most violent and remorseless characters like Wolverine and the Punisher to superstar status.
Venom — who is himself a messy splatter film come to life — managed to surf this wave and become one of Spider-Man’s most popular villains, alongside old favorites like the Green Goblin and Doctor Octopus. After a while, he started headlining his own books, starting with a Venom miniseries in 1993, where he granted himself antihero status, and started trying to help the innocent and eat the guilty.
Now, one thing that I learned while writing about a 1960s vampire soap opera for years and years is that audiences really don’t have much of a moral sense, as far as fictional narrative is concerned. We’re willing to root for anybody — hero, villain, antihero, antivillain, whatever you have available — as long as that character makes the story more interesting when the camera is pointed in their direction.
All we crave is story progress and entertainment, and if that happens to be expressed in a morally dubious way, it’s not really any of our concern. Let’s say there’s a character that’s boring and irritating, and getting in the way of narrative progress; the audience will want that character eliminated from the story, and we don’t really care how it happens.
For example, in Venom, if the audience is aware that the movie is leading up to a big exciting fight between Venom and an even larger and meaner symbiote, and the long-awaited event has been delayed by a regular human security guard who drags the main characters out into the woods at gunpoint to do nothing in particular, then having an alien serial killer come along and finish the sequence by biting off the guy’s head makes the audience happy, because messily murdering a character that we don’t particularly care for is funny and satisfying, especially if it moves the plot forward to a more interesting scene.
So the contrast between Superman and Venom is rather complex. They’re both the story of a powerful, dangerous space monster in the guise of a newspaper reporter, who beats people up and wrecks their homes in the service of fighting crime, so in that sense they’re actually pretty much the same movie.
But the tone is completely different, obviously, especially because Superman spends quite a while establishing specific moral codes that govern the protagonist’s behavior, thanks to his space wizard dad and his farm family foster father. Superman is supposed to be an inspiration to America’s youth, embodying empathy, honesty, sacrifice, hard work and restraint.
Clearly, something has happened to America over the intervening 43 years between Superman and Venom, and part of the purpose of this blog is to figure out what that might be.
Venom: Let There Be Carnage is a movie about the power and satisfaction of becoming liquified meat, which I don’t believe is on Georges Polti’s list of The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations. The film is basically a how-to manual on what to do if your body is invaded by a brain-eating tentacle monster who insists on making you breakfast.
As the protagonist, Eddie tries to impose some kind of moral code on his alien alter ego — or at least post the words “Rules: No Eating People,” which is fairly remedial as an ethical guideline. In this movie, empathy, honesty and restraint pretty much go out the window, sometimes literally.
The main visual throughline of the film is the shredding and disassembly of the human form, turning us into either powerful, malleable goo or broken, discarded sacks of meat. The main character is explicitly a ravenous serial killer, whose primary collective concern is selecting what he/they consider to be the proper victims of his unquenchable desire for human brains.
This ode to the darkest instincts of human nature is tempered by what is actually an effective comic tone. The discussions about who to murder, which take up the majority of the movie’s runtime, are conducted entirely through buddy-cop comic timing.
The thing that makes the movie feel like it’s exciting adventure-story fun and not unspeakably horrifying and grim is the clearly conscious choice to conduct regular bloodbaths that don’t include even the tiniest bit of blood. We do see a couple smudges of blood in the film, exclusively as the result of normal human physical encounters like a punch in the nose, and then the movie makes a really big deal about it.
But when Venom and Carnage are at work — especially in the rampage scenes, where Carnage slaughters all the attendants at an asylum or buzzsaws his way through a crowded prison — all you see are immaculately clean corpses being flung around the set, entirely gore-free. This is especially noticeable after the asylum massacre, because there’s a shot where the camera lingers on the aftermath — and what should be a blood-splattered slaughterhouse is just rubble and carelessly strewn bodies.
There’s often a shower of deep red on the screen, but it’s all extensions of Carnage’s liquid flesh, which offers a satisfyingly gory color scheme without making the audience feel like we’re gleefully participating in the en masse infliction of destruction and suffering on human beings’ bodies — even though we are clearly doing exactly that.
The key to this aesthetic is obviously the video game. Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Atari — one of the earliest companies to popularize home video game systems in the 1970s — explained in 2002 that “we [Atari] had an internal rule that we wouldn’t allow violence against people. You could blow up a tank or you could blow up a flying saucer, but you couldn’t blow up people. We felt that that was not good form, and we adhered to that all during my tenure.”
That rationale — that you’re allowed to pleasurably destroy things that contain sentient beings, as long as you don’t see them or witness the messy and horrifying consequences of your actions — is key to the modern superhero-film style, even in the movies that aren’t openly supposed to be about serial killers.
There is a consequence-free car-chase massacre, traveling up and down the busy streets of San Francisco, in the 2018 Venom movie — and there’s another one in last month’s more intentionally heartwarming Marvel flick Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. In both cases, if that sequence took place in reality, the picturesque streets would be awash in shattered bones and human fluids, as per the Boston Marathon bombings. But during these scenes, the audience speeds along merrily, enjoying every crunch and squeal, because it’s just cars and windows and apartment buildings getting broken, and we don’t see any of the injured people who must be inside.
Obviously, the next stage of development in video game violence was to visualize the destruction of individuals, but to do it as a faceless crowd of soldiers and aliens and other de-humanized opponents. In Venom, this aesthetic was represented by the crowd of SWAT officers that the invulnerable monster happily disintegrated, instead of just running away without injury, which he could easily do. In Shang-Chi, it was the horde of interchangeable ninjas that the heroes fought up and down the side of a skyscraper; when one of them fell off, he was replaced by another that was exactly the same.
And in Venom: Let There Be Carnage, there’s a sequence where Carnage shoots out a huge tentacle and punches directly through a helicopter that’s flying towards him, making it instantly burst into flaming wreckage. As the audience, we’re allowed to enjoy the satisfying BOOM! of a demolished toy without having to witness the charred remains of the humans inside, and the spectacle of their loved ones’ shock and grief.
At this point, I probably sound like a moralistic asshole who takes everything too seriously, and uses words like “desensitization” to denounce what I actually think is a perfectly ordinary form of entertainment. Video game producers and filmmakers use these tricks because they tap into a pre-existing defect in human nature that makes us care deeply about individuals and not crowds, especially if it’s crowds of faraway people that we don’t know, and even more so if they’re fictional.
As the audience in a movie or the players of a video game, we are not loyal to the inherent humanity of the imaginary people that we see, especially if they’re characters that we don’t know or don’t particularly like. Our only allegiance is to the unfolding of the story, to narrative progress and surprise and humor and visual spectacle. If the idea of taking pleasure in the annihilation of faceless faraway people makes you uncomfortable, then yeah, welcome to being human. You might want to sit with that for a while. As for me, I’m headed back to the farm.
1.21: Strangers on a Train.
— Danny Horn