Venom, the latest Marvel character to be brought to the big screen, is the first interesting superhero movie in a while. This is due to the performance of its star, Tom Hardy—the best actor in this generation at portraying the agony of manliness—and the story, which is about a man’s abandoning of beautiful ideals and his transformation into a beast. Venom is also an answer to the strange disappearance from our movies of the working-class hero—the everyman, the guy everyone can relate to who finds himself in a crisis.
America has come a long way from Die Hard—where an average Joe could make a difference—to Marvel—where it is billionaire tech geniuses like Tony Stark who save the day and the rest of us are fodder, as in the Avengers. Tom Hardy’s performance as Eddie Brock/Venom captures the contradiction between our desires to see relatable everymen and awesome superheroes, and also attempts to depict the transformation of an ostensibly normal man into a monster.
Eddie Brock starts out an idealistic journalist in San Francisco, a man of the people who speaks truth to power, who is engaged to a beautiful woman who loves him. He’s known for trying to defend the weak from exploitation—but he’s also a guy’s guy, all leather jackets and motorcycles. Life’s perfect, but then it falls apart. Why? Testosterone.
Brock is a man in a world where that’s intolerable—California, I guess. He hates the Silicon Valley rich who, he discovers, are conducting science by human sacrifice in order to escape a planet they loathe. Brock asks hard-hitting questions of a tech billionaire about his experimenting with human subjects, and promptly gets himself and his lawyer fiancée fired. Brock loses everything in a day—his job, his fiancée, his future, and his self-respect. This sets up a series of events culminating in Brock’s bonding with a mysterious, alien symbiotic lifeform and transforming into the monster Venom, who gives in to his anger and will let nothing get in the way.
Schizophrenia is the necessary consequence of believing in the rights of the people while living in a world where there’s no institutional way to stand up for those rights—not in the press, in corporations, or in politics. Brock’s self-loathing and Venom’s boundless anger stem from the same root: it’s not possible for a decent man to find justice, to stand up for the rights of the people against those who exploit them. Hardy’s great performance here shows the split in Eddie Brock; he is kind to the poor and more interested in justice than in self-preservation, but he is essentially weak and clueless. Venom, on the other hand, has no fear and no uncertainty—he has no problem finding his enemies and tearing them to pieces. Goodness and power have become utterly separated; it’s impossible to be an everyman-hero anymore.
Brock is not an anti-hero—he’s a tragic hero. In the pursuit of justice for others he imperils his own soul—he tries too hard to be the saving angel and ends up a beast instead. It turns out that in 21st-century America, if you want success as a liberal idealist moving into the upper-middle class, you have to obey corporations you hate and who loathe you. Brock refuses to do that, so the press, owned by the corporation he’s trying to expose, destroys him.
The billionaire, played very well by Riz Ahmed, talks progress, helping out mankind, and every idealistic cause the ruling elite use to justify their power—and also murders people to get what he wants, which is to abandon a planet he sees as doomed by climate change brought on by mankind’s sins. His rhetoric is all about science saving us, and he gives children the wonder and magic of science and technology. His reality is sucking the blood out of people in an attempt to save himself. He pretends to help people, to put science in the service of mankind, but in fact science taught him that mankind is not worth helping, and he should help only himself—he should find a way to go out into space and let the planet die. This terrifying misanthropy, concealed behind idealism, is as astute a criticism of our elites as the portrayal of the angry Eddie Brock is an astute criticism of a society where manliness has been outlawed. To act like a man, to take responsibility, to face danger—leads you to destruction. No wonder Venom acts recklessly.
We are left with tragedy and tragic heroes, when we lost everymen. We are left with manly agony, which our superhero stories endlessly rehearse. Apparently, not even our popular stories maintain that our social contract holds, that we have a future together.