WARNING: This article contains spoilers for Venom.
The big joke surrounding Venom, Sony’s latest attempt to craft an entire superhero franchise around all things related to Spider-Man, was that it looked like the best comic book movie of 1996 once its trailer premiered. The effects seemed ropey and the disparate tones mismatched for a superhero movie of this era. In reality, Venom is actually pretty entertaining. It’s certainly not on the same level as, say, Spider-Man: Homecoming or anything that Sony’s business partners at Marvel Studios are making right now, but it has a gonzo charm that proves oddly appealing. Tom Hardy’s performance as Eddie Brock and Venom is endlessly fascinating to watch as he throws himself into a series of choices that evoke memories of both Nicolas Cage and Jim Carrey. It may not work as a superhero movie — or even a Venom movie, since the changes made to canon prove an ill fit — but as a bonkers buddy comedy between a man and his alien parasite, there’s a lot to love.
Yet the film is dishearteningly archaic in one particular area that does make it feel like something that could have been released over 20 years ago. In a movie that’s clearly having an absolute ball with the off-the-wall choices it makes, it’s sad to see that the female characters are still reduced to pointless tropes and token women roles.
There are two female characters with substantive roles in Venom: Anne Weying, Eddie Brock’s lawyer ex-girlfriend, played by Michelle Williams; and Dr. Dora Skirth, a scientist working for the sinister Life Foundation, as played by Jenny Slate. Anne is introduced as Eddie’s loving girlfriend who quickly exits his life when his betrayal of her trust results in her losing her job. Dr. Skirth is one of the top scientists working for the SpaceX-style corporation run by Carlton Drake (as played by Riz Ahmed), where the experiments on symbiotes are taking place. Neither is given much to do nor do either of them get any real opportunities to talk to other female characters.
The big problem with both Dr. Skirth and Anne is that every character beat is utterly predictable. If you’ve ever watched a superhero movie with the underdeveloped love interest or an action film with the token supportive spouse role then you’ll know these characters like the back of your hand. Everything about them is familiar — their interactions with other characters (almost exclusively men), the traces of development they receive, the roles they fulfill and the emotions they elicit in the men around them. Really, that seems to be their major purpose: How does Anne make Eddie feel, and how does Dr. Skirth drive the story forward?
Michelle Williams has been remarkably candid in her admittance that her involvement with Venom was not exclusively a choice made for artistic merit. While she confessed to enjoying working with both Tom Hardy and Riz Ahmed and appreciated the opportunity to work on a big-budget scale (her work is typically much quieter and more decidedly indie), she was not ignorant of the financial benefits that come with such work. It takes nerve to be vocal about such issues, especially when working in a genre where the “fake geek girl” accusations remain rampant, but this step of demystifying the realities of Hollywood also cannot help but highlight the big problem with Williams’s part: She has nothing to do. Williams does her best with the part of Anne but she doesn’t have much in the way of defining characteristics. Whereas Eddie is portrayed as an arrogant do-gooder whose ego often overrides his more graceful instincts, Anne mostly exists for Eddie to react against or pine for. All Williams, an actress with four Oscar nominations to her name, can do with a part this limited is be “nice”.
Jenny Slate fares a little better, if only because Dr. Skirth does impact the plot. Dr. Skirth is the scientist with a conscience, contrasted with Carlton Drake who believes in progress at any cost. Eventually, the price of the Life Foundation’s testing — essentially a slightly modern version of human sacrifice — becomes too much for her and she runs to the now disgraced ex-journalist Eddie for help. Once she helps move the plot forward to the point where Eddie and the symbiote meet, she is quickly disposed of.
While the film seems by and large happy to let Anne serve the role of love interest for the majority of the film’s running time, it hints at greater hopes for Dr. Skirth but then fails to deliver on them. She seems like she could have been an interesting ally for Eddie in his battle against the Life Corporation. More time could have been given to dig into her ethical turmoil over her culpability in aiding Drake’s callous disregard for humanity. It is mentioned that she has children but the audience is given nothing else in terms of her character. Slate plays her as a timid but intelligent woman who is trying to rectify a life of bad choices, yet there’s little of that in the narrative beyond the necessary steps to get Eddie to Venom.
Venom’s female characters feel regressive but the genre itself also took far too long to catch up to the real world when it came to depictions of women. It’s taken Marvel until next year to give a woman the starring role in one of their MCU installments, while the DCEU fared better thanks to Wonder Woman. Yet we could still be here all day talking about the talented, charismatic actresses whose roles in these gargantuan big-budget superhero movies seldom seemed to evolve beyond girlfriend, wife, sex object or victim. Think of Rachel McAdams in Doctor Strange or Oscar-winner Natalie Portman in the first two Thor movies or Liv Tyler in The Incredible Hulk or even Amy Adams, a fantastic Lois Lane who is still completely ill-served by the material given to her in the new era of Superman. Things have gotten markedly better over the past few years thanks to characters like Wonder Woman, Shuri, Valkyrie, Hope van Dyne, Scarlet Witch and many others, but Venom acts as a cold reminder of how easy it is for the genre to fall back on outdated tropes.
The wasted potential is made all the worse because the film gives Anne a brief minute of badass glory. After the symbiote is separated from Eddie and he is kidnapped by Drake’s men, Venom needs to find a way to get back to him since he remains the most compatible human host. Venom gets back to Eddie by taking over Anne and then the pair (or trio?) share a very gooey kiss. Comic book fans familiar with the Venom arcs will know that Anne does, for a while, take on the mantle of She-Venom and goes through a tumultuous storyline wherein she lashed out against the men in her life who had hurt her and struggled to deal with the undeniable appeal of her new powers. That story doesn't end well for Anne but the brief scene we get of Michelle Williams in Venom mode is thrilling. It seems like an obvious sequel hook but it's sad that such potential is dangled in front of viewers as incentives more often than it's allowed to be its own fully fleshed out thing in the present narrative. Wouldn’t we all love to see Michelle Williams indulge her inner anti-heroine?
Overall, Venom is nowhere near the catastrophic trainwreck it’s being portrayed as in some reviews, but when the rest of the film is so stupidly entertaining as it is, it only highlights the disappointing lack of care given to its female characters. Any superhero franchise would be lucky to have Jenny Slate and Michelle Williams on board. Venom, and indeed the entire industry, would do well to remember that.