On July 31, @VenomMovie tweeted, “The world has enough superheroes. Watch the new Venom trailer now.” In the space of 66 characters, Sony Pictures essentially positioned Venom as a superhero movie without the superhero. Cue the gasps of shock and outrage. The question is: Can it be done? Is it possible to make a superhero movie without a squeaky-clean superhero to root for and still gain the audience’s trust?
We know such things are possible because Deadpool made $363 million domestically in 2016 despite its R rating, prompting CNNMoney to call the franchise a “box office rarity.” Deadpool still holds the record for the biggest opening for an R-rated movie despite the fact that the titular protagonist makes it very clear from the beginning that he doesn’t fit the Superman mold.
“Well, I may be super, but I’m no hero. And yeah, technically this is murder,” he opines at the movie’s beginning. “But some of the best love stories start with a murder, and that’s exactly what this is, a love story.” And the formula worked as indicated by the movie’s box office success and the dozens of Deadpool Pop!s, Mystery Minis and Pop! Tees Funko now sells.
A complicated world deserves complicated heroes and villains and everything that falls between. Which is how we wound up with Venom, an alien symbiote who bonds with Spider-Man, tries to kill Spider-Man and ultimately establishes a truce with Spider-Man to eradicate a greater evil. Venom is not a super hero, not by a long shot. But he doesn’t exactly qualify as a villain either. So what is he?
More than 40 years ago, Dungeons & Dragons took on the task of creating an alignment system that players could use to help establish their character’s moral boundaries. In its original form, the alignment system had three categories: lawful, chaotic and neutral. But three categories proved insufficient to capture the complicated spectrum of morality and additional categories were added. In fact, the current alignment system encompasses nine categories: lawful good, neutral good, chaotic good, lawful neutral, true neutral, chaotic neutral, lawful evil, neutral evil and chaotic evil.
Within these categories, there’s plenty of room for disagreement. Is Batman chaotic good, chaotic neutral or something else entirely? No one seems to agree on the Dark Knight’s moral alignment, although the internet seems to agree that Malcolm Reynolds from Firefly is just about the dictionary definition of chaotic good and most people agree that Darth Vader qualifies as lawful evil. It’s especially challenging defining characters that have existed across several decades and multiple storylines, some of which are contradictory—as is often the case with characters in comic books.
Venom debuted in May of 1984 and in the 34 years that have followed, he’s accomplished a lot, some of it definitively good, some of it equally definitively bad and a lot of it just plain gray area. Further complicating matters, every time Venom takes a new host, they meld characteristics making for a completely unique character. While Venom might qualify as chaotic neutral or true neutral when bonded with Eddie Brock, when bonded to Mac Gargan he’s considered a chaotic evil character. How does the symbiote’s desire to eat brains balance against Eddie Brock’s refusal to allow him to indulge this particular craving?
At one point, S.H.I.E.L.D. considers Venom to be one of the greatest threats to humanity. IGN ranked Venom twenty-second on its list titled “Top 100 Comic Book Villains.” But even within that assertion, IGN is forced to acknowledge the character’s moral ambiguity, stating: “Eddie Brock has gone through many changes and identity shifts through the years, and the Venom persona has not always been his. But while Eddie himself has gone back and forth between fighting for what he perceives to be right—the 'Lethal Protector'—and outright villainy, it's inevitable that he eventually succumbs to his dark side, and fans are treated to another Spider-Man Vs. Venom battle.”
Of course, IGN also ranked the Venom/Mac Gargan mashup as seventeenth on its list of “The Top 50 Avengers.” The Venom/Flash Thompson combo also got recognition as the twenty-seventh best avenger. Given that the Avengers are generally considered to be the “good guys,” what are we to make of a character who is simultaneously recognized as one of the best “bad guys” and the best “good guys”? The only real answer is that it’s complicated, but that’s part of what makes the character so interesting. A lawful good character will behave in a manner that’s consistent. But even as an Avenger, Venom finds a way to shake things up, capturing a bank robber and subsequently eating his arm and keeping the bank robber’s money. If Captain America engaged in such barbaric behavior, Iron Man and Black Widow would likely stage an intervention. Then again, in Captain America: Civil War the Avengers can’t agree about the appropriate degree of government oversight of their activities proving that even the indisputable heroes don’t always agree about what constitutes right and wrong.
Will Venom follow in Deadpool’s footsteps as the morally uncertain non-hero protagonist of a superhero movie? We’ll find out October 5 when the movie is released in theaters. In the meantime, it’s a complicated world and Venom’s just living—and eating people’s brains—in it.
And in case you were wondering, here’s a list of where other fictional characters potentially fall on the character alignment spectrum:
Lawful good: Dana Scully (The X-Files), Leslie Knope (Parks and Recreation), Superman (DC Comics), Captain America (Marvel and only in certain circumstances), Turk (Scrubs), Data (Star Trek), Dustin Henderson (Stranger Things) and Wesley Wyndham-Price (Buffy the Vampire Slayer).
Neutral good: Luke Skywalker (Star Wars), Frodo Baggins (The Lord of the Rings), Neo (The Matrix), Silver Surfer (Marvel), The Thing (Marvel), Jean Gray (Marvel), Spider-Man (Marvel), Hermione Granger (Harry Potter), Harry Potter (Harry Potter) and Albus Dumbledore (Harry Potter).
Chaotic Good: Malcolm Reynolds (Firefly), Fox Mulder (The X-Files), Thor (Marvel), Wolverine (Marvel), Batman (DC Comics and there’s a lot of discussion around this one), Rogue (Marvel), Doctor Cox (Scrubs), Robin Hood (Robin Hood), R2-D2 (Star Wars), Indiana Jones (Indiana Jones), Mary Poppins (Mary Poppins), Iron Man (Marvel), Buffy Summers (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games), Tina Belcher (Bob’s Burgers), Luna Lovegood (Harry Potter), Peter Quill (Marvel), Gamora (Marvel) and Groot (Marvel).
Lawful neutral: Boba Fett (Star Wars), James Bond (James Bond), Inspector Javert (Les Misérables), Cornelius Fudge (Harry Potter), Principal Snyder (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Effie Trinket (The Hunger Games), Barty Crouch (Harry Potter), Percy Weasley (Harry Potter).
Neutral: Sherlock Holmes (Sherlock Holmes), The Hulk (Marvel), Luke Skywalker (Star Wars), Jules (Pulp Fiction), M (James Bond), Shrek (Shrek), The Dude (The Big Lebowski), Mundungus Fletcher (Harry Potter), The Ents (The Lord of the Rings), Meursault (The Stranger), Gene Belcher (Bob’s Burgers), Severus Snape (Harry Potter), Mr. Ollivander (Harry Potter), Drax the Destroyer (Marvel).
Chaotic neutral: Captain Jack Sparrow (Pirates of the Caribbean), River Tam (Firefly), Deadpool (Marvel), Rocket (Marvel), Tyler Durden (Fight Club), Beetlejuice (Beetlejuice), Ferris Bueller (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), Walter Sobchak (The Big Lebowski), Huckleberry Finn (Adventures of Huckleberry Finn), Sméagol (The Lord of the Rings), Peeves the Poltergeist (Harry Potter), Draco Malfoy (Harry Potter), Rita Skeeter (Harry Potter), Lisbeth Salander (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), “Stone Cold” Steve Austin (WWE), Spike (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), The Bride (Kill Bill) and Venom (Marvel).
Lawful evil: Hannibal Lecter (The Silence of the Lambs), Cersei Lannister (Game of Thrones), Lex Luthor (DC Comics), Doctor Doom (Marvel), Darth Vader (Star Wars), Red Skull (Marvel), O-Ren Ishii (Kill Bill), Dolores Umbridge (Harry Potter), Sauron (The Lord of the Rings), Saruman (The Lord of the Rings), Ebenezer Scrooge (A Christmas Carol), Vince McMahon (WWE), The Mayor (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), President Snowe (The Hunger Games) and Mr. Fischoeder (Bob’s Burgers).
Neutral evil: Two-Face (DC Comics), Boba Fett (Star Wars), Supreme Leader Snoke (Star Wars), Michael Corleone (The Godfather), Agent Smith (The Matrix), Barty Crouch, Jr. (Harry Potter), Dementors (Harry Potter), Smaug (The Hobbit), The Master (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and Peter Pettigrew (Harry Potter).Chaotic evil: Joffrey Baratheon (Game of Thrones), The Joker (DC), Doomsday (DC), Thanos (Marvel), Gollum (The Lord of the Rings), Fenrir Greyback (Harry Potter), Darth Maul (Star Wars), Kylo Ren (Star Wars), Patrick Bateman (American Psycho), Bellatrix Lestrange (Harry Potter), Glory (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Dark Willow (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and Louise Belcher (Bob’s Burgers).