Wednesday, 11 July 2012

They’ll Never Film That (But They Should): BATMAN: VENOM

In an age which can be considered the Golden Era of comic book cinema, it might look as if the sky is the limit for comic book stories to be adapted to film. Who ever thought we’d see an Avengers film or the “Phoenix Saga” from the X-Men comics? Granted, they botched the latter, but still, who even thought we’d see a bad film based on that storyline?

But some stories are just too odd, too dark, and/or too controversial to put to film, at least as far as comic books superheroes go. Then again, these are stories which are also too good not to film. In other words, these are the comic books which filmmakers will never film…but they should.

Batman: Venom


Batman: Venom was originally published in issues 16-20 of Legends of the Dark Knight in 1991, and is the storyline in which the drug Venom – the steroid the villain Bane used to help him defeat Batman in the Knightfall epic - was originally introduced into the DC Universe. However, what makes the Venom storyline infamous is that it is the tale of how Batman, typically the most morally and ethically strong of DC’s line of superheroes, becomes a drug addict.

As Venom opens, we find Batman early in his career arriving at an old tunnel to rescue a little girl named Sissy Porter, who has been kidnapped. When the tunnel collapses due to a water main break, Batman struggles to work through the wreckage to save Sissy from drowning, but is unable to do so in a time.

Bruce goes to the home of Sissy’s father, Randolph Porter, to break the news, and discovers what the kidnappers were after: a new designer drug Randolph is working on, one which will increase the strength of its user almost instantly. While Batman initially rejects an offer from Randolph to take the capsules, when an encounter with the kidnappers goes wrong due to a physical injury he attained while trying to save Sissy, he decides to use the drugs in order to overcome his physical limitations in his second attempt to capture the kidnappers.

As the weeks roll on, Bruce’s mental faculties slowly start to crumble as he becomes increasingly aggressive and addicted to the drug, even alienating Alfred to the point where the butler quits. Bruce reaches his lowest point however when Porter introduces him to the retired General Ashton Slaycroft, who is working with Porter on a project to create the perfect soldier, one without any weakness. Slaycroft and Porter’s project is under threat from Lt. James Gordon, the cop who can’t be bought, and they will supply Bruce with more of the steroid only once he agrees to kill Gordon.

As issue two comes to a close, Batman agrees to perform the hit job…


Batman: Venom is, hands down, the most nightmarish Batman story I have ever come across. This is the story where we see Batman at his absolute lowest and, surprisingly, most human, as we witness the usually incorruptible figure nearly destroyed by the simple choices he makes. As such, Batman: Venom is one of the stories which provides the most insight into the titular character, exposing his vulnerabilities in a way we have not seen before or since in comics, and never on film.

At its core, Batman: Venom is about strength and what it means to be strong.  Over the course of the story, the reader is witness the near total collapse of Bruce’s moral, ethical, and spiritual strength in his blind pursuit of brute physical strength, a pursuit which is totally understandable as it is brought about out of feelings of failure. It is this side of the story which makes Venom a far more unsettling and powerful story than Marvel’s classic Demon in a Bottle from the Iron Man comics. While Tony Stark’s alcoholism is an intrinsic flaw of the character he would one day have to confront, the notion of Batman-as-addict is so alien and out of character that it is all the more disturbing to see how naturally it flows out of his personality and typically noble goals.

As you can tell, issue three is all sunshine and rainbows for Bruce.
The comic itself is also a bit of a critique of the hard-body heroism depicted in the action films of the 1980s and early 1990s, as well as the hard-edged, militaristic attitudes which permeated the Western governments throughout that era. Slaycroft and Porter are among the most real villains ever featured in a Batman comic, and while their plan to create a Schwarzenegger-style soldier “free” of emotional and physical “weakness” is somewhat outlandish, their attitudes and beliefs are all too believable, and sadly still a part of our contemporary society. Properly developed, these elements of the story could be developed into a rather engaging bit of meta-fictional and social commentary in a film adaptation.

Is this the man to adapt Batman: Venom? I think so.
While the grounded nature of the tale makes it a natural fit with Christopher Nolan’s Batman film series, and its themes of obsession and self-destruction seemingly being a natural fit with the filmmaking of Darren Aronofsky, in my mind the perfect filmmaker to tackle this material is Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood and the upcoming film The Master). The comic walks a fine balancing act of bringing the reader close to its subjects while at the same time maintaining an almost clinical distance, a balancing act Anderson has himself walked successfully in his films. Moreover, there is a subtly nightmarish quality to the art by Russell Braun, Trevor Von Eeden,  José Luis García-López, and Steve Oliff, a quality not unlike that found in Anderson’s work. 


It’s a story about Batman on drugs.  Putting aside the inevitable backlash from parents over what they would see as a children’s role model engaging in less than moral behaviour, such a story would run the risk of tarnishing the Batman brand, something Warner Brothers would never allow. To be honest, I am still kind of surprised that the story itself was ever published in the first place, and that it has not raised more controversy than it has.

Furthermore, as experimental as the Nolan films have been within the context of the superhero film genre, they have still remained big budget summer spectaculars, something Venom does not lend itself to being. Sure, the latter half of the story features some globetrotting, but the story itself is rather small and intimate, lacking in any of the elements which would add some spectacle to a Batman film. There is no real use of the Batmobile, no outlandish villains, and counts amongst the most dramatic sequences in the story Alfred's struggle to keep Bruce locked in the Batcave while Bruce goes cold turkey for thirty days. And as is fitting of a tale of this type, there is no humour to be found anywhere in its pages; just pure horror and tragedy.

OK, Batman does face a shark at one point in the story. But I promise, beyond that scene, there is nothing which really lends itself to being in a summer blockbuster. I also promise no shark repellent.
Also, while the villains of the piece and their attitudes are still very much relevant to our modern culture, it is hard not to come away from the comic and not recognize how it was birthed out of the culture of the late 1980s, as the brand of hard bodied hero critiqued in the comic doesn’t carry quite the same power as it once did. Moreover, when it comes to the villains' plan, the Jason Bourne series of films, including the upcoming Bourne Legacy, have already covered similar ground. As such, some modifications would need to be made so as to avoid claims of “ripping off” ideas from other sources.


The only chance I see of Batman: Venom ever being adapted to film is as a DC DTV animated release, and even here I see this as unlikely. Despite ostensibly being aimed at older viewers, the DTV films have never really embraced the notion of making a more adult film, instead throwing in mild cursing and moderately more intense action in a surface effort to seem mature without alienating younger viewers. 

Also, while the DC DTV efforts have been slick, professional pieces of work, with the odd exception they have also been mostly passionless films. Batman: Venom needs an artist’s hand at the helm in order to maximise the horror of the story, someone with a solid understanding of the material and a burning desire to tell the story. Given the production methods and pace of the DTV films, I don’t see the DTV crew being able to pull this story off, despite how much respect I have for them overall.


If you have never read Batman: Venom, I highly recommend getting your hands on a copy. More than merely a prelude to the events of Knightfall, Venom is one of the best Batman stories there is in any medium, and showcases why Dennis O’Neil is one of the best writers to have ever handled the character.

NOTE: If it hasn’t already been made clear, I do not recommend this comic for very young readers due to the subject matter and some particularly disturbing scenes.  For older kids, I recommend parents read the book over yourself first and decide whether or not your kid is capable of handling the material.

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