Meeting your own shadow: Venom (2018)
Updated: Mar 26, 2019
I love all forms of storytelling, and movies – especially fantasy movies – are one of my favorite. Even though usually set in a completely different time and space than fairytales, many movies just keep playing back the same themes that are very prominent in tales as well; symbols reoccur and behavior patterns resurface, and often times I realize that the same challenge that the movie protagonist has to go through, I already know well from this or that fairytale. So I've decided to, from time to time, share some of my movie experiences, and give you my perspective on the symbols and the psychological processes portrayed in the film. Before I start, I'd like to point out though, that the story that emerges from this "code-cracking" is not necessarily what the movie makers consciously intended. I do not claim that a team got together in Hollywood and decided to write an action story about the individuation process... rather, it is my belief that some symbols and processes are so deeply ingrained in us, as part of our collective unconscious, that they keep reoccurring naturally in various forms: from fairytales to blockbuster movies.
On this occasion, let's start with a relatively recent movie I just saw a few weeks ago: Venom (2018), starring Tom Hardy. Warning: please only read on, if you have already watched the movie, as it definitely contains spoilers!
One of the taglines of the movie itself suggests: "Embrace your inner anti-hero." This is pretty much the point: Eddy Brock, the character played by Tom Hardy, and Venom are not two, but one: they are two parts of the same personality. How the character comes to embracing that inner anti-hero is, however, worth considering: in the storyline, it is an alien species coming from outer space, that ignites the process (merges with the "host body", bringing out his/her "worst qualities"- more on those qualities later). From a Jungian perspective, on the other hand, we could just say: the protagonist is simply going through the natural process of meeting, and ultimately integrating his inner shadow self – as part of a larger psychological process called individuation.
To help clarify some of these terms – individuation, Persona, Shadow – I am including here a video that introduces some of Jung's key concepts. Watch it if you have a deeper interest in the topic but buckle up, it's not an easy one. But you can also just skip the video. In the rest of this post I will mention these terms but will explain them in a much, much more simple way.
What we see at the beginning of the movie is the protagonist over-expressing and over-identifying with his Persona, the part of his personality, "mask", that we all show to the outside world. The Persona is the part of our self that is "proper" and accepted by the others, that deserves the respect, appreciation, even admiration of the outside world. How that Persona is expressed varies from person to person – depending on many factors, incl. childhood experiences, what sort of behavior was rewarded by our parents and what was punished, etc. In the movie we see different Personas. The villain of the story, the narcissistic millionaire, Carlton Drake (and no wonder his name refers to dragons! I will soon publish a post or two on Instagram about the significance and meaning of dragons) sees himself as the savior of the world, although from the very beginning we understand that a person who finds sacrificing humans acceptable, may not be a credible savior of humanity... The scientists and lab personnel are the over-conformist, overly loyal "good citizens" who will unquestionably follow the authority, even if that causes an internal moral dilemma (unfortunately we have seen good examples of where that leads to in history) – and during the movie we will also see some these scientists going through an identity crisis and finally finding themselves and confronting authority.
Eddy, Tom Hardy's character, expresses the successful, ambitious, charismatic Persona. He's ruthless in getting what he wants. In a way, he is really quite similar at the beginning of the story to the millionaire-villain; they both are willing to go absolutely as far is takes to get what they want, without considering the ethical-moral aspects: the "end justifies the means" principle, pushed to extremes. Yes, Eddy seemingly stands up for the underprivileged members of the society and exposes the less visible stories. In this way, he shows sensitivity to social causes – but then, he uses that sensitivity and turns it into good stories, that further build his popularity and fame. And he has the admiration of the outside world, so he has no reason to believe that that this is just his Persona, the part of his self that that is portrayed to the outside world, and not his entire, real self.
Both Eddy and villain Carlton will ultimately meet their shadows in the story. The two of them, as I mentioned earlier, started from a quite similar place, and yet, the end result will be significantly different for the two of them: one of them will successfully integrate it, and become a fuller, happier, more empowered person, while the other will perish, having been uncontrollably overflooded by his darkest self. So why the difference in outcomes? Eddy has a very painful, yet ultimately very valuable and enriching experience: he goes through a crisis. And that crisis will sensitize him, it will make him vulnerable, and he naturally hates every minute of it; but ultimately, this will enable him to successfully take the next step in his individuation process.
Our Shadow is a natural part of our deep selves, it is the polar opposite of our Persona, it is the Mr. Hyde to our Dr. Jekyll. Our Persona is the part of our self that we, both consciously and unconsciously, show to the outside world, while our Shadow is all the things that we repress, again, both consciously and unconsciously, because it is the content that feel shameful, guilty, afraid about. It is the rejected parts of our psyche, it is our fears, unaccepted angers and sorrows. In those months after everything around him fell apart, Eddy starts meeting aspects of his shadow: his "Loser" self, the one who is afraid to confront the neighbor directly, or to protect the lady in the grocery store. This inner crisis, coupled with all the external structures of his life (relationship, job, home) having fallen apart, makes him vulnerable enough not to be able to reject his shadow. As opposed to other people, who resist the alien species and, as a result, die, Eddy proves to be a good host, "We're a good fit" - says Venom, and sometime later admits: "I'm also kind of a loser guy in my own world".
When Eddy meets his Shadow, and his Shadow starts expressing itself as Venom, it's at first an uncontrollable, instinctive, and at the same time, immediately empowering experience. He finds his courage (and I love the progression throughout the story: at first, his hands "frozen" to the motorcycle, a part of him still scared and fighting, another part of him not letting go – many of us have experienced that numbness caused by pure fear, and the exhilarating feeling of still doing it and not giving up. Much later in the movie, he fights, i.e. opens an open confrontation, even when Venom is not physically with him - a major step), his intuition improves ("don't open that door!"), and he is even finally able to to access his pain, and start searching for constructive strategies to rebuild his life. One of the pivotal elements of the movie for me is that it is in contact with his Venom, his inner darkness, that he finally admits to himself that he never apologized to his ex-girlfriend for all the pain that he caused. It is at this point that he steps into all of this pain and can finally start finding more constructive ways to grief. And it is this inner transformation, this opening to his inner darkness, this vulnerability, that will help him integrate his Shadow constructively.
Both hero and villain get in touch with their dark selves (and actually, it may be interesting to note that both of them meet the shadow in connection with a female character – Anima, if you've watched the above video about Jung concepts. If we had a female protagonist, as in e.g. Wonder Woman, then Animus, a male character will help ignite the process, but more about that in another post.) The millionaire is helplessly overcome by his Shadow and cannot be saved, he completely regresses to an early-childhood consciousness stage in which he is unable to control any of his aggressive impulses (the dangers of that are beautifully portrayed by e.g. Little Red Riding Hood, another story I will talk about soon). He cannot find his way back from this regression and will eventually self-destruct. Eddy on the other hand, is ultimately able to progress, take a step towards solving his inner turmoil, and as a result, starts seeing positive changes happening in his life as well.
What does a good solution look like? As seen in the last scenes of the Eddy-Venom duo, it is a never-ending process. It is not a static "happy ending", it is a dynamic balance. It is constant negotiation between my inner animalistic side and my rational self. Depending on what any given situation requires, sometimes a bit more of this, sometimes a bit more of that. Not overly repressing, but also not losing control totally. In short: it is a constant, fluid, unconscious discussion based on mutual respect and acceptance between our different inner parts, very much like the final inner conversation between Eddy and Venom.
I have heard criticism that Venom's portrayal in the movie was too soft, too nice... that in the comic books Venom is a truly evil, dark character. That may be the case (I must admit, I don't know the comic, all of the above is based on the movie), and yes. Our Shadow is definitely not pretty. But the movie shows us, that accepting it, and constructively integrating it, has an amazingly empowering, positive effect on our lives. And the movie also shows how very important crisis is – though we hate every minute of it, eventually it always proves to be a catalyst of positive transformation. So I encourage you too to have a chat with your anger, fear, pain, and ask them to introduce themselves, and to tell you what they've been wanting to tell you. Who knows, it may be the start of a really good, inner friendship.