How Michelle Williams Snuck Progressive Sexual Politics Into A Big Budget Comic Book Movie
Mild spoilers for Venom will follow. If you’ve followed her career, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Venom star Michelle Williams doesn’t appear to be the type who’d take on the role of an (anti) superhero’s love interest in a splashy Marvel movie. After all, the genre’s history is dotted with romantic counterparts whose roles were rendered rather thin (Thor, I’m looking at you and the wrong you’ve done to Natalie Portman). It’s a fate Williams’ fans would never want for the four-time Oscar nominee, known for her work in new classics like Blue Valentine, My Week With Marilyn, and Manchester By The Sea. But here’s the thing: Williams doesn’t actually need anyone to fight her battles for her, because in Venom she came out “guns blazing” and ready to sneak a little bit of her true self into the blockbuster movie.
“[My character is] active instead of passive. She's making a lot of decisions. She's going after what she wants,” offers Williams when we speak one September afternoon. In the film, out now, her character Anne’s fiancè Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) unwillingly becomes the host for an alien symbiote (Venom) and becomes something of an anti-superhero. And while it may technically be Eddie’s story, Williams worked hard to ensure her character was one of substance. “She's, you know, she's just kind of taking charge without apologizing for doing so.”
In the film, Anne is the main breadwinner and a successful lawyer in San Francisco. When we first meet Anne and Eddie, she’s there to remind him to feed the cat and put on pants. He, on the other hand, is busy marveling at her power suit, clearly turned on by her success and confidence. And while Williams says she hasn’t yet seen the movie, she remembers, quite vividly, how she felt about creating Anne’s reality in a story that is largely Eddie’s.
“I know what I was thinking about when I went into making it, which is that I wanted it to feel pinned to 2017, 2018. I wanted [her] to feel empowered. I wanted her to take charge. I wanted her to feel full of self respect. And I wanted her to ask for that from the world at large and from her partner, which I think that wasn't really in my sphere pre the Me Too movement. [Before] it was just kind of ‘try and stay alive out there.’ Just survival, not thriving,” she says.
Sure, the movie’s brand of female empowerment is a little paint-by-the-numbers at times, but it’s certainly satisfying to see a man at the center of yet another superhero origin story take the time to marvel at someone else’s power, however briefly. It’s also interesting to watch the typical girlfriend-dumps-superhero-boyfriend-when-he-starts-hiding-superhero-secrets storyline be swapped for woman-dumps-regular-man-for-being-a-selfish-*sshole-and-literally-ruining-her-career-to-save-his-own when pre-Venom vigilante journalist Eddie snoops Anne’s top secret files to get intel on the film’s villain, Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), hoping to expose him. Anne responds, rightly, by dumping him for disrespecting her.
“I think that she is summed up pretty nicely in that line: ‘I love you, but I love myself more,’” Williams says of the breakup line that she came up with for the film. Naturally, she sees that line as a defining moment for Anne, and not just a catalyst for the guy at the center of the movie. “That kind of to me, says who she is. She loves the guy. She's crazy about the guy. Selena Gomez says 'the heart wants what it wants,' but her head overrides that. Like she's going to marry this guy, she's in love with this guy, but she won't allow herself to be used," she says.
And that was hugely important to Williams, heading into a film like Venom. It’s why she was very involved, and invested, in how her character came across on screen, working directly with one of the film’s writers, Kelly Marcel, to make sure Anne struck the right chord. “We were really gunning for Anne being the one who is able to throw around this really strong language,” she says, for one. It’s also why she brought a few ideas to the table — one of which made it to screen.
During a scene in which Anne and Eddie go on a date, the power suit becomes something of talisman of gender role reversal and Anne puts her tie on Eddie as they head to the bedroom — a complete flip of the image of a woman sexily donning her partner’s tie, a la Pretty Woman. It’s a small, but satisfying moment that Williams fought for, but apparently, Williams’ full idea took the power play even further than what’s shown in the final cut of the movie — a light bondage ad-lib that sounds more R-rated than Venom’s PG-13 rating.
“I made a move where he's taking my tie off and then I wind up tying him up with it, I don't know if that's really in there or not, but that was the vibe that I wanted, to just of turn those tropes upside down and whatever was the thing that the man usually does, I wanted it to be the thing that the woman does, as much as you can get away with that in a studio film,” she says. “You have to fight to sort of sneak them in. But they felt important to me.”
While she credits one of the movie’s writers for helping her in her mission to make Anne a bit bolder, Williams also aimed some of the credit at her co-star, Hardy. “It's also part of Tom's willingness to play this kind of, to play the antihero and Eddie Brock's a very unlikely super villain, you know, he was a little skittish. He's a little puppy dog-ish. And so that gave me the space to come out with guns blazing,” she offers with a slight laugh.
But she knows that for much of the audience, the tie moment — and a few other little moments she snuck in — won’t register as much. But that’s not necessarily why she did it. “Nobody's going to go see this movie because of the sexual politics,” she says with a chuckle. “But to keep oneself interested and excited about it and to have ideas — nothing that you're gonna stick to deliberately, like, ‘I've got to get in this message with the tie thing’ — but just as an idea, something that you could have fun with, it'll feel sort of dynamic and relevant today.”
And there are few things more dynamic or more relevant than seeing a woman fighting for herself, her vision, and her character in one of the most talked about, big budget film franchises in the business.