The first Venom surprised us when we saw it three years ago. It was so goofy, charming, and entertaining that we named it that weekend’s Cheesy Movie. Of course, in our original review, we noted that your appreciation of that cheese would very much depend on your personal preferences. Some do not enjoy that movie. Others will point out the film Upgrade from earlier that year is, somehow, a more successful take on Venom. No matter the critical appraisal, though, the film was a success and Sony rushed a sequel into production.
And the result, Venom: Let There Be Carnage feels like a rushed and somehow smaller effort; a Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation on bigger (and better) scale. Tom Hardy returns as Eddie Brock and Venom. In the unspecified amount of time since the first film (a few vague references to “that thing last year” do pop up), Venom has decided to be San Francisco’s “Lethal Protector” while Eddie’s partnership with the symbiote led him to uncover some of the crimes of notorious serial killer Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson) — although it’s unclear if Eddie’s investigation led to Cletus’s arrest and conviction or just uncovering a number of crimes the killer never took credit for. Either way, Cletus is low-key obsessed with Eddie as the film begins and that fascination leads to the creation of Carnage, Venom’s symbiote offspring who is somehow stronger because he’s “a red one.”
The film is peppered with strange notions like these which never quite come together. We suspect this is due to the 90-minute runtime, which seemingly chops out a handful of key ideas, like the reason why SFPD Detective Mulligan (Stephen Graham) acts like he was in the first film and the moment Venom comes up with the notion of the Lethal Protector. It’s a shame as an economic Venom movie is a noble ambition. But, somehow, the film fails to make the most of its time and serving all of its characters.
Which is weird when you consider how few people are actually in the film. Michelle Williams and Reid Scott make a few appearances as Eddie’s ex, Anne, and her fiancé, Dan. Kletus and his lady love, Frances (Naomie Harris), feel bizarrely underutilized. And then there’s the film’s odd way of regarding Mulligan as though he were a core member of the series’ cast. None of the supporting characters really has a enough time to feel vital to the story despite being the only people besides Eddie and Venom to get screentime.
Although, we’re going to be honest, we never much cared for Venom or Carnage back in the 1990s. The former’s dopey, food-obsessed persona in the films is a much-need and enjoyable re-invention, especially as it’s clear Hardy enjoys playing the character. Carnage, meanwhile, continues to feel as hollow as we perceived him to be while skimming through Spider-Man comics as a teenager. We don’t know if that’s the writers (Hardy and Kelly Marcel share a story credit while Marcel received sole screenplay credit) being faithful or failing to find something compelling in a character who is here mainly because the studio expected the character to be there: he’s Venom’s Joker after all. With Cletus, there is at least the interesting notion of his love for Frances, but it never gets the time to play out as a more perverse love story. Then again, since Harrelson starred in Natural Born Killers, it might feel like more of a retread if the movie explored the idea more fully.
We hate to throw overall blame at director Andy Serkis, but as a newcomer to tentpole features, it is easy to see where he felt most confident and least assured as a filmmaker. Consequently, there’s nothing as dizzying as the first film’s motorcycle chase. Instead, performances — whether in live action or animated — remain strong; a testament to Serkis damn-near innovating motion-captured creature performances by himself. We just wish they were in service of a stronger story.
The film’s greatest strength, though, remains in the relationship between Eddie and Venom. Treated as a couple hitting a rough patch, there are some great moments when Venom literally splits from Eddie and tries to find new adventures in the San Francisco night life. In the best of these, he visits a Queer nightclub and finds a new level of acceptance that is just heartwarming. It also gets closer to the first film’s wonderful and unexpected weirdness. To an extent, we wish Let There Be Carnage was more about this rough patch than Carnage making his expected debut. It’s just a stronger idea using characters who’ve already proven their star-power.
Meanwhile, much as how the first film subtly parodied the orphan comic book movies of the 1990s (Blade, Tank Girl, etc), Let There Be Carnage also parodies the cash-grab sequel. Although, we image that tone was less purposeful and more a result of Sony’s interest in continuing a Spider-franchise without Marvel Studios. Nevertheless, there is fun to be found in the continuing metaphor and, indeed, in the film itself. It’s by no means a bad movie (like, say, Daredevil), it just offers less of the things which set Venom apart and therefore, can’t help but feel disappointing in comparison.
Venom: Let There Be Carnage is in theaters now.