Venom doesn’t thrive in the superhero genre. Yes, the Marvel Comics symbiote is an alien goo that bestows its human host with superpowers, but its least interesting mode is as a lethal protector. Venom became popular because he was the dark version of Spider-Man, and shifting him from villain to vigilante dulled his attitude and appeal in the late ’90s. Over the years, the character has undergone transformation after transformation on the page, from alien-powered supersoldier to space knight to cosmic god, distancing him from his roots as the big black-and-white Spidey with sharp teeth and a spit-slinging tongue.
But nothing has taken Venom as far from his roots as the current movie version, which sidesteps Spider-Man entirely and uses the symbiote/host dynamic as a source of humor. 2018’s Venom saw a selfish, opportunistic jerk terrorized by an alien that takes over his mind and body. Now, in the sequel, the pair have to learn to live with each other without racking up a body count. Venom: Let There Be Carnage is at its best when it gets away from superheroics and leans into romantic comedy and body horror, highlighting the complications of living with a partner who hungers for human flesh.
Tom Hardy once again plays down-and-out reporter Eddie Brock and voices the alien that makes Eddie’s life hell. Hardy also co-wrote the story with screenwriter Kelly Marcel (Fifty Shades of Grey), allowing the movie to lean into the strengths of a grizzled heavy who happens to be a great physical comedian. Though it suffers from some of the first movie’s problems — mainly a shallow villain and underwhelming action — Hardy’s ownership of Let There Be Carnage has had a clear impact, with the movie recapturing the electric character dynamic from the original, and getting to the off-kilter odd couple stuff far earlier.
Joining Hardy on this more comedic effort is director Andy Serkis, the pioneer of performance-capture acting known for his work as Gollum in The Lord Of The Rings and Caesar in the recent Planet Of The Apes films. Serkis’ involvement allows the CGI Venom to take a true costar role alongside Hardy. Eddie’s conversations with his goopy buddy have an antagonistic charge, and the symbiote gains a more playful personality thanks to the clever implementation of Venom’s powers in Eddie’s personal and professional life. Early on, the movie plays like a wacky mix of Ratatouille and The Silence Of The Lambs, with Woody Harrelson filling the Hannibal Lecter role as serial killer Cletus Kasady.
Since the events of the first Venom, Eddie’s symbiote pal has made him a better investigative reporter. When Eddie interviews Kasady on death row, Venom scans the area for clues and memorizes the drawings on Kasady’s cell walls. Later, Venom recreates everything he saw in the prison by whipping Eddie’s body around his apartment, grabbing drawing supplies that Eddie burns through at superspeed. Serkis directs the scene with the frantic energy of a clown act. And the more madcap, the better. In one scene, Venom cooks breakfast for Eddie while singing “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off,” a gleefully absurd sequence that reinforces how these characters operate far outside the typical superhero mold.
Eddie and Venom have reached a point in their relationship where Venom isn’t humiliating his host with wildly antisocial behavior, which is actually a bit disappointing; ultimately, Let There Be Carnage never hits the cringe-comedy high of the first Venom’s fish tank scene. Eddie has the occasional Venom-fueled public outburst, but more of the humor comes from Venom berating and belittling the reporter. The Little Shop Of Horror vibes remain strong, and the thing responsible for Eddie’s success is also his biggest headache because it’s so damn hungry for brains. And not puny popcorn chicken brains — Venom wants those big meaty human cerebra, and it doesn’t have much patience for Eddie’s qualms about murder.
At a lean 97 minutes, Venom: Let There Be Carnage doesn’t suffer from the kind of slack mid-section that weighs down so many action-forward superhero movies. In fact, the second act is when Venom gets to really shine as a character. He’s fed up with living in a host that doesn’t appreciate what he does for him and won’t let him eat the criminals they stop, so he decides to take his gifts elsewhere. Full of self-righteous anger, Venom digs his claws into the side of Eddie’s pretty little souped-up two-wheel drive and explores the city on his own, jumping from body to body and presumably killing each new host along the way.
This eventually leads Venom to a rave, where he positions himself as a champion of alien acceptance and free love. Featuring rapper Little Simz (who just released an exceptional new album, sometimes i am introvert), this scene has been called Venom’s “coming out” moment. While that’s a mighty stretch, it does the heavy lifting of defining who Venom is without Eddie in a very unexpected, humorous circumstance.
As for Venom and Eddie’s relationship, it’s no substitute for the kind of genuine queer representation superhero movies largely lack, and Sony Pictures doesn’t get points for a queer-coded bond between a male human and a symbiotic blob voiced by the same actor. At the same time, their intimacy gives the story a fascinating romantic undercurrent, which is often played for laughs, but also has genuine emotional stakes.
Michelle Williams’ had one of the funniest moments of the first Venom with her legendary line reading of “I’m sorry about Venom,” but that small acknowledgment of Venom’s importance in her ex-boyfriend’s life drives Anne’s character arc in the sequel. She may have moved on to a new man (Reid Scott), but she still cares about Eddie, and is one of the few people that actually understands the otherworldly situation he’s trapped in. Anne is much more active when she’s not shackled to a thankless love interest role, which instead goes to Naomie Harris, who plays Kasady’s childhood paramour, Frances Barrison.
The Frances character is a total waste of an Academy Award-nominated actor, and the script has no interest in going beyond the most basic stereotypes around mental illness and romantic partners in crime. Meanwhile, the Kasady role feels tailor-made for Harrelson, an actor that can play over-the-top sinister with a sense of humor, though the execution disappoints. This isn’t a character that calls for subtlety, but unfortunately, Harrelson doesn’t have much to do besides sneer at the camera and deliver corny one-liners like “something wicked this way comes.” The movie attempts to humanize Kasady through his tragic romance with Frances, but it does so at the expense of Carnage’s menace.
The PG-13 rating doesn’t help, either. Let There Be Carnage is built around a bloodthirsty alien and a serial killer — an R rating could have made them both more threatening. The movie doesn’t show or describe Kasady’s previous killings in any sort of detail, and when he eventually gains his own symbiote, the most grisly violence is implied. Mature DC movies like Birds Of Prey and The Suicide Squad have really upped the ante in terms of fight choreography and gory special effects for superhero violence, and if you have a villain named Carnage, you want him to live up to his name.
Venom is a character rooted in sci-fi horror, but his scariest moment in this movie is a close-up shot of him escaping his latest dead host, which emphasizes the suffocating viscosity of the alien creature. That moment is tactile and terrifying in a way the more dramatic visual shots aren’t. The prominent placement of Red Vines in a gas station scene feels like a winking joke to the way the titular symbiotes look like licorice monsters when they fight, and while the symbiote battles aren’t as muddy as the first film, they still lack a lot of weight. The fluid symbiote imagery that looks so cool in static comic-book art is difficult to translate into live action, but maybe the movies have to think beyond human hosts. 2008’s “Old Man Logan” storyline, the inspiration behind the 2017 film, Logan, had the Venom symbiote bond with a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Bringing an ounce of the imagination Hardy devotes to the character work to the endless possibilities of the franchise’s action scenes would definitely get audiences cheering.
After two installments, it seems as though the Venom movies may always fall into the same symbiote action trap over and over again. But ideally these sequences will get shorter and shorter, allowing more time for the dysfunctionally affectionate relationship that gives this franchise its charm. Maybe the sequel can be a domestic dramedy in the vein of Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, with Eddie and Venom hosting another couple over for drinks to air out all of their baggage. Or go even crazier with the genre exploration. Spider-Man had a musical, why not Venom? Eddie and Venom could be the next Fred and Ginger if Hollywood just gave them the chance. Let these two eat heads and become the superstar they’re destined to be.
Venom: Let There Be Carnage opens in theaters on Oct. 1.