Tom Hardy and Woody Harrelson lead a tigher, more fun sequel to 2018's 'Venom'
When Sony announced that Venom would be getting a stand-alone movie, outside of the Tom Holland MCU Spider-Man films, and intended to start its own separate shared universe of films, the reactions were generally not that kind. Even if Tom Hardy was going to take on the role, why would you take Venom, so intrinsically connected to Spider-Man's comic book roots, and remove all of that for cheap action spectacle?
Needless to say I wound up hopping on the "lets bash 'Venom'" train. While I appreciated how much fun Tom Hardy was having and the visual approach to the symbiotes, I couldn't get behind the film's tone or story, both of which felt like relics of a bygone era of comic book storytelling that sacrificed actual pathos for that aforementioned cheap spectacle.
But apparently that critical consensus was in the minority because audiences ate the film up. In a packed Fall release schedule, $850 million for a Spider-Man-less Spider-Man spin-off was nothing to scoff at and of course warranted a sequel, this time with the character's iconic nemesis, Carnage, to be the big bad. On top of that, Ruben Fleischer would step out of the director's chair in place of Andy Serkis, the visual effects legend behind characters like 'The Lord of the Rings' Gollum and 'Planet of the Apes' Caesar, and a pretty decent director in his own right.
Now with a year-long pandemic delay behind it, 'Venom: Let There Be Carnage' is finally here, did it change my jaded little mind about the character's big-screen worth? Surprisingly, it kind of did. I won't pretend that I loved it by any stretch, but while 'Let There Be Carnage' still features some of its predecessor's shortcomings, there's also a tightness, consistency and self-awareness that's more prevalent this time around; in other words, it's significantly more fun!
A year after the events of the first film, Eddie Brock (played by Tom Hardy) is struggling with sharing a body with the alien symbiote, Venom (also voiced by Hardy). While both are aligned in their attempts to reconcile with Eddie's ex-fiancé Anne (played by Michelle Williams), Eddie is more concerned with improving his reporting career, while Venom is more concerned with finding a bad guy for a tasty meal.
Things change when Eddie is contacted by Detective Pat Mulligan (played by Stephen Graham), who says that the serial killer Cletus Kasady will talk only with Eddie regarding his string of murders. His interview with Kasady (played by Woody Harrelson) leads to Eddie uncovering the killer's victims and confirming Kasady's execution. During their final meeting, Kasady bites Eddie, imprinting part of Venom onto Kasady.
When Kasady is executed, the new symbiote awakens, merging with Kasady into a bloody, far more violent incarnation known as Carnage. It's up to Eddie and Venom to put aside their differences to stop Carnage's rampage, as well as Frances Barrison (played by Naomi Harris), Kasady's longtime girlfriend whose sonic scream abilities pose a threat to both Venom and Carnage.
So what made me completely switch gears this time around? There's a couple reasons, but first and foremost is the pacing. 'Let There Be Carnage' is only around 15 minutes shorter than the first film and somehow it makes all the difference.
Serkis and screenwriter Kelly Marcel know exactly where to take the story and how to frame both Eddie and Venom's journeys against the looming threat of Carnage. Even when the film is going for pure, outrageous humor, it never forgets the qualms between Eddie and Venom should be at the center beyond the obvious comic book-y exhibitions.
Speaking of which, it's because of Serkis/Marcel's efforts that Tom Hardy shines even more this time. If you were a fan of Eddie's anxious sense of loss, or the back-and-forth between he and the overly eccentric Venom, you are going to love this movie. Hardy has a great grasp on what buttons to push for both, especially Venom, who has to spend a chunk of the movie contending with losing Eddie altogether and find their own unique purpose (among other things, what is essentially Venom's "coming out" moment that actually finds some weight in all the jokes).
Then there's Harrelson as Carnage and he absolutely delivers! Absolutely taking a few cues from Heath Ledger's Joker, Harrelson is leaning just enough into campy territory to be charismatic, but never letting us forget the absolutely shattered malicious mind controlling the spaghetti wrap of CGI.
Serkis' directing itself deserves some praise too. I can't necessarily pinpoint his style, but like his approach on 'Mowgli,' he has a great eye for detail in both character aesthetics and worldbuilding. That goes from the symbiotes' movements and action bits to bigger things like lighting in a church sequence or just making San Francisco feel more alive in the process.
As far as downsides go, what you see is basically what you get. If you were interested in watching Eddie/Venom put aside their differences to fight the nightmare devil version of themselves, cool, you're going to enjoy this. While I was certainly on that train more here, I also couldn't help but hope for more on the emotional side of things. Yes, seeing the two be vulnerable with one another is important to their arcs and the comedy infusions work more often than not, but it also presents a double-edged sword of that quick runtime, sacrificing time for smaller moments for bigger, more outrageous ones.
In addition, while Hardy and Harrelson are electric together, I also found a lot of the supporting characters disappointing to a degree. Michelle Williams and Reid Scott (who plays Anne's fiancé, Dan) to their credit are given some agency in the story, though you can tell from the first few minutes where their arcs go, especially in how Eddie is centered throughout the story.
Det. Mulligan has a few neat moments, but not enough to go beyond the tough cop archetype. The only one who almost makes it work is Naomi Harris, who actually has great chemistry with Harrelson until the movie has to do something else with her. It's those other characters that make the non-Venom, non-Carnage moments stall significantly and I wish there was more to them.
(*I also won't give it away, but definitely stay for the mid-credits sequence, I did not expect the approach they took and the implications are pretty huge).
'Venom: Let There Be Carnage' is by no means perfect, but it is a more entertaining version of what was trying to get across in 2018; a mess of a lead character mixed with alien weirdness and a dark sense of humor making it stand out along the way. I wouldn't go so far as to have complete faith in this approach to Sony's characters moving forward – Venom or whatever larger plans are in the works – but I could safely recommend this whatever side of the 2018 film spectrum you land on. This kind of fun genre content is sorely needed and I'm happy I had as good of a time as I did.
Overall, I give 'Venom: Let There Be Carnage' 7/10
'Venom: Let There Be Carnage' is available in theaters beginning on October 1st.
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