Starring: Tom Hardy (Dunkirk), Woody Harrelson (Zombieland), Michelle Williams (Manchester by the Sea), Reid Scott (Late Night), Naomie Harris (Skyfall), Stephen Graham (This is England)
Director: Andy Serkis (Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle)
Writer: Kelly Marcel (Saving Mr Banks)
Runtime: 1 hour 37 minutes
Release Date: 1st October (US), 15th October (UK)
More often that not, when I need to make a clarification about the previous entry in a franchise, it’s usually me saying it hasn’t aged well and I’d give it a lower score in retrospect; e.g., Suicide Squad or Spectre. This time though, it’s the other way around: I was way too harsh on Venom. Do I think it’s a good movie? No, far from it. It’s a studio-mandated mess that was clearly micromanaged and watered down to high heaven, with a wildly inconsistent tone that felt much closer to the grimdark superhero movies of the early-2000s than anything made post-Avengers. At the same time though, it has its charms as a mindless blockbuster and Tom Hardy’s performance as Eddie Brock/Venom is entertaining at least in all its Nicolas Cage-esque ham. Either way, it was a miraculous box office success that gained a devoted cult following, and that audience is where Venom: Let There Be Carnage has clearly aimed its sights at. The result is a film that’s still hampered by the inherent flaws of its concept, but now at least has a firmer grip of its own identity and fully embraces its own insanity. It’s far from a great movie, but it’s at least an entertaining one.
Picking up roughly a year after the events of the first film, the most immediately noticeable difference Let There Be Carnage has to its predecessor is its leanness. Rather than an overly complicated origin that took way too long to get to the point, this sequel throws us right into the action and doesn’t let up as it barrels through its breezy 90-minute runtime. This makes the first act a little disorienting, especially if you haven’t seen the first movie in a while, as it makes little effort to re-establish the world and characters and throws you in as if you’re completely familiar. Luckily, the film soon slows down just enough to catch its breath, and when it does the other improvements become even clearer. Much of the appeal to many audiences to the first film was its sense of humour, which there came off as something of an accidental afterthought, but here it’s front-and-centre and it generally works. Yeah, it’s absolutely goofy, will likely piss off hardcore Venom fans, and its attempts at allegory either come off as way too on-the-nose or worryingly confused, but it at least feels intentional.
The story is nothing to write home about, essentially throwing Brock into the middle of Natural Born Killers but with alien parasites, but it keeps the movie going and it even has some compelling character development and commentary on topics like abusive relationships and journalistic integrity; it ain’t exactly deep, but it’s there if you’re looking. The only major issue lingering from the first film is the imbalance of action. Whilst Venom himself gets a lot more screentime, this is mostly relegated to comedy hijinks, and the only major set piece involving him is the climax. Don’t worry, there’s plenty of action throughout as Woody Harrelson’s Carnage goes on his revenge-fuelled rampage, but for much of the film our hero is mostly bickering with themselves and making a mess instead of doing anything anti-hero-related.
Whether you loved or hated it, you have to admit Tom Hardy was dedicated to his performance in Venom, even when that entailed borderline embarrassment. Luckily here, whilst that bonkers streak is now a feature rather than a bug, Hardy feels a little more in control (after all, he’s a producer on the film and co-wrote the story). His dynamic with himself as both Brock and the symbiote is for the most part entertaining, as they argue back and forth about their opposing approaches to crime-fighting. The relationship subtext and sexual undertones are made way more blatant here, with a major plot point involving the pair having a lover’s spat and Venom “coming out of Eddie’s closet” (real line from the movie, no joke). It’s an amusing development that’ll appeal to the Tumblr fans (Tumblr is still a thing, right?), but it’s a little muddled when these queerbaiting hijinks are juxtaposed against Venom being physically abusive towards Eddie and literally having to kill people to stay alive without him. It’s all ultimately resolved in a way that’s acceptable if not entirely satisfying, but it’s certainly safe to say this franchise would be dead in the water if Hardy at any point decided he was tired of doing it.
When Woody Harrelson made his debut as Cletus Kasady in the mid-credits scene of Venom, it inspired a lot more laughter than fear in many audiences, and not just because of his ridiculous Ronald McDonald wig (which is gone here, and I kind of miss it, to be honest). Whilst it’s still not an ideal choice, and it’s ridiculous the movie expects us to believe Harrelson is roughly the same age as Naomie Harris’ Shriek (the prologue depicts both characters as teenagers in 1996), he still delectably eats up the high-camp role with gusto. This kind of gonzo let-‘em-loose role is the kind Harrelson can do in his sleep, but he still manages to find an ounce of depth in Kasady that even the comics rarely gave him. However, they do massively change the dynamic Kasady has with the Carnage symbiote, which works for the film’s story but does run counter to why the character is so scary and unpredictable in the comics.
Harris as his romantic sidekick is unfortunately something of an afterthought, serving far more as a plot point than an actual character, and her nasally American accent is a distracting choice for a character who’s supposed to be a threat on par with Kasady. Michelle Williams gets a little less to do this time around as Brock’s ex-girlfriend Anne Weying, but she at least seems a little less embarrassed to be there and gets more involved in the action this time around, as does Reid Scott as her bumbling boyfriend Dan. The real waste here is Stephen Graham as Detective Patrick Mulligan, whose role seems to have been cut down to the barest of bones despite the film simultaneously setting him up for more in future instalments. Sure, the role of the suspicious and angry cop is hardly one worth spending a huge chunk of your movie on, and comic book fans will know why Mulligan isn’t entirely disposable, but the compromise here ends up squandering both a fantastic actor and a promising new character.
Not only was the first Venom lacking in action, much of it was just a big CGI mess of gooey monsters slamming into each other like a kid playing with action figures. This time around, whilst the lack of an R rating still means no viscera despite the villain being a literal serial killer with gigantic blade hands, it’s at least a lot more coherent and creative. As soon as Carnage enters the picture and begins his slaughter, there are some cool visual tricks that help keep it compelling despite the muted violence, and the church-set climax is leaps and bounds above the first film; if you’ve been waiting a long time to see Venom and Carnage clash on the big screen, you won’t be disappointed.
All in all, it’s a simply more aesthetically pleasing film, mainly by embracing its B-movie qualities instead of trying to look slick and modern. Robert Richardson’s cinematography is grimy and gothic in a way that evokes the character’s 90s heyday, and the switch to full-frame over widescreen only serves to make these larger-than-life characters look even bigger. The visual effects are a lot more polished and tangible, managing to make these alien monsters feel more real than ever, and Marco Beltrami’s score is suitable bold and cinematic. Other than some slightly dodgy editing in the first act, where it’s evident most of the material on the cutting room floor was snipped from, this is a more-than-competent blockbuster package that has managed to retain an ounce of artistic soul as opposed to the too-many-cooks sludge of its predecessor.
Venom: Let There Be Carnage is like a problem child who finally decided to knuckle down at school and managed to become a solid C-student; you don’t expect them to be top of the class anytime soon, but you appreciate their effort more than anything. It makes no bones about being anything other than a silly comic book caper, but it puts in the effort in all the right places and even a few it didn’t need to. Fans of the first film are going to be more than happy, and probably even some of its detractors may come around and finally embrace the insanity. I’m still not sold on Sony doing its own little Spider-Verse (Morbius still looks terrible, to be honest), but as for more Venom movies? Yeah, that might not be such a bad idea after all.
Oh, and do stay for the mid-credits scene! Can’t say more than that, but…yeah. They finally went there.
FINAL VERDICT: 6.5/10