The subtitle of Venom: Let There Be Carnage jabs its clawed fists at the Holy Bible’s “Let there be light” command from Genesis 1:3. To follow in the heavenly progression, the problem is it’s up to us moviegoers to see how good it was and separate the light from the darkness. Best of luck with that vision and division. What’s good is a shoddy farce. Only the comedy is light while too much of the melee is muddled darkness. And the carnage, well, is granted a meaningless body count without an ounce of palpable terror to be found.
This is a comic book movie that centers on and attempts to broaden two of the most violent, powerful, and deadly villains ever to grace Marvel Comics, and what do you get? Asininity instead of menace. Venom: Let There Be Carnage feels like the cinematic equivalent of a young teenager who just learned to be brash for brash’s sake where the consequences haven’t kicked into gear. The kid curses a bunch, breaks stuff, and tries to sound all tough only to always come out looking like a clown, complete with a retreaded Iron Man 2 party scene of stage-stealing and mic-dropping cringe.
Taking place a year after the events of the 2018 film, former down-on-his-luck blogger Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) has become the handpicked interviewer of San Quentin death row inmate Cletus Kassidy (Woody Harrelson). The eccentric serial killer teases telling Brock all of the secrets burning to get out of him before his date with the needle. Little bits of his asylum history come to light, including the lost-and-found love for his incarcerated soulmate Francis Barrison (Naomie Harris, also appearing in No Time To Die). However, none of those nuggets are what the authorities, led by Detective Mulligan (Stephen Graham of The Irishman), want to hear as they still fail to find the bodies of Kassidy’s victims.
Brock’s scoops start to make a difference, and the popular content raises his professional profile closer to his former standing. Yet, it’s not enough to right his life and win back his girl Anne (the returning Michelle Williams), especially while hiding and battling the inky and fanged beast within that is always trying to get a word in mentally and physically. When Cletus gets a literal taste of that very monster, he transforms into something even worse and breaks out of prison to free Francis and wreak havoc in Baghdad by the Bay.
For many, there will be fun to be had with all of the banter-filled chicanery directed by performance capture superstar Andy Serkis. The fan loyalty to this type of silliness from 2018 is what earned the box office to get this movie made. Tom Hardy, showing off his dirty, thirsty stubble inside his Axel Foley wannabe Detroit Lions jacket, is given (by his own hand as a credited writer) more scenes and opportunities to put his darting eyes and twitchy sweat to good work selling the growled internal monologue and the wrestling of psyches within the double-sided character.
Likewise, this kind of smiling violence is Woody Harrelson’s wheelhouse, even if he’s a shade too old under that awful wig work. He can drip his drawl at the shallowest level of his acting depth and still get a rise out of an audience. Tom and Woody count as the dynamic presences to watch in Venom: Let There Be Carnage and they get their laughs. Anyone else, though, including the overqualified Michelle Williams and one-note Naomie Harris, are merely exposition drivers, joke setters, or future rescue bait.
The visual effects from supervisor Sheena Duggal (The Hunger Games) and producer Barrie Hemsley (The Martian) bring the familiar whirling tentacles to animated life, creating formidable looks for the two linked combatants. Backed by a wannabe operatic score from Marco Beltrami, what is digitized however against sets and human bystanders often moves way too fast to comprehend or appreciate. That’s a surprising and disappointing visual result considering the presence of three-time Oscar winning cinematographer Robert Richardson who is normally so incredibly good at shooting action that glides and lingers. Too much of Venom: Let There Be Carnage plays like a child bashing action figures together more than true mano-a-mano showdowns that stoke suspense and excitement.
That’s the kind of dippy, inconsequential intellect at work in Venom: Let There Be Carnage from the writing team of Fifty Shades of Grey’s Kelly Marcel and Hardy himself. The titular hellion laments to his host that “we can do so much more” which here means becoming a crime-fighting do-gooder who happens to orally decapitate the perpetrators who cross him. Much like the first movie, too much of this anti-hero vibe is devaluing and uprooting the traits of what made the character an icon on the graphic novel page.
Eddie Brock has a moment later in the film where he is free of the symbiote only to find that he needs some of its granted abilities. Frazzled and pondering his next action to save the day, Hardy actually drops the line of “What would Venom do,” like it’s going to inspire silicone bracelets and charitable causes in Venom’s name. The answer is what’s problematic. This Venom would flail with quips and be censored by a PG-13 rating. The classic comic Venom would plot something bloody and devastating with every sinister alien molecule of his ebony husk.
Besides the graphic edge, the biggest ingredient of it all remains missing in this cash-grabbing sequel exercise of putting the cart before the horse. You still cannot have Venom without Spider-Man. Thanks again to impatient studio blindness and creative hubris, an incredible character continues to be pushed down audience throats too soon and with zero connection. Whenever Tom Holland’s web-slinger shows up (and he will soon), he’s going to fight a pre-softened buffoon instead of a wildcard badass built with bitter history, personal ties, and dramatic stakes.
Grabbing the smallest possible enjoyment of slapped-together gags instead of developing the greater potential of absolute danger primed for our universally-loved hero, Venom: Let There Be Carnage goes camp. All of this “lethal protector” schtick would have been a better fit down the road after victories and losses elsewhere. While there’s a place for camp in the comic book movie genre, it’s an unfortunate turn here because, once you go camp, you can’t go back without stripping it all back down to the studs. Sony and company are not going to do that, so we’re stuck with the immature, cussing adolescent version that’s funny for five minutes and dismissed in the next five.