Good news, folks: If you liked 2018’s Venom, then you’ll have a blast with the sequel. In fact, you may even like it more. That’s really the review in a nutshell.
Venom: Let There Be Carnage takes all the best bits of the first movie and leans fully into them. Of course, it also carries a lot of the same weaknesses, but this time around it knows exactly what to do with them. It ignores them and goes straight back to the good stuff. If you’ve seen Venom, then you know exactly which strengths I’m talking about: Anything involving Tom Hardy as both Eddie Brock and his hungry hungry symbiote. And the weaknesses are … lemme do some quick mental math here … oh yeah, literally everything else. So I guess this is where I should warn you that if you were hoping the sequel would figure out how to graft a structurally sound plot and compelling side characters onto its two-man (One-and a-half men? One man, one alien? Tom Hardy Voice-apalooza?) show this go-round, then you’ll be disappointed.
Oh, who am I kidding? Of COURSE you won’t be disappointed! Nobody wanted that! Nobody cares! When I reviewed the first movie, I summed up my hopes for Eddie, Venom, and the future of this sub-franchise thusly: “I’d be satisfied just getting to watch their banter for another hour and a half every couple of years.” And guess what? Like Santa checking off my cinematic wish list, that’s exactly what Sony delivered. To the minute: Let There Be Carnage clocks in at a breezy hour and a half on the dot! That’s more than 20 minutes shorter than the first installment, which makes sense since the sequel didn’t have to waste all that time on a first act establishing Eddie’s life without Venom this time around. Actually, I’m not really sure there even was a first act in Let There Be Carnage. You can draw a line straight down this movie, between the Eddie and Venom relationship and the villain stuff — the carnage, if you will — and the story is so eager to get back to the buddy portion that it speeds through all the other comic book necessities at breakneck speed.
What’s the movie about? Well, as established during Venom’s end-credit scene, there’s a serial killer locked in San Quentin named Cletus Kasady, played by Woody Harrelson, and he wants to talk with Eddie. The police, headed up by Detective Mulligan (Stephen Graham), are hoping Eddie can get Kasady to reveal the location his victims’ bodies, but Casady is more interested in spouting some lunatic poetry as a form of “exclusive.” Luckily Eddie’s got his dark passenger, Venom, with him for the visit, and the canny symbiote notices something funny about the artwork Kasady has scrawled on his cell wall. Did you know symbiotes have photographic recall? They do, apparently! And thus Venom redraws the scene for Eddie, and they use it to pinpoint the gravesite. That’s the real exclusive Eddie needed to get his career back on track, but it also convinces the state of California to finally execute Kasady.
Kasady invites Eddie back for one final chat before his lethal injection, and somehow manages to take a bite out of our intrepid journalist in the process. Through Eddie’s blood he becomes infected with a bit o’ symbiote himself, and thus Kasady becomes the ultra-violent, red Carnage. Cue prison break! And also, cue our storylines bifurcating for the time being. Kasady heads off to rescue his childhood lady love, Frances Barrison (Naomie Harris), from the high-security asylum she’s been locked in for years due to her superpowers. Frances, also known as Shriek, is capable of releasing powerful sonic waves with her scream. Picture her as a batsh*t Black Canary. She’s also, in the comics, a mutant — and though that does not come into play whatsoever in this movie, I sort of like to imagine that we’ve all been sitting around waiting for the X-Men to join the MCU since the Fox merger, and meanwhile Marvel low-key let Sony drop a mutant into their corner of the IP. I mean, I know it doesn’t work that way because her character is tied to Carnage, who is tied to Venom, who is tied to Spider-Man in the intellectual property family tree, and it’s really no different than the time Fox and Marvel both had Quicksilver in their line-ups but… where was I? Oh yes! At this point it’s clear that Harrelson is basically recreating Mickey from Natural Born Killers with Harris as his Mallory, and that’s some pretty great shorthand to have because otherwise the movie might need to stop and develop their storyline and — I can not emphasize this enough — nobody cares. All we care about is Eddie and Venom! And that’s where Let There Be Carnage becomes a subversively brilliant little movie, because it took the note that we all really dug the buddy comedy vibes the first time around and just said f**k it — let’s take it a step further and make it a rom-com!
Actually, that’s not even quite right. It’s something even rarer — a romantic comedy sequel that digs into what happens after the meet-cute, after the leads have been living together for awhile and the cracks are starting to show. After they both recognize that their lives have fundamentally changed, and they can’t go back to being the people they were before they met and had kids (because technically Carnage is Venom’s offspring!). Once you apply that framework to it, Venom: Let There Be Carnage suddenly shines, and you realize all those other supposed weaknesses aren’t weak at all — they’re just camouflage, to pass this thing off as a comic book movie. They aren’t SUPPOSED to matter. What matters is that Eddie and Venom have found an uneasy balance in their cohabitation — Venom cooks and provides pep talks while Eddie keeps his alien pal loaded up on chocolate and chickens — but it isn’t quite bliss. They both are resentful that the other is holding them back in some way. Specifically, Venom’s voice in his head is both a help and a hinderance to Eddie in his professional and personal pursuits, and meanwhile Eddie won’t let Venom eat people’s heads anymore. This leads to a dramatic break-up where they both say hurtful things, and then Venom goes to a rave and marvels at how free he is now that he’s come out of his Eddie closet.
Speaking of camouflage, Michelle Williams returns as Anne, the one that got away. She announces that she’s gotten engaged to Dr. Dan (Reid Scott), her safe and boring boyfriend, and honestly this seems to hit Venom harder than it does Eddie at first. I applaud this movie for effectively tossing out the pretense that Anne is a viable romantic partner, mostly because Eddie knows exactly how he messed things up with her. She remains a useful friend for Eddie and Venom but there’s a lot less moping about her being anything more, and that’s a good thing. She’s there as a mile marker for their growth: Can they accept that she’s moved on with her life, and can they move on with theirs? In a pivotal scene that pays off the Anne-as-Venom bit from the first movie, Anne takes on the symbiote once again to broker peace between Eddie and Venom. The thing is, Venom won’t rejoin Eddie until he apologizes, and so Eddie looks deep into Anne’s eyes and delivers the kind of heartfelt apology she deserves. Only we know he isn’t talking to her — he’s talking to Venom. She’s LITERALLY the camouflage! Williams, like Harrelson and Harris, does great work with little material, running purely on high-octane charisma in lieu of any real character depth. In a lesser movie that might be a detraction, but not here. Here, it’s a blessed bit of brevity.
Andy Serkis took over the director duties this time around, and he acquits himself well in some particularly tricky action sequences where a beefy slime bro gets tackled by a tentacled slime bro. However, his impact is even greater on the evolution of the Venom/Eddie dynamic, which is really the point of this enterprise. Hardy, of course, is playing against himself, and Serkis knows how to play out the more intimate scenes between them in ways that allow Venom to be even more fully realized as a full and distinct emotional entity. It’s also worth noting that Hardy himself received a credit for helping create the story for this sequel, and I imagine it went roughly like this: Screenwriter Kelly Marcel rang up Hardy on FaceTime to break the plot beats for him, and every step of the way he interjected to ask how that action could instead occur at or around Eddie. Perhaps this is how Kasady’s painful history came to be conveyed through a postcard that Eddie reads, or why Kasady’s sole motivation in talking to Eddie in the first place is just that he wants to be his friend. If nothing else, I like to think that Hardy is so bizarrely invested in his comic book counterpart that he’s there behind the scenes, reading our reactions and pushing the franchise in riskier directions. He grabbed this weird secondary character with both hands and is just running with it, and it’s his level of commitment that makes it work as much as the amusing banter or emotional honesty.
In the end, Venom: Let There Be Carnage wraps up its villains and teases new ones. It develops the concept of the symbiote in some interesting new directions, and of course there’s a mid-credit sequence that may spell out some big things for the future (more on that soon!). All of that is necessary, but that’s not what the movie really is about. No, the narrative arc of the movie is really about Eddie and Venom reconciling, choosing one another for the right reasons and appreciating that what they have together is stronger than what they’re left with when they’re apart. They accept this new joint reality, and let go of their pasts. There might even be a love confession! What the movie IS is so much greater than what it is supposed to be, and its unavoidable flaws have been smartly converted into, if not strengths, then at least smaller speed bumps. The end result is so fun, and so unique, that it barely feels like functioning part of an IP behemoth at all — and that’s the best compliment I can give it.
Venom: Let There Be Carnage opened in theaters on Oct. 1, 2021.
Header Image Source: Sony Pictures