The bliss of sequels is their accelerated nature. Venom: Let there Be Carnage doesn’t have to worry about the set-up. Or, it shouldn’t have to. The 2019 original takes care of that. But the demand with sequels is they must up the ante and deliver threats and horrors that rival those of the first movie. If Venom 2 could only be about Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) and his alien hijacker battling for supremacy within one fragile human shell, then we’d have a rollickingly weird sci-fi domestic drama. But we got the film that we got, and it has a third wheel: Woody Harrelson.
Eddie Brock and the Venom symbiote are already bonded and well into their odd couple bickering stage. One wants to stay home and lose themselves within their enormous flatscreen TV. The other wants to take to the rooftops as San Francisco’s lethal protector, relieving purse-snatchers of their heads. Neither can understand the other’s point of view. And the contempt they spit at each other bubbles violently only in a fashion made possible through love. We’re one re-write away from a romantic comedy a la Notting Hill. “I’m just a Symbiote, standing in front of a boy…”
Enter Harrelson’s Cletus Kasady. The deranged serial killer is lonely and seeks solace in the ears of Eddie Brock. Wishing to maintain some form of normalcy in his old job as an investigative reporter, Eddie leaves his squalor to transcribe the murderer’s story. In doing so, he discovers the remains of numerous victims, which graduates Cletus to death row. A tiny tantrum between the bars has Cletus’ teeth clamped onto Eddie’s knuckles. An excised strip of Venom becomes a suit of Carnage for the imprisoned psycho.
When focused on the chaotic screaming match between the exhausted meat-puppet and the maniac extraterrestrial yanking his strings, Venom: Let There Be Carnage delivers a jittery, anxiously compelling energy. Venom is Roger Rabbit to Eddie Brock’s Eddie Valiant. The cartoon only cares to play, to be out there in the world meeting people, entertaining people, eating people. Just the bad ones, though; he’s willing to play by a few rules. Eddie is nothing but embarrassed of his partner, unable to see the joy he’s delivering to deli proprietors and rave enthusiasts.
Hardy impishly captures Eddie Brock’s internal hell. He signed up for the Marx Brothers shenanigans, selling pratfalls triggered by an invisible hand with deranged abandon. You fear for his sanity; he feels trapped and chained to this film as much as Eddie feels tethered to the creature. Those who relished the actor splashing in a lobster tank and cracking into crustaceans in the first movie are deeply rewarded by the deplorable depths the sequel’s director, Andy Serkis, plunges Hardy.
Grotesque absurdity is Venom: Let There Be Carnage‘s friend. Many sophomoric giggles are scored when Anne (Michelle Williams), Eddie Brock’s former flame, invites him to dinner only to unload a king-sized engagement ring from Doctor Dan (Reid Scott). While Eddie tries to process the development, the Venom within never shuts up, rattling off a string of homicidal solutions. Williams is playing straight, fulfilling her contractual obligation, and Hardy is acting in seven different films in the span of one sentence.
When the film meanders into plot and motivation for the supposedly bigger, badder, and broodier new villain, it oozes into an unforgivably dull quagmire. Carnage and Cletus Kasady might represent radical ’90s extremism in the eyes of comic book fans, but, as depicted here, they’re just another confusing CGI mess that cannot differentiate itself from Riz Ahmed’s previous CGI mess in the original. Despite Carnage being red and a little more spikey, why should we care?
Screenwriter Kelly Marcel tries valiantly enough to establish a purpose for Harrelson’s madman. She explores an aborted affair between Kasady and the superpowered Frances Barrison (Naomie Harris). Once upon a time, they knew love in an asylum, but evil governmental scientists tore them apart. They somewhat serve as a cracked reflection of what Eddie and Anne once had. But their chemistry is utterly absent, and their screentime robs us of the film’s true romance: Eddie and Venom.
Harrelson, strangely, can’t compete with Hardy’s gung ho commitment. Whatever promise we imagined of his Carnage being Eddie Brock’s Venom cranked to 11 dissipates almost immediately. Where is the natural-born killer? Where is Larry Flynt? Harrelson seems like dream casting for the scummiest of scummy characters. But he mostly lets his bad wig lead his stride. And as his character is gobbled by Carnage, so is his performance. The beast is a blurry jumble, seemingly not given the same technical attention as the other toothy titular brute.
The ultimate villain is superhero expectation. The producers are like Eddie Brock’s Symbiote, obsessed with spandex valor and always on the hunt for a cape and a headline. They want Venom: Let there Be Carnage to stand triumphantly on the shelf next to Iron Man and The Dark Knight, when its actual nature yearns for the rom-zom-com zone, something Serkis’ pal Peter Jackson sweats in his sleep.
As these things go, the sequel’s climax refuses to suggest respite for poor Eddie Brock. There’s always another monster biding their time in the shadows, threatening more digitized muscles when it should be flexing some intelligence and character. Venom: Let There Be Carnage hopes its mid-credits spectacle stinger will mask our lukewarm reception, but big ideas will only get in the way of Venom and Eddie Brock’s courtship. No thanks.
Venom: Let There Be Carnage opens in theaters on October 1st.