Venom: Let There Be Carnage
Tom Hardy and his parasite are back in this gleefully ridiculous sequel to 2018's box-office hit — and watching the actor argue with himself is the best thing about the film.
What's more ludicrous in Venom: Let There Be Carnage: an alien invasion of one man's body that turns into a parasite-host odd-couple show, or a prologue that thinks Woody Harrelson could've been a 90s teen? Kudos to this sequel to 2018's Venom for starting how it means to go on, at least. With its opening, set in 1996 in a home for unwanted children, the film doubles down on silliness, overblown theatrics and packaging itself as a cartoonish lark. The goofiness of the original box-office hit was among its best traits, and worked because that ridiculousness rattled against the movie's gritty superhero setup. Venom adopted all the stylistic markers that've become the serious-minded caped-crusader formula, then let Tom Hardy bounce around like he was in a comedy. But this time, everyone's gone more than a little vaudeville, as has the movie — and the outcome is right there in the title.
Carnage isn't just an apt term to describe the film, which has actor-turned-director Andy Serkis (Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle) behind the lens; it's also the name of its second symbiote, aka a flesh-munching extra-terrestrial who inhabits a bag of bones, then brings out its basest urges. Mercifully, Let There Be Carnage isn't big on rehashing the mechanics established in the initial flick, but Venom fits the bill, too, after the creature took up residence inside San Francisco journalist Eddie Brock (Hardy, Capone), then unleashed the franchise's one-body, two-personality double act. Carnage, the red-hued parasite, is the spawn of Venom, albeit bursting forth from condemned serial killer Cletus Kasady (Harrelson, Zombieland: Double Tap) after a scuffle with Brock. And yes, this is the kind of feature that has the scenery-chewing Harrelson proclaim its subtitle with glee. He bellows "let there be carnage!" with winking jokiness, but resembles a ringmaster announcing the next act in a big top.
Scripted by returning scribe Kelly Marcel, who also mined Fifty Shades of Grey for all the humour she could — and using a story co-credited to Hardy, who clearly has an attachment to his Marvel-but-not-Marvel Cinematic Universe character — Let There Be Carnage isn't burdened with much plot. After getting murderous following his separation from girlfriend Frances Barrison (Naomie Harris, No Time to Die) in their youth, Kasady will only tell his tale to Brock before he's executed. The latter goes awry due to Carnage's arrival, and a deal. The new symbiote will reunite Kasady with Barrison, whose ability to manipulate sound has seen her locked in an asylum, if the sadistic criminal assists his havoc-wreaking passenger to dispense with Brock and Venom. Cue the obvious — yes, carnage — and an inevitable showdown.
Harrelson wasn't an adolescent in the 90s, but his performance nods to that decade, back when his resume spanned White Men Can't Jump, Natural Born Killers, The People vs Larry Flynt, EDtv and the like. That isn't a compliment; he's simply summoning-slash-parodying that heyday, and he's in a film that wishes it released then. Indeed, Let There Be Carnage could've been the hit of 1993, 1999 or any other year before Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy reshaped the genre, the MCU turned it into one of the predominant forms of big-screen entertainment (and now small screen, too), and superhero flicks began arriving every few weeks. Really, Harrelson's work here feels like a chaotic distraction rather than a throwback nudge, because there's only one great thing about Let There Be Carnage: Tom Hardy arguing with himself.
One of everyone's favourite friendly neighbourhood web-slinger's antagonists on the page, Venom might've first hit cinemas in the misfire that was Spider-Man 3, but the strongest aspect of his recent films is that self-banter. Plenty can be read into the back-and-forth, all voiced with gusto by Hardy: Venom is the literal growling voice inside Brock's head; a fight with conflicting impulses; the side of our identities we aren't comfortable revealing; and, here, the friend we need to be to ourselves in the name of self-care. In fact, Let There Be Carnage is a bromance as Brock and Venom try to live in harmony. That their disputes mimic domestic feuds isn't accidental. That said, endeavouring to layer in queer subtext — including comments about Venom coming out of Eddie's closet — falls flat. So do mentions of stopping cruelty to aliens, with the film merely paying lip service to deeper ideas, rather than even pretending to give them substance. There's always more CGI mayhem to come, after all, and more Brock-symbiote fights about eating chickens and chocolate instead of brains.
Hardy makes all that bickering the most entertaining element of the film, though, almost purely through his sheer physical — and vocal —commitment. In 2013's Locke, he proved he could make talking the most riveting thing in the world, a notion the Venom franchise happily attempts to steal. Hardy is having the same great time he did in the initial flick, and trying to have even more. But, while often amusing to watch, it isn't infectious. Let There Be Carnage is nowhere near as fun as witnessing Hardy quarrel with himself should be, and gets routine and repetitive fast. Understandably, that doesn't bode well for the film's other performances; hopefully Michelle Williams (After the Wedding) was paid handsomely to reprise her thankless role as Brock's ex-fiancée Anne Weying, and the similarly underused Harris as Barrison/Shriek as well.
It's knowingly absurd, boasts a self-aware lead and moves quickly — when the climax hits, it feels like everything before it breezed by — but Let There Be Carnage remains a slog. Most of its gags land with a thud, and Serkis mistakes pace for personality while going for a monotonous same-is-same approach that largely takes Venom's successes, spreads them over the entire movie, dials up the anarchic vibe and uses messiness as a visual template. Although it falls within Sony's Spider-Man Universe, which differs to the MCU but also includes the same version of the web-slinger, this symbiote sequel has pilfered one of Marvel's worst tendencies, too. Spider-Man: No Way Home reaches cinemas in weeks, the Jared Leto-starring Morbius follows the next month and, as the obligatory post-credits sting teases, Let There Be Carnage mainly exists to keep stitching this on-screen universe together and lay foundations for more to come in yet another sprawling comic book-inspired movie realm. Try as he visibly and energetically does, Hardy shouting at himself can't fix that either.