Upon the release of 2018’s Venom, the reviews were less than kind. The plotting, ridiculed. The dialogue, lambasted. Tom Hardy’s performance as both Eddie Brock and the titular alien symbiote, however, took the public by surprise. Specifically, the scene where Hardy dives into a lobster tank in the middle of a busy, upscale San Francisco restaurant to quench the symbiote’s hunger. After reading enough descriptions characterizing the performance as oddball, batshit, and loony, the gist was that Venom was so-bad-its-good. Unfortunately, the first film was mostly just bad. Save those moments where Hardy went for it, Venom just sat there, inert, telling a prototypical origin story and hoping audiences would care. It’s not until the post-credits sequence hits, when Woody Harrelson greets Eddie in that amazing red wig, that the silver lining appears. Then they announced a sequel that pits Harrelson’s equally crazed energy against Hardy.
Once Andy Serkis, a man who’s played multiple motion-capture characters over the years, took over as director, I was genuinely excited. The move makes sense as Serkis has a wealth of information for Hardy to glean. Plus, both men share a history of making creative choices that seem odd but usually work out. The temptation to play Venom as the evil angel on your shoulder is easy. Tom Hardy skirted that and offered something unexpected: a gravel-voiced id that only Eddie can hear. These feuds between Eddie and Venom serve as the film’s comic relief. The first Venom, with its muted colour palette and somber tone, was much too serious. Given what this premise realistically allows, the sequel goes for different avenues. The desaturated look is gone. One wouldn’t go as far as to call it camp, but Let There Be Carnage possesses a much better sense of the mood it should convey.
Hardy and director Ruben Fleischer clashed, but Serkis and Hardy gel so well that the lead actor got a story by credit on the film. When Venom sings “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” while making a breakfast of mostly ketchup, fears of another overly dark antihero (read: boring) story dissipated.
Retooling the franchise on the fly also means adding new characters to Let There Be Carnage, with Woody Harrelson and Naomi Harris joining the fray as killers Cletus Kasady and Shriek, respectively. Fans going into the movie already know Kasady’s arc, but Shriek is different from past Venom characters. She isn’t powered by a symbiote, though she can kill just by yelling. Naomi Harris sits in her soundproof, metal box like a predator, waiting to unleash her gifts. Even with soundproof headphones, guards are nervous about her, and she relishes their fear with a grin on her face. Anne (Michelle Williams) and Dr. Dan (Reid Scott) return, though in a diminished capacity for the sequel. Williams is a great actress, but this series wastes her presence. To offset that failed dynamic, screenwriter Kelly Marcel leans into Eddie and Venom’s bromance.
The titular symbiote is no less angry—or hungry—this time around. The couple is at an impasse; Eddie’s writing isn’t doing well, and Venom feels that he’s left holding the bag. You see, Eddie won’t let Venom eat criminals anymore. None! He’s developed some rules about sharing a body with Venom, and not all of them are going over well. Sure, there are moments of levity at night clubs, but then Venom will also break Eddie’s nose and then hit him again to reset it. However, they have something to distract them from their roommate-squabbles when Cletus Kasady enters the picture.
Interviewing the infamous serial killer, Kasady, is sure to boost Eddie’s waning popularity as a journalist, though he’d prefer not to. He relents once Detective Mulligan (Stephen Graham) persuades Eddie that Kasady might reveal where victims of unsolved murders are. The task seems easy enough but takes a turn for the worse when Kasady takes a shine to Eddie. The killer posits that he and Eddie are the same, and while Eddie dismisses the notion entirely, Kasady has a point. Prone to aggression, both men are willing to use violence as a means to an end. Kasady is just more comfortable with it. After an experimental execution fails and results in Kasady becoming Carnage, he can test his hypothesis on Eddie’s true nature up close and personal. Venom is dangerous enough as an impulsive toddler with homicidal tendencies. Imagine the horrifying combination of Carnage’s power and Kasady’s personality.
Harrelson vibes with the material the same way Hardy does, making for dynamic interactions, whether they’re conversation or fight scenes. It’s a race to the top as far as each actor is concerned, with no limits on how deranged things can get. Take the humorous face-off between Carnage and Venom. When Harrelson’s visage disappears into the inky, CGI-creation of Carnage, Venom yelps, “Oh shit, that’s a red one.” Eddie, now alone to face a superpowered serial killer, pleads with his goo monster, “I will let you eat anybody.” Then Venom goes, “Oh yeah,” like a buff, insane Kool-Aid man and charges into action.
The character design is where Serkis shines as a director, creating a unique look and fighting style for each symbiote. Using dancers and actors on a motion-capture stage to prep the production, Serkis defines each symbiote by movement. Venom relies on brute strength, whereas Carnage reflects Kasady’s mind through discordant moves. Serkis also throws in some fun, new symbiote powers to keep Eddie and the audience guessing. The film also gets high marks for the eerie settings for Kasady and Shriek in Ravencroft Institute by production designer Oliver Scholl.
After all the complaints about movie running times the last few years, Venom: Let there Be Carnage is graciously only 97-minutes. Roller coasters are fun, though they are nauseating when they last too long. Serkis cuts the exposition and lets two monsters go at each other. The Venom franchise knows what it is and doesn’t apologize for it.