VENOM: LET THERE BE CARNAGE
Directed by Andy Serkis
It’s time for a sequel to the most unexpectedly good superhero movie of recent years. When I saw 2018’s Venom getting advertised, it always struck me something lightweight: an at best third-tier superhero outing. Yet when I finally saw it a few weeks ago, I came to love it: a laugh out loud, and often bizarre, take on the genre held together by a first-rate performance from Hardy. He’s back again as the barely keeping it together loser Eddie Brock: a journalist who shares his body with a big brain-munching alien. Think a werewolf movie with less fur and more bromance. During a report into the mass murderer turned death row inmate Cletus Kasady he gets bitten, birthing another big brain-munching alien: the titular Carnage. On top of that, he obviously still has feelings for ex-girlfriend Anna (Williams), who is now engaged. Meanwhile, bored of a diet of just chickens and chocolate, Venom wants to break free and come out of the Eddie Brock closet in a humorously direct parallel.
As with the first, much of the success of this film comes down to Tom Hardy. Historically he’s always been a hell of an actor, able to adapt to a range of roles, though he’s not one I could see necessarily see doing comedy. But once again he fully commits to the role, adopting a physicality that perfectly captures the internal battle for control going on inside Eddie. The bits where he bickers with Venom or beats himself up in a scene that recalls Fight Club are a joy to watch. The Venom interjections are often hilarious, too, undercutting the more dramatic bits. The quips aren’t Deadpool standard by any means, but the gusto Hardy delivers them with elevated them. Like the last time around, the movie is ostensibly an odd couple narrative with Brock and Venom struggling to live together – you almost expect one to draw a line down the middle of the apartment. Having the hero give up their powers in the second outing is a trope: Superman did it, and Spiderman has twice. But here, it takes on a new dimension, with Serkis framing it like a breakup in a rom-com movie. Previously, the pairing was symbiotic – this time, at points, it’s almost loving (something anchored by Venom inadvertently becoming an LGBT spokesperson).
Then there’s Carnage. Woody Harrelson is a menacing presence, playing Cletus with enough restraint to keep him from being cartoony but enough unhinged unpredictability that you can’t relax when he’s onscreen. It’s an unmistakedly horror performance in an unmistakedly comic book movie. His backing story is delivered well through a cool animation, and when he’s taken his final form, he looks badass. Yet while he’s a good character, with a solid performance, as a baddy, he lacks something. Serkis has gone for a lean 97 minutes – Marvel, take note. And while this approach means no scene is wasted, working against anyone who needs a pee-break, it also means some parts like his motivation or his relationship with girlfriend Shriek (a woefully underused Harris) lack development. What’s worse is we also don’t get much time to see what Carnage can do. For instance, something that’s now a superhero standard is a midway fight scene in which the baddy gets to flex, which never materialises here. Meaning that while Carnage more than lives up to his name, knocking helicopters out the sky and tossing prison guards around the reckless abandon, we don’t see how much of a threat he is to Venom. Despite coming from Venom, the conflict isn’t personalised enough.
Still, their screentime together is good. Obviously, Serkis will forever be best known for playing CGI beings: Gollum and a range of apes. I expect he learned a thing or two along the way, and the few fight scenes we get are well constructed, with some impressive attention to detail. Nowadays, it’s easy to take computer effects for granted, with them only sticking out when they’re terrible. Yet, for the first time in a while, I was actively impressed watching Venom and Carnage duke it out and enjoyed seeing their many alien arms coming out of their backs as their bodies morphed and mixed. Granted, the dim lighting makes it hard to track what’s happening in some sequences, and there have been some clear edits. As one example, there are minimal head-bites or blood, making for a very mild 15. And you can detect where footage has been left on the cutting room floor. On that, the jump from second to third act seems to happen abruptly, with what looks like a subplot for Shriek (Harris) seeming to get encapsulated into an awkward jump between scenes. It doesn’t interfere with the story too much but does give the midsection a disjointed, unfinished feel.
Still, all in all, Let There Be Carnage is a worthy successor and a sequel that I’d argue improves on the original in most ways. It’s got a more confident tone, finding greater humour in the character dynamics and mixing these moments with the action better. No, it isn’t going to give Kevin Feige sleepless nights, but it’s got a charmingly scrappy edge to it that’s missing from the likes of Black Widow. The Eddie and Venom relationship remains the clear highlight of the film, but I reckon I’d gladly hang out with the two of them again. Hardy evidently loves the source material, being the co-writer now, and it shows. His passion for the project is contagious, and it makes me wonder what the team could do with fewer restrictions for an age rating and a bigger budget. On that, be sure to stick around for the mid-credits scene, which hints at an exciting way forward for the series.
Venom: Let There Be Carnage is out now