2018’s Venom was a superhero tale with its own strange spin. On the outset, it told yet another origin story, explaining how the down-on-his-luck journalist Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) melded bodies with an alien to become the muscular yet goopy Venom. But the film’s most interesting aspect was not any of the comic-book action; it was the oddball, almost rom-com energy between Eddie and his symbiotic costume — along with the genuine, unchecked intensity of Hardy’s performance. In the sequel, Venom: Let There Be Carnage, Tom Hardy’s wildest instincts have triumphed — mostly. Any effort at high-minded seriousness about the role of the antihero in a world of caped crusaders is chucked far out the window. So is any care and/or attention for traditional storytelling notions such as coherence or characters. Venom may not have realized it was headed in a so-bad-it’s-good cult classic arena, but Let There Be Carnage is striving to maintain that status from the opening seconds.
Unfortunately, the film still has to tell a routine narrative in which its protagonist saves the day, something director Andy Serkis seems to have little interest in. Best known as the actor behind characters like Caesar from the recent Planet of the Apes trilogy and Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, Serkis seems like a natural choice to direct a film featuring another CGI creature with a bifurcated personality. He captures the discombobulation of Venom’s symbiotic relationship vividly but struggles to create comprehensible set pieces. His prior directorial efforts include the VFX-laden but visually weak Mowgli, and the aesthetics aren’t any better here. The action is as messy as the first Venom — perhaps even more so now that our blobby protagonist is facing off against the equally gloppy Carnage (Woody Harrelson).
Carnage is created when the serial killer Cletus Kasady, whom Eddie is interviewing on death row, accidentally ingests a piece of the Venom symbiote after biting Eddie’s finger. Harrelson tries to imbue the villain with a real sense of danger, but he’s so irredeemably evil from the moment the movie begins that his performance has no real tension nor anything to really grab onto at all. Even eating the symbiote doesn’t change him much. The film tries to give the character more depth by focusing on his relationship with Shriek (Naomie Harris), his imprisoned love interest with the superpower of yelling very loudly, but her part is quite one-dimensional, which only flattens the possibility of connection. Perhaps the film doesn’t flesh out Carnage and Shriek because of its vastly short ninety-minute runtime, but Let There Be Carnage is too exhausting to last any longer than it does. The viewing experience is like going to a nightclub and having someone scream the plot in your ear over a thumping bass — which is rather ironic, given that Venom’s biggest weakness is sound waves.
Serkis is clearly most invested in Hardy and his Jekyll and Hyde performance. And even more so than the first film’s director, Ruben Fleischer, Serkis understands that Venom’s primary intrigue is the romantic push and pull between symbiote and host. So, like the first movie, he structures the sequel as a romantic comedy, having the couple bicker, break up, and finally rediscover the joy of their partnership; which gives Hardy the room to play as he grunts and takes delight in Venom’s florid dialogue. When the pair briefly split, Venom inhabits other bodies, covers himself in glow sticks, and goes out dancing, proclaiming, “I’m out of the Eddie closet!” Their eventual reunion comes after a uncooperative Venom, realizing he cannot live without his original host, inhabits the body of Eddie’s ex-fiancée, Anne (Michelle Williams).
But, even with all that zaniness, the twisted love story keeps getting derailed by the trite and superfluous superhero business. Whenever the film cuts back to Carnage’s or Shriek’s rampages, it loses all the edge it seems to want to generate; when it’s just Tom Hardy in his apartment, preparing a chaotic breakfast with alien tendrils, it briefly shows sparks with its physical comedy. There isn’t anything quite like Venom, and the sequel knows it, but the unbridled silliness only goes so far. Perhaps the inevitable third installment could just be a black-box play, or a series of Hardy’s monologues with his alien love — anything, just anything please, to finally free Venom from the asinining strictures of its bloated genre. As cumbersomely raucous and openly oddball, Venom: Let There Be Carnage stays far away from any sense of coherence while still remaining to be quite a routine narrative.
Venom: Let There Be Carnage is currently playing in Theaters nationwide