A lot of Tom Hardy fans were looking forward to the new film where he plays a thickly accented schlub possessed of too much power who can’t deal with its consequences and, after leaving too much death in his wake, hits some major obstacles and faces the possibility of living out the rest of his life in powerless mediocrity. That was 2020, and we all agreed never to speak of Capone again. One year later Venom: Let There Be Carnage reminds us why Hardy rules, sometimes despite his surroundings.
Previously on Venom: Eddie Brock is a loser “journalist”. Venom is a brains-craving alien symbiote. Together, they eat crime! Or at least they used to. The slovenly duo still shares a tiny San Francisco apartment whose landlord never inspects for property damage, a fondness for Eddie’s ex Anne (Michelle Williams, back for more), their own universe separate from the Marvel Cinematic one, and Eddie’s insides, where Venom somehow fits without crushing his organs or bloating him up to size 6x, because the law of conservation of mass is useless against organic comics chemistry. This two-in-one antihero bickers and squabbles between themselves like sitcom roommates forced into their premise. Their tradeoff was worth it at first: Eddie gets access to superpowers that make him feel useful and less loserly, and in exchange Venom gets a host that keeps it fed and doesn’t collapse from its parasitic drainage. Win-win. Ish.
Eddie has to pause their feuding when he’s beckoned by a would-be interviewee: serial killer Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson), counting down his last days on Death Row. Before his execution made possible by an alt-timeline California governor who reinstates the death penalty specifically for him (yep, it’s just that easy!), Kasady wants to get a special message out to his number one fan, and he correctly surmises Eddie is exactly the sort of loser “journalist” to quote a madman word for cryptic word in giant headlines approved by his invisible publisher. Their prison chat is lower-security than any other serial-killer interview I’ve ever seen outside the period-specific laxness of Mindhunter, and ends with Kasady biting Eddie’s hand hard enough to taste alien contamination. Yadda yadda yadda, Carnage is let be there.
Whereas the evil symbiote in the first film, Riot, was a misbegotten third-act hybrid of man’s hubris and science run amuck, this time dueling symbiotes are the main attraction. Carnage claims his primary motive is vengeance for true love rent asunder by The MAN. Flashbacks reveal his teenage incarceration in an Evil Juvie cell next to a young lady named Frances Barreson. She may or may not be equally wicked; her larger problem is the mutant (!) power of super-screaming, which authorities probably weren’t equipped to handle in flashback times since their universe had no Charles Xavier. Then the star-crossed lovers were separated from each other evermore, alas, alack, life is so unfair to butchers. As Carnage he quickly escapes to track down the adult Frances, rename her Shriek (Naomie Harris, the Moneypenny to Daniel Craig’s Bond), and make their own happy ending, no matter how many fatalities it takes. In his mind he’s the good guy, bog-standard for today’s villains and wholly unconvincing when the mindset is this far over the edge of humanity.
Evil delusions aside, at his core Carnage is a simple vessel for wanton destruction, built for popcorn flicks and comic-book slugfests. He was created in 1992 when serial killer mania swept pop culture in the wake of The Silence of the Lambs, one of a thousand Hannibal Lecter disciples, bereft of any Thomas Harris nuance and blanketed in Ben Day dots. His birth came when Marvel Comics editors realized readers loved Venom and thought to themselves: if he sells so well, what if we had two Venoms? In S.A.T. analogy terms, Spider-Man : Venom : Carnage :: The Simpsons : Family Guy : American Dad. I never got attached to him because his debut happened a year after I’d stopped collecting Amazing Spider-Man. (Same thing happened to me with Uncanny X-Men and Gambit. Never got him, never had to.)
In his early unadorned scenes, Harrelson is a firmly spooky presence behind bars as rendered in grime and shadows by cinematographer Robert Richardson (a three-time Oscar winner, two of them for Martin Scorsese films), who for one glorious half-hour helped me forget Harrelson already went full psychopath in Natural Born Killers. He’s a simpler madman than Mickey Knox, no longer intent on indicting bloodthirsty viewers for their complicity in encouraging a violent culture with their consumer dollars. The inmate Kasady at least looks cool and acts menacingly enough for Happy Halloween viewing. After the graphics department paints a Carnage skin over him and/or his stuntmen, all traces of performance are lost and he’s an interchangeable CG tentacle monster sporting Venom motifs. Post-escape, Kasady’s Southern-fried human side goes extra cornpone, goes campy with his hair and wardrobe, and demands his Joel Schumacher closeup.
At times I don’t mind the film’s self-awareness of the source material’s potential for ridiculous excess. I had high hopes that director Andy Serkis, once the MOCAP master non pareil, could steer the film toward an old-fashioned audience reaction of “How’d they do that?” as opposed to “So, uh, that’s a thing they did.” The most madcap sequence sees Carnage and Shriek in a getaway car suspended high in the air by Carnage’s appendages while tossing other vehicles around and grappling with a police helicopter. It’s a deliriously nonsensical few seconds of glory as we see what might happen if you crossed the Weasley family’s Ford Anglia with the Whomping Willow.
Such unrestrained verve can be keen, but the sins of the first film repeat as two equally CG opponents try to out-CG each other with CG blurs of CG blows and CG damages, and the results are CG tedium (save a few shots of cheesy grandeur in which Richardson and the artists design their own epic mid-combat freeze-frame splash pages). Also distracting is the PG-13 mandate, in which Carnage’s innate hyper-violence is adapted for his hardcore fans, but his kill-spree butchery is rendered bloodless or off-screen. I don’t necessarily need the extra gore myself, but it’s a bit amusing in a post-Deadpool world.
The film’s best source of entertainment is, as expected and demanded, the dramedy stylings of Hardy and Hardy. As Eddie and as the touchy-growly voice of Venom, Hardy enjoys his best double role since he played the Kray brothers in Legend. This time he’s also a producer and shares story credit with returning screenwriter Kelly Marcel (Fifty Shades of Grey), and doubtlessly had the power to ensure he’d have a good time. He and his brother from another animal kingdom are two Oscar Madisons in dire need of a Felix Unger, a pair of slobs who can’t stand each other because they’re too much alike, control freaks when it comes to serving their selfish needs and too close to realize how much they have in common, or to realize their commonalities are their worst qualities. Except the brain-eating part.
At times, Hardy alone is not enough. Some clunkers sneak into the dialogue — e.g., a labored “Red Wedding” reference, not to mention one predictable Dad Joke about “hanging around” as Our Antihero answers his phone while precariously dangling from a building. An act-one speech to Venom about taking responsibility for one’s actions goes nowhere after the film changes its mind and decides it’s actually about how Secrets Are Bad, and ends with one or more characters becoming fugitives from the law and thus demonstrating the precise opposite of responsibility.
The nadir might just be when Venom wanders into a full-on rave and, amid a flurry of compliments for his “costume”, gives an impromptu speech to the whole crowd about finding acceptance for just being himself, insinuating that if you really think about it, gay pride is basically the same thing as wishing society was cool with your penchant for decapitating criminals with your teeth. Venom’s happiest moment sounds as deluded as Kasady’s most vicious. As he basks in applause while he’s festooned in glow-in-the-dark baubles from ye olde days of “techno” and Fatboy Slim, the film inches past the line where only Batman and Robin had dared to tread. (I could buy Deadpool doing this. Venom is no Deadpool.)
Anyone who misses 1990s “hot” comics might find their nostalgia aptly indulged here despite the lack of cross-hatching, though Carnage devotees might take issue with his treatment in the finale. Anyone who was initially bedazzled by the small cast list that boasts three Academy Award Nominees already knew this wouldn’t be that kind of film going in, but all of them have done far better “just for fun” flicks. If Sony’s non-MCU films are ever permitted onto Disney+, a free viewing of Tom Hardy amusing himself between grim dramas wouldn’t be the worst way to while away a weekend afternoon, but it wouldn’t be among my first several choices.
Meanwhile in the customary MCC film breakdowns:
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Besides Williams, also back for a second shot of Venom are Reid Scott (Veep) as Anne’s fiance Dr. Dan, who tries diligently to uphold his end of the love triangle (not unlike, say, James Marsden in Superman Returns); and Peggy Lu as Mrs. Chen, the neighborhood bodega owner who keeps Venom stocked up on chocolate, his favorite brain substitute. The most prominent newcomer is Stephen Graham (one of Al Pacino’s key henchmen in The Irishman) as Detective Donnie Wahlberg, the only policeman in San Francisco with more than two lines.
How about those end credits? To answer the burning question that MCC is always happy to verify: yes, there is indeed a scene during the Venom: Let There Be Carnage end credits. At the very end, comics fans will be thrilled to see prominent “created by” credits for David Michelinie, Todd McFarlane, and Mark Bagley, the architects behind Marvel’s symbiote expansion pack, along with Special Thanks for a number of ’90s talents who had a hand in Venom miniseries and spinoffs, some of them long since forgotten. After those come several unusually specific acknowledgments for the film’s stained glass providers and artists. I sure don’t remember Ben Affleck’s Daredevil doing the same for twice the stained glass.
Anyway, about that crucial scene that’s now dominating headlines on every comics site: for those who tuned out prematurely and really want to know, and didn’t already click elsewhere…
[…insert space for courtesy spoiler alert in case anyone needs to abandon ship…]
…Eddie and Venom have fled San Francisco, holed up in a sweet tropical cabana, turned on some nighttime telenovelas and, apropos of that, returned to their previous discussion of secrets. Just as Venom is about to reveal some juicy symbiote history from across the light years, the world around them shimmers and shifts, and without warning they instantly find themselves lying in some completely different tropical cabana in the daytime, rented by some stranger.
The TV telenovela is replaced with footage from Spider-Man: Far From Home, in which J.K. Simmons’ J. Jonah Jameson reveals to the world that Peter Parker is Spider-Man. Eddie and Venom hail from a universe without a Spider-Man. To them he’s just another stranger. Little do they know they’ve just crossed into…the Marvel Cinematic Universe!
It’s too early to say whether their supporting cast also made the jump. For now all we know is the multiverse revealed in Loki was no self-contained lark. Then again, you already knew that if you’ve seen the trailer for Spider-Man: No Way Home, in theaters December 17th. To be continued!