Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
VENOM: LET THERE BE CARNAGE
Rated PG-13, 97 minutes
Directed by: Andy Serkis
Back in 2018, VENOM became a worldwide sensation. Director Ruben Fleischer’s Marvel movie had a weak script (written by Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg and Kelly Marcel), with an unmemorable villain, that followed a predictable path. Yet what most folks never expected was the degree to which star Tom Hardy could transform the mediocrity into a refreshingly gonzo production with unexpected surprises galore, at least when he’s on screen dueling with the titular monstrous hidden persona.
In VENOM: LET THERE BE CARNAGE, the same, once again, holds true. Director Andy Serkis and series stalwarts Marcel and Hardy (who also earns story by credit) deliver a sequel that’s essentially on par with its predecessor and served best when its lead is in total berserk mode. The adversarial pairing leans further into their ODD COUPLE inspirations, with its ‘Felix and Oscar’ forced to learn they need each other to survive and that their codependence benefits both of them. To simultaneously be outlandishly hysterical, surprisingly sweet and bafflingly middling is quite the feat – something this second chapter achieves.
Disgraced journalist Eddie Brock (Hardy) is down on his luck since last we saw him. His long-suffering girlfriend Anne (Michelle Williams) has left him. His career prospects have dried up. And the only one who genuinely cares about him is a brain-craving, black-tar-like parasitic symbiote, Venom, that’s attached itself to Eddie. However, things start looking up when San Francisco Police Department Detective Mulligan (Stephen Graham) enlists his help in squeezing out a confession out of red-headed psycho-killer Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson) before his impending death row execution. While their tete-à-tete yields successful results for Eddie, putting his career back on top, and Cletus, whose goal was sending a hopeful message to his confined crazy girlfriend Frances Barrison (Naomie Harris), their second meeting unwittingly creates another tormenting monster: Carnage. And when that uncontrollable incarnation of stabby bitter vengeance breaks free, hijinks and hilarity ensue.
This franchise follow-up excels when it focuses on the tenuous relationship dynamic between Eddie and Venom, which is more emotionally engaging this time around. Venom pushes Eddie to take a career-defining gig, be a better investigative journalist and encourages him to rekindle his romance with Anne. Eddie, in turn, inspires Venom to rethink his diet, restricting him to chickens and chocolate rather than bad guy brains, and to be better behaved around others. After learning about Anne’s engagement, which leads Eddie to play chicken with oncoming traffic in the rain, they share a tender consolatory pep talk. And when the duo inevitably split from each other in order to learn a lesson about their value to each other, it’s actually kinda moving, blessedly avoiding overly saccharine earnestness.
The filmmakers make a case for comparing their pair to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, but these two act like a married couple more than friends. Rom-commy undertones are brought further into the foreground here, manifesting in the film’s most memorable sequence showing an autonomous, emotionally unmoored Venom vaguely coming out at a costume carnival rave. There are glow sticks and a mic drop. Though it admittedly is hilariously ludicrous, this sequence still doesn’t hold a candle to the lobster tank scene in the original. There’s nothing comparable. Even Harrelson pulling inspiration from his NATURAL BORN KILLERS character – a proto-Mickey Knox 2.0, if you will – disappoints since the way he’s written is slight.
Both supporting female characters are done a dirty disservice, treated as vestigial parts whose inclusion is solely to aid male arcs. It’s a low bar, but it also fails to pass the Bechdel Test since the only time the gals talk is about a guy. Despite Anne exercising her agency, having left Eddie and choosing to not reconcile with him, she’s turned into a stereotypical damsel in distress in the third act climax. Shockingly, heroic moments are given to her fiancé Dan (Reid Scott). Although it’s a blast to see Harris highlighting her character’s campier facets and elevating the blander aspects of the material, Frances, a.k.a. Shriek, is poorly written (to this film’s detriment), shown with very little individual internality. She’s relegated to being a dispiriting, regressive archetype as an unhinged, abused Woman of Color, battered by society, but also by her true love.
Still, the draw of this picture is Hardy physically throwing himself into the role (the scene where he sketches at a rapid rate should be taught in acting classes) and his witty, wild repartee with Venom (“Are you pen pals with an ant?” and “Will there be canapes?” are highlights). From his inexplicable wardrobe stolen from Axel Foley’s BEVERLY HILLS COP 2 closet to his Brooklyn accent, the calculated but delightfully confounding decisions birthed from his creativity are enough to make us wonder what he could do with a third film. Letting him off leash is clearly the magic.
VENOM: LET THERE BE CARNAGE opens in theaters on October 1.