Venom: Let There Be Carnage successfully course-corrects from the original, delivering a deeply funny and deeply human film that ranks among the best recent comic book adaptations.
2018’s Venom, like so many comic book adaptations before it, suffered from a severe case of déjà vu thanks to its slavish adherence to the tropes of the origin story, its self-seriousness and bloat stifling an inspired performance from Tom Hardy. Where was the sense of mischievousness that defined the Eddie Brock/pile-of-violent-alien-goo-known-as-Venom symbiote from the pages of the Marvel comic books? Sure, it wasn’t all fun and games, but there was a levity occasionally present that was only hinted at in Ruben Fleischer’s incarnation, especially curious considering the director is best known for the raucous Zombieland series. Yet Gollum himself, Andy Serkis, is here to right the wrongs of the past, as sequel Venom: Let There Be Carnage is everything audiences desperately longed for in a Venom big screen adaptation.
Clocking in at a fleet 90 minutes, Let There Be Carnage wastes no time in throwing audiences into its story, as struggling journalist Eddie (Hardy) continues to grapple with sharing a body with the loud-mouthed and bull-headed Venom, all while working on a new piece detailing an incarcerated serial killer named Cletus Kasady who is set to perish on death row. Casady has his own backstory, one involving time spent at a heinous orphanage as a teenager where he fell in love with a mutant named Francis Louise Barrison (Naomie Harris) who possesses the ability to kill with her high-powered shriek. For reasons both inane and necessary, Casady ends up biting Eddie and ingesting some of his Venom-spiked blood; it’s the later administration of Casady’s lethal injection that causes the birth of the titular Carnage — think Venom but angrier and red. Meanwhile, Eddie and Venom find they can no longer cohabitate being that they are both Oscars desperately in need of a Felix, so Venom goes out on his own, just as Eddie discovers he needs him most. Eddie’s ex, Anne (Michelle Williams), as well as her boyfriend, Dan (Reid Scott), also pop up when the plot is in need of greater stakes, as if that was even necessary with everything else going on.
In describing the original Venom as a victim of bloat, one would think that the on-paper plot machinations of this sequel would signal catastrophe, but there’s a true economy to the storytelling here, courtesy of screenwriter Kelly Marcel, in which everything feels remarkably deft, helped greatly by Serkis’ energetic directing. Even the obligatory appearances of Anne and Dan feel surprisingly organic to the proceedings, which is no small feat considering the circumstance. Truly, there’s not a single minute of wasted time to be found in Let There Be Carnage, with the comedic relationship issues of Eddie and Venom serving as a clever contrast to the violent exploits of Cletus/Carnage and Francis, fueled as they are by their renewed passions for one another in what basically amounts to a clever spin on Harrelson’s very own Natural Born Killers. But above all else, this is an effective mismatched buddy pic, and so of course the two buddies find they are more alike than they could have ever imagined. As much as Eddie wants to paint himself as the quiet and peaceful yin to Venom’s loud and cantankerous yang, it’s the character’s unwillingness to see the obvious that serves as inspiration for some of film’s funniest gags, including a complete throwaway moment where Eddie wipes his mouth on a hand towel after brushing his teeth before proceeding to blow his nose into it in full Venom style.
In truth, there’s even an argument that Venom: Let There Be Carnage is the gayest love story of the year, as a comic-book movie no less. Indeed, post break-up, Venom attends a costume party in which he is finally able to appear as his true self, proceeding to give a speech to the cheering crowd in which he doesn’t understand why everyone on Earth can’t be accepted for who they are. This follows a moment where Venom screams, “I’m out of the Eddie closet!” The two are only able to possibly defeat Carnage once they realize that they are stronger together than apart — admittedly a buddy-flick trope, too — and all of this ends with the two sitting on a beach, head leaned against head, admiring a beautiful sunset — less a buddy-flick trope, and a finale that only affirms the knowing playfulness of everyone involved with the project. (Hell, it doesn’t take a psychologist to regard Venom as the personification of Eddie’s own sexuality, as he struggles to come to terms with this part of himself for which he feels equal parts anger and disgust and shame.)
Putting away any psychoanalytic reading and considering Venom: Let There Be Carnage purely according to its comic-book context, it still delivers the goods, even as the big action set pieces suffer from a bit of hyperactive cutting that render them harder to follow than necessary, and the final confrontation is nothing more than a series of zeros-and-ones duking it out. But even in these moments, Serkis manages to find slivers of humanity, whether it be the love between man and alien, or simply the gonging of a bell that leaves Eddie and Cletus momentarily human as they battle to the death. Backed by game performances from the entire cast, including Hardy at his nimblest — the guy has major comedic chops, let’s talk about it — Let There Be Carnage is certainly more fun than the average Marvel film, and thankfully absent the smugness of something like Deadpool. Gollum really is a hero.