Grading on a curve always raised mixed emotions when I was in school. If I didn’t know the subject as well as I should, it could be a godsend—the stay of execution from a grade card hangman. When I actually knew what I was doing, however, the bell curve was a curse, dragging even whole classes down. A similar nagging dilemma occurs while watching Venom: Let There Be Carnage: Is showing the most improvement in its franchise’s brief history the same thing as not failing?
Technically, this goofy muddle of a sequel is a significant step up from the absolutely mind-numbing mediocrity that was 2018’s Venom. But when you’re starting from deeper than six feet in the hole, climbing up to still subterranean conditions doesn’t really feel like progress. Yes, Venom 2 is better than the first Venom, but then so are trips to the dentist.
While Venom: Let There Be Carnage now features two Oscar nominees slumming for a paycheck instead of one—even three when you recall Michelle Williams also stopped by the set for a few days—we’re nonetheless left with a rote pseudo-superhero movie with the passion of an algorithm. There are now a few genuinely bonkers comedy bits that almost realize the gonzo spectacle Tom Hardy undoubtedly dreamed of when he contributed to the screenplay, but it’s still a whole lot of spinning wheels. Only this time, to paraphrase Venom, there’s also “a red one” rotating in place.
The “red one” in question is named Carnage, and he’s a thick layer of unconvincing CGI sludge which has been applied to Woody Harrelson. See, Harrelson plays Cletus Kasady, the serial killer we were teased in the last movie’s post-credits scene. Kasady’s on death row for doing some very naughty things, and the only fella he’s willing to talk to is Hardy’s Eddie Brock, a redeemed San Francisco journalist who’s still secretly attached to the brain-eating symbiote called Venom.
And wouldn’t you know it, that black Venom ooze is pregnant, not that the film’s barebones screenplay ever really explains how that works. In fact, even Venom seems oblivious to the existence of the “red one,” including after it gives birth to it the same day Kasady bites Eddie’s finger through prison bars. Whoopsie. Instead of dying by lethal injection, Kasady becomes consumed by the Carnage symbiote and begins a slicing and dicing killing spree. Presumably. But honestly, this movie has the same amount of gore and violence as Mr. Freeze’s rampage in Batman & Robin.
That is one story which Venom: Let There Be Carnage tries to tell. Yet in spite of its slightest of 90 minutes running time, there are several more hats the film tries on, and one of them I enjoyed a whole hell of a lot more. While the film is marketed around Carnage’s overhyped night on the town, there’s a far more demented breakup comedy at play beneath the goo.
Indeed, the vast majority of Hardy’s interest seems to not lie in “the Lethal Protector” business from the comics, but rather Venom as a one-man Abbott and Costello routine. After three years of being roommates in the same body, it seems Eddie and Venom need a break, and the inner-Nicolas Cage ham inside of Hardy relishes getting to let his B-movie hair down in those scenes. More relaxed as Eddie, and visibly less concerned with the character being likable, he uses his real face to play a pitiful straight man to his vocal performance over the digital oil spill with teeth. He even lets what sounds like a few Bane-isms from The Dark Knight Rises slip through.
It’s dumb, but one never doubts Hardy is attacking the “breakup” scene with as much sound and fury as Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story, only it’s much funnier when here we have the sight of Hardy punching himself in the face. Similarly, the scene where the Venom symbiote is single and ready to mingle at a vaguely LGBTQ+ bar is the stuff Tumblr meme dreams are made of.
Is this the Venom movie I would’ve ever asked for? Not at all. Is it the Venom movie diehard fans of the character imagined for decades in their heads? I highly doubt it. But on its own terms, it’s pretty entertaining in the same way a New Line Cinema family film from the ‘90s might be. Think Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: Secret of the Venom Ooze. Unfortunately, that’s only about a third of Venom 2’s 80 minutes of non-credits content.
Much less successful is everything to do with Carnage, and a surprisingly limp subplot involving the backstory of Cletus Kasady and Naomie Harris’ wicked Shriek. One suspects director Andy Serkis or an executive somewhere in the bowels of Sony pitched this subplot as akin to Harrelson’s infamous work in Natural Born Killers. But when both characters are so neutered, and Shriek just so underwritten in general, then any grander ambitions are moot.
I’ll admit I’ve never been a fan of the Carnage character. Like Venom as a hero, the red symbiote creation always felt like just another excess of ‘90s comics and their grim-dark nonsense. Did Spider-Man comics really need an R-rated serial killer? With that said, if you’re going to go for Carnage, go for it. Because in his current state, the villain’s mostly off-screen murder and mayhem doesn’t feel that far removed from how Carnage was realized on Spider-Man: The Animated Series back in the ‘90s.
In the end, the one virtue the whole movie rests a little too heavily on is the conviction of its cast. While its two leads of Hardy and Harrelson are not above taking a role for a payday (clearly), they’re way too good to ever phone it in. Each performer is wholly committed to building these absurd, cartoon characters.
But when both men have their scenes drowned out by an ugly, relentless sea of computer-generated gunk, who’s to care? I doubt the audience. They’ll be too busy talking about the post-credits scene to even realize they’ve forgotten the rest of it in the five seconds it takes to reach the auditorium’s door.
Venom: Let There Be Carnage opens in theaters on Friday, Oct. 1.