Depending on your birth year and comics knowledge, the popular Spider-Man villain Venom may seem like a blast of ’90s nostalgia, a badass gaping maw disguised as a character, or possibly a piece of performance art designed specifically for the mysteriously accented actor Tom Hardy. But even committed partisans for the Green Goblin, Doctor Octopus, or Kraven The Hunter must admit that Venom offers a formidable challenge. Though he hasn’t yet fought the newest incarnation of Spider-Man, or the one before that, or either of the current animated versions, he did soundly defeat Sam Raimi after the filmmaker made two all-time great superhero pictures. Spider-Man may triumph over the petty criminals, but Venom rules the C-suite, enough for executives to insist on his inclusion in Spider-Man 3—and enough for him to get his own non-Spidey movie series even after Sony leased the main character back to Marvel Studios. Maybe the suits recognize something in that maw—its furious, insatiable appetite for more, perhaps?
Venom: Let There Be Carnage is like Venom made a sequel for his own consumption: a big, squirmy mess that can’t stop feeding on itself. It’s the rare follow-up that tries to outdo its predecessor by shortening up, seemingly guided by the principle that a trimmer running time will amount to more mayhem per minute. It does. With the addition of the Venom-but-bigger-and-badder Carnage, there are more tongues, teeth, and goo than before. It’s a faster, wilder ride—and a choppier one, even as it moves primarily in circles.
The movie joins Eddie Brock (Hardy) still sharing a body with the alien symbiote Venom. This comes with the maddening wrinkle that each occupant can speak their minds even when the other takes control of the body. So when Brock looks like himself, he’s still subjected to the voice of Venom (also Hardy, fed through some digital filters) offering a running commentary on his grievances. And, amusingly, when Eddie fully transforms into the hulking, hundred-tooth beast with the empty white eyes, Venom has to listen to Brock’s admonishments in his head, too. There’s no escaping each other, unless Venom tears himself away and invades another body.
Though the ending of the first movie vaguely suggested a reconciliation, or at least a détente, between Brock and his extraterrestrial secret identity, they’re both chafing at their constraints in Let There Be Carnage. Early in the movie, Brock struggles to keep Venom under wraps when he visits imprisoned serial killer Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson) for a possible story. Yes, Brock’s brand of journalism still involves him waiting around until a bad guy calls him in and practically begs him to investigate his own wrongdoing, after which the journalist is referred to by other news organizations as “back on top.” On top of what, exactly? As ever, Eddie barely seems on top of getting dressed and displaying basic literacy.
Kasady, one of those remorseless, rococo comic book murderers, is fixated on both Frances Barrison (Naomie Harris), for providing a beacon of hope during their mutual institutionalization, and Eddie Brock, for reasons that are never made especially clear. Kasady’s obtuse relationship with Brock truly just exists so that Kasady can be infected with his own spinoff symbiote and provide Venom, who yearns to serve as a murdering superhero, someone more loathsome to eventually fight. Kasady also rekindles a doomed-criminal-lovers relationship with the superpowered Frances, also known as Shriek, but she doesn’t have much say in the matter; most of Harris’ dialogue consists of, yes, ultra-powerful shrieks. It wouldn’t matter so much if everyone else in the movie weren’t so committed to endless nattering, muttering, and bellowing.
Theoretically, a superhero series (mostly) unmoored from two dozen movies of MCU continuity should be a relief. It could even represent, dare to dream, a throwback to the days of those Raimi Spider-movies, which still distinguish themselves from newfangled models with filmmaking bravado and real personality. (Even the third one? Especially the third one!) Despite Raimi’s own supposed antipathy to Venom, it’s easy to imagine an industrious, horror-influenced genre enthusiast like him having a blast with this ridiculous character, crossbreeding superpowered soap opera with Universal monsters.
Once in a while, new Venom director Andy Serkis appears to be moving in that direction, toward gothic romance and monster-movie slapstick. He certainly has the resources to break the superhero mold; Let There Be Carnage boasts a cinematographer possibly even more overqualified than the original’s Matthew Libatique, with Robert Richardson (a frequent collaborator of Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, and vintage Oliver Stone) teasing some vivid blue highlights from its generic nighttime cityscapes. Every 10 or 15 minutes, the movie will zero in on a memorable image, like Brock hanging from a building ledge, taking a phone call as the San Francisco skyline glows behind him.
Yet while Carnage leans into its genre weirdness and comic possibilities more than its predecessor (which mostly relied on Hardy to provide both), it never really gets gnarly or clever enough. It comes closest when positioning Brock and Venom as an irritable comedy duo whose conflict faintly resembles a lover’s quarrel. Michelle Williams still has a mostly thankless role as Brock’s serious-minded ex Ann, but she does feature in one of this movie’s best scenes, becoming a perverse vessel of reconciliation between Eddie and his horrible true soulmate, as her baffled boyfriend (Reid Scott) looks on.
The whole movie isn’t like that, though; it’s more busy than giddy. Plenty of Venom’s quips sound like scrawled-in placeholders: When he fills the silence in Brock’s head with “Awkward!” and “This guy makes zero sense!” he could be auditioning for a DreamWorks cartoon. Let There Be Carnage doles out just enough oddball whimsy to create the impression of something different. In that way, it’s ultimately not much different from its MCU cousins. (See also a mid-credits tease “for the fans,” making a carny-barker promise about the real fireworks to come in some other, future movie.) There’s a certain appeal in a superhero rehash that skews between nasty and silly, but the approach has its PG-13 limits, and the soulful high-tech puppeteering Serkis brought to his motion-capture performances eludes everyone here. Despite Hardy’s committed contortions, this is a cynical beast with barely a hint of beauty.