You can’t really talk about Venom: Let There Be Carnage without talking about what started it all: Venom. When Venom (bringing to new life the character created by legends David Michelinie and Todd McFarlane) came out in 2018, I didn’t know what to make of it. It felt like a random, mad-libs-generated version of a film powered by a strange combination of earnestness and chaos. It was stacked with an awards-winning cast: Tom Hardy as Eddie Brock, Michelle Williams as his partner, Anne, Riz Ahmed and Jenny Slate as the nefarious baddies, and helmed by director Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland).
And still, the film was marred by incompetent storytelling. I rewatched it only a few weeks ago and I still can’t really tell you what Riz Ahmed’s Carlton Drake was up to, what was going on in the third act, if this film had anything specific or even non-specific to say in its messaging. It’s just a mess of things happening, awkwardly, over a superhero flick template that feels plucked from the early 2000s, acted out by a cast of good performers that range from really into it to barely clocking in for their franchise paycheck. Venom suffered from, ironically, a massive identity crisis. Was it dark and serious? Was it goofy and irreverent? And then Woody Harrelson shows up wearing a $20 Ronald-McDonald by-way-of-Spirit-Halloween wig and a goofy grin in the post-credits scene, and you wonder what the hell you just watched.
In spite of all of that, or maybe even because of it, I had a really good time watching Venom, even if I couldn’t call it a good film. It made me smile and it made me laugh, even when I was never sure if I was laughing with the movie or at the movie.
That brings us to the good news. This time, Venom: Let There Be Carnage is in on the joke.
The sequel begins right after the events of the first film, with Eddie struggling to pick up the pieces of his career and personal life, all while adjusting to life with Venom inside of his head. On the former, with Venom’s help, he makes some progress: an interview with serial killer Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson) leads to a break-through in his case that puts Eddie back in the spotlight for his investigative journalism. On the latter, though, Eddie continues to struggle, with the news of his ex-wife Anne’s (Michelle Williams) new pending nuptials.
But Eddie can’t get Venom, who is tired of eating chickens and chocolate every day instead of human brains, under control. And during an interview gone wrong with Kasady, Eddie ends up passing along some of his more unique traits and creating a terrifying new villain who has a personal axe to grind against him.
Doubling down on every wacky aspect of the first film that worked – namely, Tom Hardy frantically mumbling to himself in a high-pitched voice as he argues with an effects-laden, deeper, and angry Venom version of his voice – this is a sequel that lacks the identity crisis of its predecessor. Director Andy Serkis has given the people what they want this time around: twice as much of the can’t-live-with-or-without-you Eddie Brock/Venom relationship, an over-the-top villain and foil for the duo in Harrelson’s Carnage, and that signature earnestness from the first film.
What also helps Venom: Let There Be Carnage work immensely better than the first film and, frankly, feel like a breath of fresh air compared to most current superhero films in general, is the lack of a MacGuffin. There is no Secret Awesome Ring/Stone/Weapon/Item that everyone in the film exhaustibly chases. Instead, it’s just a personal vendetta between two men and their symbiotes, with each of the men trying to protect the women they love. Eddie/Venom continue to be a winning odd-couple combination, and Harrelson’s Carnage is a surprising success, especially given our first glimpse at him. Harrelson imbues Kasady with a level of sincerity and childishness I wouldn’t expect from a movie like this one, particularly in his love for Shriek (Naomie Harris).
It’s not the stuff of Shakespeare, and it doesn’t contain a profound message or stunning visuals, but Venom: Let There Be Carnage is here to entertain by doubling down on its misguided antiheroes, each imbued with the soul of a romantic comedy hero trapped in the body of someone living in a gory action or horror film instead.
And make sure you stick around for the post-credits scene. This one feels like it has a slightly higher production value than the last time around.