Tom Hardy shines in the sequel to Marvel’s Venom, but the film leans on cliches and messy CGI-filled battle sequences
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In Venom: Let There Be Carnage, a character squashes a spider crawling across his desk, leaving nothing but a bloody smudge. The image communicates Sony and Marvel Studios’ defiance of critics who complained about Spider-Man’s absence in Venom (2018) and the studios’ belief that it can make a good movie about the web-slinger’s most iconic villains without him.
Tom Hardy reprises his role as antihero Eddie Brock, a down-on-his-luck journalist whose body hosts a dangerous alien symbiote named Venom. This film picks up a year after the events of the first. Eddie wants to put his life back together after having sabotaged his career and relationships in the previous installment, and Venom wants the freedom to hunt down criminals and eat their heads. Alien symbiotes eat phenethylamine, a chemical found in the brain, to survive, but Eddie discovers chocolate has enough phenethylamine to keep Venom under control.
The action begins to speed up when serial killer Cletus Kasady, played by Woody Harrelson, bites Eddie’s hand during a tussle and develops an alien symbiote of his own. This new symbiote calls itself “Carnage” and he’s much more dangerous than his father Venom.
Just as in the previous installment, Tom Hardy’s performance as Eddie/Venom is the best thing about the movie. Eddie has nuance and emotion, and Venom is darkly funny. The relationship between host and symbiote is strangely relatable: Who doesn’t have stories about that bad roommate? But of course, Eddie and Venom aren’t just roommates. They share a body, so Hardy spends much of the movie engaged in some odd-couple bickering with himself.
This intrapersonal relationship provides the heart of the film, and Hardy’s the kind of actor who can carry scenes all by himself. Andy Serkis, directing his first big-budget feature film, probably deserves some credit for Eddie/Venom’s engaging back and forth, which he perfected playing Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Hardy isn’t the only noteworthy aspect of the film. Michelle Williams, Reid Scott, and Peggy Lu are back with charming performances as Eddie/Venom’s support system.
But the film, which takes full advantage of its PG-13 rating with foul language and occasional head chomping, has problems that overshadow its bright spots. Marvel movies tend to acknowledge comics lore while charting a new course, but the script of Venom: Let There Be Carnage sticks too closely to the source material.
This is one of those stories in which the hero unintentionally creates the villain who then becomes obsessed with destroying the hero. These stories are standard comic pulp. But they’re not particularly satisfying, and superhero movies of the last decade have tended to create more interesting motivations for the bad guys. Carnage’s origin story from 1992 follows the classic pattern, and it’s looking especially dated. Also, Kasady is an insane serial killer with a troubled past who talks in riddles and creates elaborate nonsensical plans. The murderer with a strange genius is supposed to intrigue us, but his ubiquity in fiction has turned him into a cliché.
Harrelson was the obvious choice to play Kasady/Carnage, but he can’t do much with the role. Most of Harrelson’s time as Carnage comes in chaotic CGI sequences in which it’s difficult to tell what’s happening. The action needed better editing: The King Kong‒inspired final battle is a mess, and Kasady/Carnage’s prison break is even worse.
Occasionally the script hints at an interesting subtext. There’s talk of freedom versus repression and a life of purpose versus a life of peace, but these moments don’t go anywhere. Kasady hints at original sin when he says, “Everyone’s born in blood and pain,” and the final battle happens at a wedding in a shattered cathedral. I’m sure we’re supposed to pick up on some statement for or against religion, but whatever was intended is lost in the sound and fury.
Maybe we just need a real hero like Spider-Man to rescue us from this confusion.
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