Producers: Avi Arad, Tom Hardy, Amy Pascal, Matt Tolmach, Kelly Marcel and Hutch Parker Director: Andy Serkis Screenplay: Kelly Marcel and Tom Hardy Cast: Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Naomie Harris, Reid Scott, Stephen Graham, Peggy Lu and Woody Harrelson Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Some movies uplift, some delight, others terrify. And then there are some that simply assault. That’s the category that “Venom: Let There Be Carnage,” falls into. The subtitle to the surprise 2018 smash is entirely apt. You come out of it feeling as though you’ve been bludgeoned for ninety minutes with mugging, mayhem, mindlessness and mediocre CGI. If that’s what you’re looking for, this is the movie for you. Otherwise, steer clear.
In the Spider-Man comics, of course, Venom was a gruesome villain, a ravenous alien symbiote that briefly took over the hero and later a succession of his enemies. In that mode he appeared in Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man 3.” But Sony, which has teamed up with the MCU to partner on forthcoming wallcrawler pictures, retained control of subsidiary characters from Spidey’s long catalogue of issues, and Venom was the first chosen to star in a standalone effort.
Of course that required major changes. Venom had to be turned into a quasi-hero. The solution was to make muckraking journalist Eddie Brock his reluctant host, and put them to work as a team in defeating even worse menaces—evil scientist Carlson Drake and Riot, the symbiote that bonded with him.
This sequel takes off from there, or more precisely the credits postscript in the first movie introducing serial killer Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson), another old S-M villain who becomes the host of another symbiote, Carnage, the spawn of Venom. After laying out the wildly “Odd Couple” relationship Brock and Venom have established, with the latter growling lines that only Eddie can hear and sometimes taking him over completely, the script by Hardy and Kelly Marcel explains how Carnage was accidentally infused into Kasady during the reporter’s interview with him—which reveals where Kasady buried his victims, a scoop that earns him the killer’s wrath because Kasady is furious that Brock didn’t inform readers about the horrible childhood that made him the maniac he is.
So when Kasady breaks out of prison just as he’s being strapped in for execution—by becoming Carnage—one of the people he’s aiming to take revenge on is Brock/Venom, and he’ll use his former girlfriend Anne (Michelle Williams), now engaged to Dr. Dan Lewis (Reid Scott), as bait. He also breaks Frances Barrison, another S-M villain known as Shriek, out of her security cell so they can be married; they two had met and fallen in love in juvie years before.
Naturally at this point Brock and Venom have had a spat and separated, leaving the symbiote to go off alone and have some “humorous” adventures in the wild and wooly demimonde of San Francisco. They are eventually reunited through the offices of convenience store owner Mrs. Chen (Peggy Lu) and hot-tempered detective Mulligan (Stephen Graham), and face off against Kasady, Carnage and Barrison in the cathedral where the killer and Shriek are getting hitched. An orgy of very unimpressive special effects there seems to go on forever, the messy visuals contending with the booming sound effects and Marco Beltrami’s blasting score in a “which is worse” contest, the images or the noise. (Both win and we lose.)
It’s hard to imagine that an enjoyable movie could ever been extracted from the Venom material, however much you might try to make the character suitable as a “leading thing”—Hulk Venom’s not. But the direction this series has gone is particularly unpromising. Venom’s loud, nasty-looking (kind of like a poor cousin of the “Alien” creature) and about as charismatic as a rock. And pairing him with Hardy’s Brock, who’s loutish and unkempt, doesn’t make for a Felix-and-Oscar dichotomy. And in any event the comedy part of this would-be action comedy is so dumb that you’re more likely to wince at the lines than laugh at them. (When, near the start, Brock is hanging on a rope from the roof of a tall building and, talking to Anne on the phone, tells her he’s “just hanging around,” you can almost hear your heart sink.)
Still, one has to admit that both Hardy and Harrelson sink their teeth into their parts, chewing the scenery for all it’s worth. (Not that Oliver Scholl’s production design is especially attractive.) One expects that of Woody, who’s gone the manic route plenty of times in the past and appears to be trying to outdo himself here, but Hardy’s done good work before, and it’s sad to watch him sink to this level; but the paycheck was probably large, given the first movie’s success. Graham, another talented guy, but he falls into the same overwrought trap, and Williams and Harris both are largely wasted. Lu gets a couple of easy laughs, ethnic stereotype be damned.
This is not a picture that boasts the top-drawer effects of the big-budget Marvel flicks; it seems to revel in its cheesiness, and director Andy Serkis—with plenty of personal experience in the motion-capture business—goes along with visuals that Peter Jackson would never have tolerated without appearing to care about even rudimentary coherence or clarity. The nonchalance is also reflected in Robert Richardson’s nondescript cinematography and the messy editing of Maryann Brandon and Stan Salfas.
None of that will matter much to the fans who made the first “Venom” movie such a smash, and this one is likely to do well too. But by the standards of contemporary superhero movies, “Carnage” is a bottom-of-the-barrel effort. It appears, though, from the inevitable credits teaser, that Venom is scheduled to enter the big leagues again, in the Tom Holland Spider-Man series. One can only hope the result will be less disappointing than when the character helped derail the Maguire one.