The Marvel logjam continues to slowly unlock after 2020’s mass brake stops. And the third of five features to land on screens is perhaps the greatest shock. Not a surprise, but a shock to the system. The right people involved make a world of difference. Andy Serkis (Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle) is now just a bit more bankable behind the camera, keeping events lean, mean, and most importantly to the point while wandering off a beaten path in Venom: Let There Be Carnage. He makes some significant waves, keeping Tom Hardy in line, giving focus and drive to the titular symbiote, and in the grandest feat of all, allowing for a laidback attitude through it all. That might work too well.
This second Venom’s lighter on the air it breathes, perhaps the benefit of giving Hardy shared story credit with Kelly Marcel (Cruella), in the hope of not repeating prior mistakes. Long story short, it’s an oddball roommate comedy first, and a comic book movie second, not losing faithfulness with either. Hardy is still Eddie Brock, once a disgraced TV journalist. Now he’s laying low as a writer in San Francisco, rebuilding his cred while the black slimed Venom continues to pester. He garners the scoop of a lifetime, sitting down with noted serial killer Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson). It’s a big deal, and it reopens the door for a major cold case, catching Detective Mulligan’s (Stephen Graham) eye. And eventually, to a dark death row sentence. Through a bad case of luck, Kasady becomes the host body for rival symbiote Carnage, planning an escape, revenge on Eddie, and reconciliation with sweetheart Frances aka Shriek (Naomie Harris).
The syrupy CG characters first idolized on print by David Michelinie, Todd Macfarlane and Mark Bagley steal the show to a degree, affirming that relaxed, kick-off-your-shoes demeanor. Serkis himself is well attuned to matching digital performances to the human equivalent, and often combining the two. Granted, Venom doesn’t fall in the same category as Gollum or Caesar, but Serkis’s perspective makes for an easy balance of emotional conflict sorely lacking under Ruben Fleischer’s authority, bridging that gap between a human and his alien partner.
And certainly, more so in this installment does Hardy further emphasize their bond as roommates and friends, pushing aside any potential conclusions fans may be wont to jump to. He maintains the soul of a conflicted human, a year after his partnership with this symbiote abruptly began. But he has plenty more fun with the idea, laying down a charm factor previously missing. Eddie wants to keep Venom under control, laying some ground rules, and trusting raw chickens for sustenance. Venom, in turn, remains a sarcastic voice of reason when Eddie can’t reel it in. That’s most evident in those moments when Eddie confronts Carnage, or when he reunites with his ex, Anne (a steadfast Michelle Williams), and her doctor fiancé Dan (Reid Scott). His own emotional shortfalls remain unchecked, and there was just more evidence to be found here and done in significantly less time.
At roughly 90 minutes and change, this Venom sequel has absolutely no time to light foot around if the wild pacing is an indicator. It felt so much faster, looked cleaner, and sounded louder. Call it a workout for the senses, via DP Robert Richardson’s (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) very off-brand focal look, and the calm prowess of sound editor Kami Asgar (The Unholy), amplifying both Venom’s vocal intonation and the menacing wails in Harris’s performance, gathering attention with every deep breath.
The stakes are established promptly for the purpose of tension, even if they’re not all that clear at first. The “friends ‘spat” angle takes the wheel so often, so directly, it distracts from the tension that eventually takes hold in the third act. And Harrelson’s work does get slightly pushed aside in the process, his Carnage looking for freedom, and a chance at love. He goes all-in for the part, not quite outdoing the fierceness Hardy puts out, more matching it note for note, albeit with less to play for, unlike Eddie. He’s waffling about, desiring mere closure with the past, looking toward the straight and narrow. A symbiote will always throw a wrench in those plans; either one adapts or is continually distracted by their own dark modesty. Between Harrelson and Hardy, the pair manage a stark duality.
I feel like perhaps they stopped just a bit short of exploring deeper character themes involving Brock, or the creature he serves host to. That quick runtime is not kind to this sequel, doing more than enough to stem the backward tide of its predecessor, but still falling behind to not be a complete entry in Sony’s Spiderverse. It lands somewhere in the middle, awaiting the next lofty boost. Venom: Let There Be Carnage takes pride, through the aid of a capable director like Serkis, in being better than the first, but not by a massive degree. Hardy’s allure is increasingly sensible for the character, and it’s effective, just not to a level of full thoroughness. If nothing else, the inroads it builds for the future are appreciated, even a trifle exciting. For this next generation of Marvel stories, we’ll take it. (C+; 3/5 Horns Up!)
Venom: Let There Be Carnage arrives in theaters the evening of September 30, and yes, there will at least be an essential mid-credits scene; rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some strong language, disturbing material, and suggestive references; 97 minutes.