Tom Hardy and Woody Harrelson navigate toxic relationships in this off-kilter superhero rom-com
Remember those weird-concept romantic comedies from the 80s? You know, the ones where a guy falls in love with a mannequin possessed by the soul of an Egyptian mummy, or a woman assumes a stranger’s identity just by wearing her jacket? The kind of bizarre B-movies they used to release back when studios still made original IP with budgets under $100 million. Movies where the plot falls apart under the slightest scrutiny but manages to coast off of the sheer charisma of its leads as they get mixed up in wacky situations and fall in love along the way.
The original 2018 film Venom and its new, pandemic-delayed sequel Venom: Let There Be Carnage both share DNA with these kooky cinematic ancestors. The romantic chemistry between Tom Hardy’s reporter Eddie Brock and the alien symbiote Venom (also voiced by Hardy) in the original film was palpable to audiences and critics alike, though probably not an intentional choice on the part of the filmmakers. In Let There Be Carnage, however, director Andy Serkis gleefully leans into the concept of a man navigating an odd-couple relationship with a foul-mouthed extra-terrestrial organism that lives in his body and gives him superhuman abilities. Less interested in plot than in using its peculiar premise as a launching pad for the romance between its two leads, Venom: Let There Be Carnage is a mid-budget romantic comedy masquerading as a $100 million superhero movie.
The original film ended with Eddie breaking off his relationship with fiancée Anne (Michelle Williams, returning for the sequel with cheerful indulgence) in order to commit to his relationship with Venom. At the start of Let There Be Carnage, the couple’s honeymoon appears to be over. Venom, who manifests as a disembodied head with tentacles sprouting from Eddie’s back, is restless with his mopey and reclusive host/partner. Venom wants to be out in the streets fighting crime (especially if it means he gets to bite people’s heads off), but Eddie prefers to keep a low profile. So when notorious serial killer Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson) asks Eddie for an exclusive interview, it’s Venom who leaps at the chance for some real detective work out in the field.
Eddie and Venom aren’t the only ones with relationship problems, however. A prologue offers a glimpse of teenaged Kasady (Jack Bandeira) at a prisonlike reform school as he comforts the love of his life, Frances (Olumide Olorunfemi), who possesses the unique ability to emit a destructive sonic shriek. The couple are ripped apart when Frances is shipped off to a sinister government research facility. Years later and on death row, Kasady, who speaks in riddles and poems, plans to use Eddie’s newspaper column to send a secret message to Frances (played as an adult by Naomie Harris with scenery-chewing zeal).
During one of their interviews Kasady bites Eddie and ingests some of Venom’s, uh, essence, which eventually mutates into a separate symbiote that names itself Carnage (again voiced by an electronically-altered Harrelson). How exactly does Venom’s essence spawn a separate entity with a totally unique personality? Why is that entity more powerful than Venom for no apparent reason? Who knows! These are not questions the movie is interested in answering, because they have nothing to do with the romance between Eddie and Venom.
As with the original film, stopping the bad guy plays second fiddle to Eddie and Venom’s prolonged lover’s quarrel. Eddie resents Venom’s controlling behavior while Venom longs to be out and proud, so to speak. The couple’s bickering sessions take up a significant portion of the runtime (one wants to watch football while the other wants to eat people, a classic relationship impasse), eventually breaking up to go their separate ways. This is how Venom ends up at a rave where, naturally, everyone just loves his costume. Bedecked in neon glow sticks, Venom takes the mic from the DJ and gives a speech about tolerance and his joy at finally being accepted for who he is. It’s completely ridiculous, has nothing to do with the plot, and is easily the best scene in the film. Not since the Babadook has cinema produced such a memorable queer monster icon.
The push-and-pull between the Carnage plot and the Eddie/Venom storyline is apparent in the film’s haphazard editing. Scenes simply arrive and exit with no regard for motivation, rhythm, or narrative cohesion. In more story-driven movies this kind of laissez faire editing style would be irritating, but since Let There Be Carnage doesn’t particularly care about its own plot it’s content to simply bring us along for the ride as it flits from scene to scene at a madcap pace. Only when the camera is focused on Harrelson’s Kasady do things seem to drag. The understated actor chose to go with a more menacing Hannibal Lector-style smolder when what this film really calls for is scenery-chewing camp. Luckily Harris is available to bring the goods in that regard, playing Shriek with gleeful comic book villainy.
It also doesn’t hurt that the film isn’t too bad to look at. Cinematographer Robert Richardson has an eye for warm, incandescent color and does justice to San Francisco’s inherently stunning backdrops. Production designer Oliver Scholl puts together several impressive environments, from a properly spooky gothic mansion wreathed in mist to a Chinatown alley bathed in purple and turquoise neon. My personal favorite is a long prison block lit with rows of orange-gold Edison bulbs, imbuing this new Hollywood genre with old Hollywood style.
For a big budget superhero film Let There Be Carnage is blessedly modest with its use of CGI, and it’s here that Serkis’ influence really shows. What CGI there is looks quite good and never overwhelms the frame. For Venom in particular, his oily skin and chitinous eyes are surprisingly tactile. Watching these characters interact up close is far more enjoyable than the larger action setpieces, which are forgettable but not particularly boring.
Despite Kasady/Carnage’s homicidal tendencies and Venom’s penchant for violence this PG-13 movie is a mostly bloodless affair. The off-screen kills and Venom’s puerile personality (he uses the insults “bitch” and “pussy” far too frequently for my preference) give one the impression of Deadpool lite. If not for the Eddie/Venom dynamic it would be easy to write off Venom: Let There Be Carnage as a forgettable bit of Marvel barrel-scraping. It’s a shame then that the characters’ induction into the MCU by way of a mid-credits scene likely spells doom for the franchise’s greatest romance.