If Venom: Let There be Carnage has a central theme, it is relationships. At the centre of this is Tom Hardy’s Eddie Brock and Tom Hardy’s Venom; for those not in the know, and this sequel presumes you are in the know, Venom is a symbiotic alien who lives inside of journalist Eddie Brock. He can transform into the monstrous Venom, taking full control, or he can just shout curse words in his brain. It is mostly the latter. It is an odd couple thing: Brock is a shambles, but doesn’t want to eat people; Venom gives Brock great strength, but does want to eat people. The central conflict is Venom wanting to be unleashed, in amoral fashion, while Brock wants to keep him caged whilst also pulling his life back together. Around this revolve several other relationships: Eddie and a cop (Stephen Graham); Eddie and the convicted serial killer, Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson) Eddie and his ex-fiancée (Michelle Williams); his ex-fiancée and her new fiancé (Reid Scott); and, the serial killer and his (now grown up) childhood sweetheart (Naomie Harris). It’s sad then, when a film all about relationships doesn’t quite fit together.
The problem with the Venom films, at this point, is an identity crisis. In some ways, this is fitting: they are films about a split identity and a warring dynamic. Yet, the films succumb to this rather than present it. We have the chaotic energy of Venom which is actually well paired with the shambling Eddie Brock. As a double act, they work. Well, work well enough. The film never just focuses on the odd-couple routine, though; the first was at its best with fish out of water comedy but was overblown and prone to self-seriousness. Fortunately, everything is somewhat tightened up here. It is a clean ninety-seven minutes with a focused central narrative. Yet, it still finds time to be conflicted. Let There Be Carnage mostly embraces its stupidity but is also prone to being melodramatic or theatrical. There is a heightened, prestige look to the whole thing (it’s a big studio movie, it looks like one), that is at odds with the schlocky attitude of the character. There is a lot of B-Movie DNA here, but the film will never quite allow itself to be one. There is too much restraint, too much adherence to expectation and formula. It is all too neat and tidy. For example, the main cop can’t just be the main cop, he has to be the cop that shot the new antagonist when she was a child and, by pure coincidence, the same cop who gets caught up in this film’s ensuing narrative.
There is a lot of pointless convolution here. We too often push towards, not sincerity, but, certainly normality. Andy Serkis is directing this time, and he is not a bad fit, per se. This is a very effects heavy movie; but, importantly, it is a lot of people having to interact with effects like they are in the real world. Though, the smashy crashy finale (which gets a bit dull, despite the hyper mobile camera, assisted by CG) might as well be an animated movie. Outside of this, the effects work is great and feels very real. Serkis is used to motion capture and selling the virtual as the real; this background helps him here. He is not, though, a b-movie director. He is not an exploitation director and not even really a comedy or action director. The whole thing just has a corporate sheen, one of disinterest: populist moviemaking with a goofy core that sometimes pushes against the aesthetic. The film, really, is a comedy. It is focused on gags and every scene is narratively heightened to push towards this. This also allows it to get away with a lot of nonsense (like a character who spent her entire adult life in prison suddenly being an excellent getaway driver), as the pervasive unreality waves away logic. But, the humour and silliness often falls flat. A lot of this is the writing, which is blunt and goes for low hanging gags, or basic punchlines, in a way that is more predictable than amusing. However, the ultimate issue is the identity crisis: this linear superhero narrative with melodramatic stakes pushing against a crude buddy movie. Neither side helps the other.
It is not without its pleasures, though. This is an entertaining film with a few clever moments, and a few endearing moments (like Venom hijacking a Little Simz concert, because she is playing the song Venom). Tom Hardy is still having fun with accents; an early scene with Stephen Graham just elicits a reaction of: those are the voices we’re using, huh? Were no Americans available? Actually, Reece Shearsmith turning up, late in the movie and as a priest, pushes this to the point of inadvertent hilarity. This is the movie being fun, a ridiculousness and a scrappiness that separate it from the pack. It’s just such a shame that it can’t push further this way, or do this more often. In the end, we are left with a conflicted picture, a film about symbiosis that doesn’t actually fit together.