Picking up from the post credit scene of the first film, Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) visits a prison to interview Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson) who has an exclusive story to share. This leads to an accident that infects Kasady with Venom’s genes giving birth to his offspring, Carnage. The escaped convict goes on a killing spree to find his one true love, Shriek (Naomi Harris) as Brock and Venom struggle with their own compatibility.
Venom is one of the most popular villains in the Spider-Man universe, jumping from deadly foe to reluctant anti-hero. The first film is one of the biggest panned box-office successes, capturing the basics of the lore better than Spider-Man 3, but wasting everything else by censoring its R rated content for a PG-13 crowd, unlike the superior “copycat” Upgrade. If ever there was a character that could compete with the hulking symbiote, its the equally vicious Carnage. Created by David Michelinie and Mark Bagley, his debut in The Amazing Spider-Man #344 as well as the subsequent Maximum Carnage in 1993 cemented him as an unstoppable force more than a decade before Heath Ledger’s take on the Joker. His fame, however, was short lived because of the comic book crash of the 1990’s, but subsequent appearances in television and video games kept his presence alive.
With the financial success of the first film, and the hiring of motion capture wizard Andy Serkis to direct the sequel, things started to look up, until the pandemic delayed the release several times until it was bumped up a week early to avoid competition with No Time to Die. Does it fix everything that was left broken? It’s complicated.
On the one hand, this has more going for it from a technical and filmmaking perspective. The directing is more precise, keeping everything in focus rather than in cramped close-ups and choppy editing. It also experiments with different narratives branching the characters off into unique scenarios, like Venom at a rave or Carnage trying to break his love out of Prison. There’s even a stylized animated sequence outlining the past of the main villain that comes into play during the final battle. Casting Woody Harrelson was a perfect fit as he embodies both the sensitive and unpredictable nature of an isolated individual. Carnage himself is a treat to witness on screen. His design is faithful while taking creative liberties with his powers during the action sequences: some of which lead to several out of nowhere, but in character jokes. Anytime they’re on screen, they steal the show. In fact, the more self-aware humor levels the tonal shift even if it’s still inconsistent, with the interactions between Eddie and Venom being more comedic than the quasi-horror original. To Kelly Marcel’s credit, some jokes work like Venom being able to draw so fast it would put the best Disney animators to shame, or two chickens he keeps as pets. While it’s not a perfect comedy, it does have more going for its level headed approach rather than juggling two polar opposite tones at once.
The special effects are improved so they no longer look photoshopped like the MRI scene from the first film; a perk that comes with enlisting a guy who has spent his career refining a revolutionary digital effect that is now common in both films and video games. For all the faults, it has a better identity and representation of the source.
That being said, it still can’t escape the problems holding it back from being one of the best comic-book movies. Several returning character serve little purpose other than continuity reasons. While everyone tries to be funny, most of the dialogue is awkward, like a blatant allusion to Venom and Brock being lovers instead of roommates. Coupled with Carnage’s origin, there’s not enough time to flesh out everything at a steady pace, rushing important character building in the first minute. Once again, both the rating and running time feel too condensed and restrained for the rich material in the comics. It wants to be a comedy, but several moments beg for the blood and gore to go all out and revel in what Venom is most well known for. As long as it is PG-13, it will never live up to the hype that it could reach. Most disappointing is the lack of interaction between hero and villain. In the comics, the family bickering builds for several stories between Venom and Carnage: something that should’ve been easy to adapt for a different medium. Here, they don’t have any scenes together until the final act, glossing over the Symbiote lore that was already established in the first film. Woody Harrelson is a great Cletus Kasady, but the lack of interactions between anti-hero and psychopath doesn’t cement his proclaimed friendship for the eccentric journalist who’s having two kinds of relationship problems. And while the final battle is satisfying, the fact that it comes at the end rather than being the main focus of the story shows how little it cares to both stand on its own and as a strong adaptation of some of the most famous Marvel Comics. Making Carnage a one off villain was the biggest mistake. He should be an ongoing villain in the same execution of the Green Goblin in the Sam Raimi Spider-Man trilogy or Thanos in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. At an hour and a half with only the last third dedicated to a giant computer animated battle, this should’ve either been cut into two movies or extended to a three hour runtime in order to dive into the bond between the humans and aliens. Instead, Harrelson keeps everything afloat until the plot hijacks all the goodwill this sequel brought for an abrupt conclusion that will never see a better interpretation of this comic for another generation.
Venom: Let There Be Carnage is more tolerable than its predecessor with a clearer tone, a concise direction, perfect casting, level headed comedy, clear action, and storylines that lend themselves to experimentation. Unfortunately, the returning characters serve little purpose, the connections have deteriorated, the lack of blood and gore does a disservice to the comics, and worst of all the conflict with the two leads is non-existent until the end. This is the comic-book movie stereotype cited by the likes of Martin Scorsese and Denis Villeneuve that will never live up to its full potential if it doesn’t fully embrace its roots. Not that everything from a comic should be made into a film as some elements that work in one medium don’t translate well to another, but the important themes that made Maximum Carnage a gripping tale of loss, relationships and the worst of humanity have already been adapted in tv shows and video games. For what it is, this is an improvement if only by a minimum effort. If you enjoyed the first movie, there’s much more to stomach here. But if you want a better representation of both characters, either watch Upgrade or read Maximum Carnage. However, with the post-credit scene setting up a surprising turn of events, this transforms a by the numbers sequel into a necessary viewing.