The first Venom film, released in 2018, was a superhero tale with a strange twist. On its face, it told yet another origin story, explaining how the down-on-his-luck journalist Eddie Brock (played by Tom Hardy) melded bodies with an alien to become the goopy Venom. But the film’s most interesting aspect was not the comic-book action; it was the oddball rom-com energy between Eddie and his symbiotic costume—along with the genuine intensity of Hardy’s performance. The actor apparently improvised one of that film’s best scenes, in which Eddie plops into a lobster tank and starts munching on the inhabitants.
In the sequel, Venom: Let There Be Carnage, Tom Hardy’s wildest instincts have triumphed—mostly. Any effort at high-minded seriousness about the role of the antihero in a world of caped crusaders is out the window. So is any care for traditional storytelling notions such as coherence or believable characters. The entire film might as well take place inside that lobster tank. Venom may not have realized it was a so-bad-it’s-good cult classic, but Let There Be Carnage is striving to maintain that status from minute one.
Unfortunately, it still has to tell a routine narrative in which its protagonist saves the day, something the director Andy Serkis seems to have little interest in. Best known as the actor who played Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, Serkis was a natural choice to direct a film featuring another CGI creature with a bifurcated personality. He captures the discombobulation of Venom’s symbiotic relationship vividly but struggles to create comprehensible set pieces. His prior directorial efforts include the special-effect-laden but visually weak Mowgli, and the aesthetics aren’t any better here. The action is as messy as the first Venom—perhaps even more so now that our blobby protagonist is facing off against the equally gloppy Carnage (Woody Harrelson).
Carnage is created when the serial killer Cletus Kasady, whom Eddie is interviewing on death row, accidentally ingests a piece of the Venom symbiote after biting Eddie’s finger. Harrelson tries to imbue the villain with a real sense of danger, but he’s so irredeemably evil from the moment the movie begins that his performance has no suspense. Even eating the symbiote doesn’t change him much. The film tries to give the character more depth by focusing on his relationship with Shriek (Naomie Harris), his imprisoned love interest with the superpower of yelling very loudly, but her part is even more underwritten, so their connection falls flat. Perhaps the film doesn’t flesh out Carnage and Shriek because of its short running time, but Let There Be Carnage is too exhausting to last any longer than it does. The viewing experience is like going to a nightclub and having someone scream the plot in your ear over a thumping bass line—ironic, given that Venom’s biggest weakness is sound waves.
Serkis is clearly most invested in Hardy and his two-faced performance. Even more than the first film’s director, Ruben Fleischer, Serkis understands that Venom’s primary intrigue is the romantic push and pull between symbiote and host. So, like the first movie, he structures the sequel as a romantic comedy, having the couple bicker, break up, and finally rediscover the joy of their partnership. Hardy can communicate so much emotion through the barest grunt, and he delights in Venom’s florid dialogue, popping his sludgy head out of Eddie’s torso for face-to-face chats. “I need brains,” he demands of Eddie, who won’t let him consume human flesh. “Chickens have brains,” Eddie counters. “I most passionately disagree!” Venom whines. When the pair briefly split, Venom inhabits other bodies, covers himself in glow sticks, and goes out dancing, proclaiming, “I’m out of the Eddie closet!” Their eventual reunion comes after a recalcitrant Venom, realizing he cannot live without his original host, inhabits the body of Eddie’s ex-fiancée, Anne (Michelle Williams, a monumental actor who is still game for the absurdity).
But this twisted love story keeps getting derailed by superhero business. Whenever the film cuts back to Carnage’s or Shriek’s rampages, it loses its edge; when it’s just Tom Hardy in his apartment, preparing a chaotic breakfast with alien tendrils, it brims with hilarious physical comedy. There isn’t anything quite like Venom, and the sequel knows it, but the unbridled silliness isn’t enough to justify the ticket price. Perhaps the third, inevitable installment could just be a black-box play, or a series of Hardy’s monologues with his alien love—anything to finally free Venom from the boring strictures of its genre.