Directed by Andy Serkis | Written by Kelly Marcel and Tom Hardy based on the Marvel Comics character created by David Micheline and Todd McFarlane | 90 min | Netflix
Back in 2018 Tom Hardy quieted any naysayers who might dispute his Hollywood stardom. Sure, he’d been in Inception and Mad Max: Fury Road and a number of other excellent films, but there’s nothing like a hit comic book movie to guarantee your name above the title. It’s too bad that status came by the execrable Venom, an obnoxious, poorly written superhero spin-off devoted to a Spider-Man villain — with no Spider-Man in sight due to the vagaries of studio legal departments and property rights holders.
Hardy starred as shambling journo Eddie Brock who bonds with the alien symbiote of the title. The movie wasted a stellar cast including Riz Ahmed and Michelle Williams, and I said I’d be surprised if they made a sequel, but I shouldn’t have been. The original made a mint and here we are.
Brock is still living in a shabby San Francisco apartment, and he’s still got Venom living in his body, whispering in his ear. Brock keeps Venom under control feeding him chickens and chocolate when all the creature wants is human brains like some kind of extraterrestrial zombie. Eddie’s been interviewing a serial killer on death row, Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson, hammy with a bad wig), who a local cop (Stephen Graham) hopes will tell Brock where the bodies are buried. This while Brock’s still trying to get over his breakup with his ex, Anne (Williams, who gets a little more to do this time). Cletus also has troubles of the heart — his true love Francis Barrison (Naomi Harris), who seems to be a mutant with a sonic scream — has been locked up for ages, and all he wants is to be with her. Naturally, Brock’s connection with Venom and with Kasady will bring forth another horrific alien threat.
What works better this time out is the banter between the haunted, fidgety Brock and the insatiable Venom, especially when the alien presence is just a voice in his head and not extending tendrils of sludge. You can feel the picture straining to be a full-on buddy comedy with a scene of Venom singing “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off” while making breakfast, and how much better might it have been if it had gone that way? Once again we’ve got a PG-13 film with a real R-Rated tone, straining to bust out of the strictures of a superhero movie absent a superhero, and the picture ends up feeling hollow and hamstrung because of it.
But that’s not even the biggest problem here. It’s that this is another villain’s story with barely a heart, where they’ve had to come up with an even badder baddie to make the presumptive hero seem at all relatable and redeemable. Venom isn’t, and Brock isn’t especially likeable either. If Brock was a real sweetheart the tension between the characters might make for something worth seeing — the Jekyll and Hyde stuff that Venom seems to be all about is potent thematically, but the filmmakers aren’t especially interested in exploring the ethical challenges of being responsible for a rampaging, alien id, a more frightening Hulk. Brock has always seemed like an asshole, making him a potentially great antagonist not someone we end up caring about when it’s clear he and the psychopathic alien are well-suited. Add to that a bunch of lazy writing and dull, muddy-looking CGI, you’re stuck with another forgettable night at the cinema.
It takes a lot for a production to absolutely smother the natural charisma of one of our most versatile actors, but Venom: Let There Be Carnage diminishes most of what makes Hardy so watchable. What’s especially painful is he has no one to blame but himself as he’s got both a writer’s credit and a producer’s credit. He could’ve made this a lot better.