It has been three years since Ruben Fleisher’s Venom was released, as the planned start to a connected live-action Spider-verse promised by Sony since the early 2010s. Although perfectly serviceable, it wasn’t even the best film about a symbiotic relationship to be put into cinemas that Autumn, with Leigh Whannell’s Upgrade, starring Tom Hardy-alike Logan Marshall-Green hitting the big screen a few weeks earlier. With Venom taking over $850 million at the worldwide box office, however (for comparison, Upgrade took $17 million), it was clear that a sequel would follow.
It would appear that while Sony would have been very happy with the financial returns, perhaps they felt that more could be realised in terms of actual quality. To that end, there have been significant changes to the artistic team this time. Andy Serkis is in as director, the terrific Robert Richardson (best known for his collaborations with Quentin Tarantino) is in as cinematographer, and the script, from a story idea from Tom Hardy himself, is written by Kelly Marcel, whose best work is probably the outstanding Saving Mr Banks – the story of the adaptating of Mary Poppins for the screen in the 1960s.
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A prologue takes place in 1996, where we see a young Cletus Kasady (played in the present day by Woody Harrelson), in what we would think of in this country as a borstal, separated from a young France Barrison (Naomie Harris in the rest of the film). As she is taken away, we see her ability to manipulate sound, producing loud sonic blasts. In trying to stop her escape, young police officer Patrick Mulligan (Stephan Graham in present day) shoots at her and believes her to be dead. We will later find she survived and ended up in isolation at the Ravencroft Institute (effectively Marvel’s Arkham Asylum).
The story picks up an indeterminate time after the first film, with Eddie Brock (Hardy) living in the same apartment, shopping at the same convenience store, and co-existing with the Venom symbiote. They have a testy relationship, with Venom constantly wanting the freedom to eat human brains, as only this organ – and chocolate – gives him the nutrient he needs, and chicken brains aren’t quite doing it for him.
With the now-detective Mulligan utilising Brock to talk to Kasady (residing on death row, and close to his execution date), in order to try to get information on cold cases/still missing bodies etc., a turn of events leads to Cletus biting Brock, and getting, effectively, the offspring of Venom in his blood – the creature that will come to be known as Carnage. With Carnage, Kasady is able to cheat death, escape prison, and find his lost love. Together they will… do something: the plot isn’t actually clear what they want, apart from to get married (by Reece Shearsmith, in a cameo as a minister) and cause chaos, but the sheer anarchy of their behaviour makes them a danger to society, particularly with Cletus in this enhanced form. With Venom and Eddie splitting over compatibility issues, will they reunite in time to stop this threat?
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The first thing to note is that this film is around 15 minutes shorter than its predecessor. If we take out credits and the prologue, the main meat of the story is only a little over 80 minutes in a total running time of 97 minutes. The film feels slight. To start with a big negative: there really isn’t a story here. Venom grossed big, Sony wanted a sequel, Carnage has name recognition – that’s about it. Despite the change of crew, this feels a little like more of the same: it looks and feels similar to the first film. The score is a little more distinctive than last time out (Marco Beltrami replacing Ludwig Goransson), though in many places it simply sounds like other films: sometimes difficult to place, sometimes more obvious (X-Men is definitely in there somewhere).
The film is even more tonally confused that last time out. Although there was always comedy to be mined from the symbiote/Eddie relationship, this is dialled up far further this time, with the relationship being very much The Odd Couple. The comedy is very slapstick, with Hardy proving himself a terrific physical comedian at times. Yet for all this, the film feels more violent and disturbing than last time out – despite the rating being the same 15 in the UK now as then. So, you have Tom and, well, Tom (Hardy also voicing the symbiote) having knockabout fights, and Cletus dressing like something from the 1950s, yet the film is too violent and dark for most younger viewers, leaving the intended audience a slight curiosity in itself. There are also a lot of very obvious continuity errors, with heads being lost, and then being there again, and details changing from shot-to-shot. With the film having been delayed due to Covid, there was plenty of time to avoid much of this, as it is bad enough to break immersion at times.
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For this, Venom: Let There Be Carnage is a briskly told, slight tale that is undoubtedly entertaining. The upgrade (no pun intended) in cinematographer means that the environment is better lit (despite still being largely nocturnal) to deal with very dark, shiny creatures fighting. Carnage is a better choice than Riot was in the original, as the colour scheme distinguishes him more from the titular character. Despite playing it very broad, there is something of Natural Born Killers in the way Harrelson approaches the role: walking into a gas station and going straight to a violent beating of the attendant – followed by a genuinely funny and incongruous line – is the sort of dark, twisted humour that this film repeatedly does very well. As the symbiote is infused with characteristics of its host, Carnage feels a very dangerous proposition, and it plays well that Venom is clearly somewhat frightened of his progeny.
With the denouement hinting at a link to the forthcoming Spider-Man: No Way Home (that isn’t to suggest Venom will be in that film, but that the multiverse that is expected in that film may well affect Eddie Brock’s reality too), and a trailer for Morbius playing before the main feature, there is life in this continuity, with a simplicity that is somewhat refreshing, when compared to the fast rate of growth in the lore of the MCU. There has yet to be an outstanding Spider-verse product from Sony (in live action, anyway), though both Venom films have been entertaining. They feel of a piece, but shorn of the need for a time-consuming origin tale this time, it can be seen what a slight product this is.
Venom: Let There Be Carnage is out now at Cinemas.