I couldn’t bear the idea of Venom: Let There Be Carnage because I really didn’t like Venom. More specifically, I couldn’t stand Venom, the psychotic alien symbiote who invades the body of Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy), the dedicated investigative journalist trying to break big stories around the Bay Area. There was something to admire about Hardy’s dedication to playing both roles — and his willingness to whip his body around once Venom starts controlling Eddie’s actions, practically transforming himself into a live-action Tasmanian Devil — but Venom himself was a drag. Sure, he’s a high-energy, ravenous beast devouring everything in sight, but the alien’s mania wasn’t all that funny — and, pretty quickly, his schticky back-and-forth with the confused, overwhelmed Eddie got tiresome. Who wanted another whole film of that?
Well, because Venom was a massive hit, the answer is “Lots of people, apparently,” and now comes Let There Be Carnage. Their double act continues to be the main attraction, but what makes this sequel the rare follow-up that tops the original is that the filmmakers have figured out who the more interesting member of the duo is. To my shock, that turns out to be Venom. He’s still as rampaging and obnoxious as ever, but Let There Be Carnage gives him a little more emotional shading than the first film did. Whether or not you want to see a film called Venom: Let There Be Carnage because of its emotional shading is another matter. But I actually found myself warming up to that alien parasite this time around. Who knew Venom had such depth?
Movies like this don’t have plots so much as they have excuses for action sequences. But for the record, Woody Harrelson plays Cletus, an imprisoned serial killer who ends up getting his own symbiote by biting Eddie — he names his Carnage, and that monster is even more powerful than Venom. Cletus reunites with his true love Shriek (Naomie Harris), who has the ability to scream really loud and cause all kinds of damage, and eventually they do battle with Venom.
Let There Be Carnage has some pretty solid set pieces courtesy of Gollum-turned-director Andy Serkis, but I was surprised how engaged I was by the fractious rapport between Eddie and Venom. Sure, it’s still often strained and sophomoric, confusing perpetual motion with comic gusto, but that works to the film’s advantage. Initially, Eddie seems resigned to the fact that he’s now trapped with Venom, this rude loudmouth who lives uninvited in his body and mind. But once Eddie finally tells him off so harshly that Venom sulks away, the movie actually goes in interesting directions.
For one thing, Venom starts displaying a little remorse about his outsized behavior. Like a lot of human loudmouths, this dude is basically just someone who doesn’t like being alone — he’s the life of the party because he can’t bear the thought of being trapped with his own thoughts. All of this leads to the sequel’s best, nuttiest scene: Whoever’s idea it was to have Venom crash a Little Simz club show and eventually take over the mic, please give that person a raise, because beyond it being wonderfully goofy, it’s also oddly touching. With his sharp teeth and terrifying eyes, you’d never guess Venom would be someone who badly wants a friend. No matter how scary of an alien he might be, he’s just another out-of-town dork feeling awkward in the club.
By comparison, Eddie is kind of a drip in Let There Be Carnage. Once he and Venom go their separate ways, he’s just a regular bloke trying to maintain a friendly relationship with his ex Anne (Michelle Williams) and her new love Dan (Reid Scott). In the media, Hardy is often teased because of his mumbly, hyper-macho acting style — he’s so insular and intense it’s like a noncommunicative ape has wandered onto the set — but it seems intentional that Eddie just doesn’t seem as much fun on his own. Let There Be Carnage doesn’t even hint at the possibility that Eddie and Anne are gonna get back together — Dan may be deathly dull, but at least he’s stable — because, really, the sequel is about Eddie and Venom working through their issues and finding their way back to one another. They complete each other.
Of course, the fact that Hardy plays both characters makes you wonder if the actor is telling us something about himself. In films like The Dark Knight Rises and The Revenant, he played unconscionably terrible people — reprobates lacking any redeeming qualities. And Hardy first came to the world’s attention because of 2008’s Bronson, a stark, darkly comic portrait of real-life violent criminal Charles Brosnon. The man clearly has a thing for bad guys — even when he was the ostensible hero in Mad Max: Fury Road, he took a backseat to Charlize Theron’s far more dynamic Furiosa, almost as if he didn’t feel wholly comfortable in the role of good guy.
So while watching Let There Be Carnage, I kept suspecting that Hardy felt liberated having Venom be the more soulful of the two leads. (The story was co-written by him and longtime creative partner Kelly Marcel, who went on to pen the screenplay.) The sequel lets us see the character’s good qualities: For instance, Venom is vulgar and repulsive, but he’s also passionate and loyal. (For all his constant berating of Eddie, he’s mostly encouraging the guy to stand up for himself, especially when it comes to telling off that dorky Dan.) Perhaps these movies give Hardy the best of both worlds: He gets to be the star of a comic-book franchise, but one that’s a little funkier and nastier than the usual superhero fare. After all, Venom is a villain in the Marvel world, which is why I can’t believe Hardy would ever want to be the next James Bond. Surely he’d be far happier as Jaws.
Superheroes are often more dynamic in their disguise, finding a confidence hiding behind the mask that they don’t have the courage to embrace as their normal selves. (Venom’s archnemesis Spider-Man is the perfect example of this: Peter Parker is just a nerdy teen, whereas the Web-Slinger is full of quips and cockiness.) It’s striking that Hardy seems to be doing something similar with the Venom films, and especially in this sequel he lets his dark side run free. But instead of overstaying his welcome, Venom exhibits a guarded sweetness we haven’t seen before — and there’s a twist during the third-act face-off with Carnage/Cletus that proves to be more tender than you’d expect from these unsubtle, over-caffeinated blockbusters. It’s deeply ironic that only by being bad can Hardy truly open himself up to the audience.
If Let There Be Carnage’s commercial success prompts another sequel, I’ll now be far less miserable about the prospect of seeing another of these movies. I can say I’ve developed a begrudging appreciation for Venom — sure, he’s uncouth and a nightmare to be around, but I can tell Hardy is in his corner. Even monsters have feelings, I suppose. If anything, Venom’s softer side is ingrained in who he is. The dude may be an alien parasite, but that just means he’s looking for a home.