What does it take for a villain to be rebranded as a hero? Typically, it can be a change of heart or circumstances, and, most commonly, is prompted more than anything else by the introduction of someone even worse, whose negative traits aren’t counteracted by any endearing qualities. The name Venom, literally synonymous with poison, doesn’t suggest a traditional good guy, and given his function in the world of Spider-Man, he’s most definitely a villain. But in the sequel to his first standalone film, Venom gets to fight a formidable and unapologetic evil with an even more fitting moniker: Carnage.
Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) is struggling to find a path back to respectable journalism, with some added baggage in the form of Venom, the alien using and frequently abusing him as a host. Winning back his beloved Anne (Michelle Williams) seems less and less likely, and Venom just wants to eat people, unhappy with Eddie’s unwillingness to let him do so. A chance to speak with convicted killer Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson) leads to a potential big break for Eddie, but his inability to control his temper – and Venom’s – results in the creation of a vicious creature whose destructive instincts match all too closely with Cletus’ sadistic motives. Can Eddie and Venom stop bickering long enough to stand up to the seemingly unstoppable Carnage?
This sequel begins at a point that references the events of the original, and not having screened that first film may leave audiences feeling a bit lost. Yet context clues are sufficient in piecing together the general details of Eddie’s fall from grace, related in no small part to the presence of Venom in every waking moment, and his inability to hold on to any stable elements in his life, like his career and his relationship. Knowing the specifics probably isn’t that important, especially since the plot really isn’t all that substantive or serious.
Initially, this film and its characters feel all too comical and unserious. An early scene finds Venom controlling Eddie’s hands and quickly sketching out designs from Cletus’ cell, mocking Eddie’s lack of attention and intelligence along the way. It feels almost slapstick, and much of Cletus’ introduction, which includes a love story with a childhood friend, Frances (Naomie Harris), who possesses the ability to emit an ear-piercing shriek, veers towards the cartoonish.
But as it continues, the story becomes more engaging and the characters more endearing. As Venom searches for purpose when Eddie rejects him, he gets to grow as a being in his own right, not subjected to or defined by how Eddie sees the world, carting around on a motorcycle and rarely applying himself in any situation. Venom finds acceptance in a crowd of masked individuals who complement his “costume” and are open to him sharing about how difficult it is for a lethal protector to fit in when no one wants to let him do what he wants or be the creature he is inside. Experienced motion capture actor Andy Serkis brings a strong spotlight on every character to his work as director. It might be a stretch to call Venom’s journey profound since that is not an appropriate word for what this film is, but it’s good to see the lonely alien mature and find some degree of satisfaction.
Venom: Let There Be Carnage is most engaging and entertaining when its characters are debating and mocking one another, and when its alien protagonist and antagonist are duking it out. Acting isn’t key here, though Harrelson is the perfect person to chew as much scenery as humanly possible, and Williams marvelously steals most of her scenes as someone unwilling to put up with Eddie’s antics and far more open to hearing Venom’s perspective. Hardy is a good fit for the key role, though he’s done more challenging and impressive work in the past, including Bronson, Locke, and The Revenant. But for what this film is – a comic book spinoff sequel – it’s moderately enjoyable fun that improves substantially between its beginning and its end.
Venom debuts in theaters on Friday, October 1st.