Dir: Andy Serkis
Venom was a huge hit back in 2018 that got critically mauled for being all over the shop. The film had a lot of work to do: it needed to explain how Tom Hardy, as failed hack reporter Eddie Brock, got fused with the rapacious alien symbiote of the title, but struggled to make proper visual sense of its concept, flailing slimily in all directions.
Mess though it was, it was the very weirdness of the picture that made it a cult smash, and into this weirdness the sequel, directed by Andy Serkis from a story Hardy co-wrote himself, has decided to lean. The strategy works. Venom: Let There Be Carnage is refreshingly nuts, and benefits from being a whole 45 minutes shorter than its predecessor. Whether some of this is down to the film’s Covid-thwarted post-production schedule, who knows – but it bolts along comparatively, and stands out from the current crop of blockbusters for being just about the only one that feels like it’s in a hurry.
A Tim Burton-ish prologue brings in two new villains: a serial killer called Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson) and his girlfriend Frances, aka “Shriek” (Naomie Harris), fellow inmates in an asylum who generally seem like bad news. No one knows where Kasady has been burying his victims, until Eddie/Venom gets an interview and tackles this puzzle, in a rare instance of their Jekyll-and-Hyde dynamic panning out to everyone’s benefit: well, everyone’s except Kasady’s and Shriek’s.
Otherwise, it’s only a matter of time before Eddie and Venom break up, owing to the former’s exhaustion at continuing to co-habit with a toothy, tentacled, narcissistic apex predator which craves human brains as sustenance. Michelle Williams returns as ex-fiancée Anne, the only one who knows this big secret of Eddie’s, but she’s newly engaged to Dan (Reid Scott), which means Eddie’s very jealous, and Venom absolutely fuming on his behalf.
What’s hilarious here is Hardy’s booming vocal work as Venom, who basically sounds like a gay Brian Blessed, and has a gonzo coming-out scene in the middle when he breaks away from Eddie, crashes a Little Simz gig, and brags about escaping “the Eddie closet” while everyone thinks he’s sporting the best Halloween outfit they’ve ever seen. The character’s camp aggression has a Jim Carrey-esque quality – perhaps equal parts The Mask, with which this premise certainly shares some DNA, and The Cable Guy, with its twisted homoerotic tension.
There’s nothing this funny in the Spider-Man films – Sony’s other Marvel tentpole. But it’s a pity Harrelson can’t get in on the inspired shtick Hardy and returning screenwriter Kelly Marcel have worked out this time. His performance is all goofy pantomime menace, stumped by the problem that any film with a central antihero as berserk as this one’s is liable to make the villains look puny.
When Cletus bites Eddie’s hand on Death Row, Venom gains offspring in the shape of an even bigger, more psychotic red symbiote called Carnage, which marauds ravenously, and with no hesitation about biting people’s heads off. But Carnage, while massive, is nowhere near Venom’s equal as a creation – he’s just a big dumb brute – and they don’t share enough scenes to make the promising notion of his daddy issues click properly.
The film satisfies all the same, because they’ve figured out what a great stand-up routine Venom can do this time, and Hardy has settled well into being straight man to his own not-at-all-straight alien weirdo. When Venom licks someone’s face on a TV screen, it’s just outrageous, and has you buzzing for more.
In cinemas from Friday October 15