Friday, October 1, 2021


Venom: Let There Be Carnage is not so much a sequel as a faint echo. The first of these Spider-Man spinoffs—largely theoretically connected to the current live-action Marvel Cinematic Universe canon so far, but one never knows—was a surprise hit back in 2018. It was also surprisingly good at what it was. That is to say, it would’ve been the best superhero movie of 2005. It was short and simple, uncomplicated and unburdened, hooked on a squiggly, committed performance by Tom Hardy as a muckraking journalist who gets fused with Venom, a gloopy alien parasite. The alien becomes a growling id in his head, when it’s not a rippling tentacled slime oozing out of him and coaxing him toward superpowered vigilantism. The thing is weirdly small-scale and legible, refreshingly so. Its very rock-dumb simplicity and willingness to build up to satisfying-enough character dilemmas made it play like quite a zag in the year of peak MCU interconnected pomposity. But it’s aged well that way, so slim and spirited and unconcerned with any larger world-building. It was a refreshing throwback then and a nice anomaly now. And the central villain being a heartless tech CEO hoping to launch himself into space off the backs of exploited workers has gained a certain charge. So to find the sequel takes all that goodwill, such as it is, and just doodles around for a bit is too bad.

At least it’s not one of those big blow-out self-important superhero sequels. This one is still trim, with the credits rolling just past the 80-minute mark. But it makes you appreciate what setup there was to the character dynamics last time. This one is mostly about the love-hate relationship between man and monster as they inhabit the same body. There are some funny moments in which Hardy flails about attacking himself as the movie teases out a workable metaphor for self-loathing, and still more enjoyment out of Venom lurking around for other hosts when they get in a fight. (There’s also the movie’s best moment: Venom wandering into a nightclub and holding court.) We get a few good moments with other returning characters, like Michelle Williams and Reid Scott who seem to be having a good time as relatively normal bystanders who reluctantly get involved in some key moments. “I thought you said no aliens,” he says at one point. “No more aliens,” she only somewhat helpfully clarifies. The movie is shot by Robert Richardson, no stranger to good-looking movies, what with the Scorseses and Tarantinos he’s lensed, and helmed by Andy Serkis, no stranger to effects, being the king of motion capture performance for Apes and Gollum alike. They’re at their best staging action with a bit of cartoony slapstick. There’s sometimes fun here. Watching it clunk along, you might almost think you’re watching a real movie.

Ah, but now I’m almost writing myself into thinking I enjoyed it more than I did. If only the thing were the sum of its best moments. Instead it's wedded to one of the most underdeveloped and under-thought villain plots in recent memory. He’s Woody Harrelson as a serial killer on death row who, through some far more convoluted reasons than an 80-minute movie needs, gets a drop of Venom in his system which turns him into an evil red gloop of tendrils and tentacles. His goal is to, well, wreak carnage and get married. He does a little of both. He breaks out of prison in an explosion of effects. Then he bides his time till he strikes again to find his fiance (Naomie Harris). Then he fights Venom. Never once does it sell a broader feeling of danger, or build to anything cumulative. It’s simply contained and separate from the main action. Harrelson isn’t given the chance to build much of a character, and the ultimate final confrontation is so flailingly amorphous it’s hard to tell whose digital glop is slicing whose. (I liked the stained glass backdrop, though. That was a nice touch.) I almost wish the movie hadn’t a villain at all. It clearly put most of the effort into Hardy’s inner struggle anyway. Everything else falls flimsy. By the end, it basically feels like treading water. Even now, I’m almost asking myself if I actually saw it, such a non-event it is.

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