Right out of the gate, “Venom” may have been one of the all-time worst-reviewed Marvel movies — the film has an abominable 30% rating on Rotten Tomatoes — but that didn’t stop audiences from flocking to see a bug-eyed Tom Hardy embody the character in the corny 2018 standalone, which racked up an astonishing $864 million plus worldwide. No surprise then, that parent studio Sony (whose grip on the Marvel cash cow has been limited to Spider-Man and his spinoffs) rushed to greenlight a follow-up that would pit Venom against his most recognizable non-Spidey nemesis back in early 2019.
Managed (more than directed) by motion-capture star-turned-aspiring blockbuster helmer Andy Serkis, “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” has all the indications of a slapdash cash grab. The set-pieces look sloppy, the visual effects are all over the place, and the laughs come largely at the movie’s expense. But it does introduce Carnage, so in that respect, mission accomplished. The irony, of course, is that in their haste to get a sequel into theaters, the execs couldn’t have known that a global pandemic would swoop in to delay the release by a year. If only they had slowed things down and taken their time to hash out a better story.
Kelly Marcel’s script feels like she was tasked with taking dictation on a square-one spitball session, where the attitude must have been “there’s no such thing as a bad idea,” so long as all ideas were in service of getting Venom to square off against his blood-red adversary, serial killer Cletus Kasady (a suitably deranged Woody Harrelson), who’s been possessed by the same extra-terrestrial symbiote that infected Eddie Brock. Acting even more erratic than he did in the original, a not-well-looking Hardy shares story credit on the borderline incomprehensible script, which switches genres on Ruben Fleischer’s earlier entry. Where “Venom” took the fairly novel approach of treating a comic book origin story as an alien body-snatcher horror film, the follow-up plays like a cross between an ’80s mismatched-buddy movie (where the characters share the same body) and off-the-wall Jim Carrey comedy “The Mask.”
The disjointed first act finds Brock (Hardy) still struggling to coexist with the shape-shifting space blob, which manifests as a tar-black, piranha-toothed Siamese twin/mutant tumor — the metaphorical monkey on Brock’s back — growling insults only its host can hear and demanding human brains to nourish its insatiable appetite. Brock has managed to keep Venom operating on a diet of chicken and chocolate, but the parasite (who, incidentally, behaves an awful lot like the E.T. in the far more entertaining Korean “Parasyte” movies) can’t hold back much longer.
In theory, that could have been license to come up with another memorably over-the-top public embarrassment, building on what ex-girlfriend Anne (Michelle Williams) refers to as “that bizarre outburst at the lobster restaurant” from the earlier movie. Instead, we observe Brock — a haggard tabloid reporter who looks like he hasn’t slept or shaved in weeks — trying to play house with this unruly organism. As promised over the “Venom” end credits, Brock has landed an exclusive interview with Harrelson’s Kasady, relying on Venom’s skills to solve a case that eluded police detective Mulligan (Stephen Graham).
That scoop puts Kasady in line for the electric chair, until the symbiote (increasingly unhappy with Brock as host) fuses with Kasady, with much stronger and more destructive results. Relative to Marvel’s more humanoid heroes — most of whom are just bulging muscles in bright, skin-tight suits — Venom and Carnage were freaky-looking monsters by comparison. Whereas the earlier “Venom” movie was relatively restrained with how the symbiote behaved, the sequel aims to show a broader range of tricks, leaning heavily on unconvincing computer-generated effects to showcase both characters’ potential.
While Kasady uses his powers to track down mutant girlfriend Frances Barrison, aka Shriek (Naomie Harris), Venom “breaks up” with Brock and hits the clubs, crashing a costume party as himself. The execution’s too clumsy for the concept to register, but if you take the trouble to deconstruct the movie, you’ll find two very unconventional romances: Natural-born killers Kasady and Barrison spend the film trying to bust out of confinement and get married, while Brock and Venom slowly learn to accept one another as life partners.
Overseeing it all is Serkis, who understands the technology required to get the necessary virtual performances better than almost anyone, but demonstrates almost no vision as a director (this despite showing promise with earnest awards-bait drama “Breathe” and dark, ultra-ambitious CG “Jungle Book” adaptation “Mowgli”). But his “Venom” entry is garish and ugly to look at, as digital characters wreak havoc on buildings we don’t believe are in the first place. At roughly half the length of the latest Bond movie before credits, “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” seems to have been cut to within an inch of its life, leaving phantom traces of scenes that were either scrapped or never shot.
Why is Kasady so angry at Brock? He repeatedly refers to a betrayal that Serkis never bothers to depict — or else maybe it got cut after test screening badly. Later, there are segments clearly missing from the climactic showdown, as when we see Venom pinned beneath a pile of stone blocks: Where did they come from, and wasn’t he Brock just seconds before? Good luck trying to make sense of such gaps, or the last-minute hints as to where this franchise might go next, including a mid-credits tease that connects Venom to the Spider-Man multiverse. Maybe he’ll fare better there. Despite two dedicated features to his name and a prominent role in Sam Raimi’s similarly disappointing “Spider-Man 3,” Venom maintains enormous untapped potential that someone’s sure to figure out eventually.