Venom: Let There Be Carnage – Directed by Andy Serkis. Written by Kelly Marcel. Starring Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Woody Harrelson, Naomie Harris, Reid Scott, Stephen Graham, Peggy Lu

** out of ****

Let’s get it out of the way – Venom: Let There Be Carnage is an aggressively stupid movie. The first installment in this bonkers alien buddy comedy series at least seemed to take itself seriously at times, although the parts where it did were consistently the movie’s worst. But while the first movie wasn’t very good, it picked up a huge audience and was a surprise box office hit, mostly for the oddball banter between hangdog antihero Eddie Brock and the perpetually hungry goo monster hitching a ride in his body. Tom Hardy giving the performance his method-acting all, right down to clambering inside a lobster tank for some fresh seafood, definitely helps.

Venom: Let There Be Carnage embraces the insanity, letting Hardy (who also voices Venom) cut completely loose. Everything surrounding them is even better than the first – and everything not directly involving them is worse. While the first Venom movie had a thoroughly forgettable villain played by Riz Ahmed as a generic corporate villain with a generic symbiote, this one brings in Venom’s most iconic villain – the serial killer symbiote Carnage, already teased in the post-credits sequence of the first and played by Woody Harrelson in a completely ridiculous wig.

The wig might be gone, but this movie commits an unforgivable sin right out of the gate – it tries to make us care about Carnage. An interminable prequel has a young Cletus Kasady in a mental institution for troubled kids. His one companion is Frances, a young girl with a secret – she has a sonic scream power. How she has this power is not explained – she is the only meta-powered character who doesn’t have a symbiote in this series, and the movie is completely uninterested in how or why. It’s just referred to as “her condition” and used to explain why she’s packed off to the secure Ravencroft facility and separated from Cletus.

In the present day, Frances (Naomie Harris) is locked away in a research lab, Cletus is a notorious serial killer awaiting execution, and Eddie and Venom are still the most dysfunctional couple in comic book movies. Eddie is trying to jump-start his journalism career with interviews with Cletus, Venom just wants to eat some brains, and a mercurial police officer (Stephen Graham) is trying to use Eddie to get information on Cletus’ missing victims. A meeting with his ex Annie (Michelle Williams) where she breaks some big news sends Eddie spiraling, he and Venom “break up” in one of the most ridiculous scenes in the movie, and the symbiote goes searching for greener pastures.

Of course, Venom isn’t the only symbiote in this movie – it’s already spoiled in the trailer that Cletus will bite Eddie, getting ahold of some symbiote blood and turning into the iconic Spider-villain. The duo of Carnage and Shriek is definitely more visually interesting than the last movie’s villain Riot, who seemed to only be there for the contractually obligated symbiote vs. symbiote battle. But that’s not to say they’re good villains. Shriek is completely irrelevant to the plot, only serving to motivate Cletus and eventually drive a rift between him and the Carnage symbiote. Carnage looks fantastic, all spines and oozing nightmares, but Woody Harrelson largely plays Cletus as some oddball hybrid of Hannibal Lecter and Forrest Gump.

Venom: Let There Be Carnage has two critical problems. First, it doesn’t know what kind of movie it wants to be. Sometimes it plays itself as a straight-up horror movie, and while it’s briefly successful in a few moments, even the darkest pieces are usually too jokey. Other times, it embraces its completely insane nature and absolutely nails it. An extended segment where Venom is body-hopping and winds up visiting a nightclub is easily the most bonkers thing I’ve seen in a superhero movie in ages, and has already spawned a million memes. It has the same chaotic energy of Tom Hardy in a lobster tank, and the audience loved it. And then we’re back to subpar superhero action from 2005.

The other problem is that this movie is a very bare ninety minutes or so. Some superhero movies have gotten overly long, and I can see this being a bit of a response. But the pacing is all off here. There’s only time for one fight between Venom and Carnage, and it’s over relatively quickly and doesn’t have any particularly memorable moments. Making Carnage a dark mirror to Venom, right down to the fractious relationship with the symbiote, is interesting, but there’s no time to explore it, turning Shriek into too much of a living plot device. Likewise, Michelle Williams and Reid Scott as her new love interest are around, but they don’t have much to do. Williams in particular only seems here to repeat one scene from the first movie. A lot of context is missing from the movie, partially due to the length and partially due to the fact that this movie exists separately from the Spider-man mythology and a lot of history is missing.

Venom: Let There Be Carnage is not a good movie. It’s a complete mess, but one with some of the funniest moments I’ve seen in any movie this year. If anything, it’s at its weakest when it’s trying to be a good traditional superhero movie. When it embraces the nuttiness, right down to a completely random post-credits sequence that sets up the future of the franchise and left everyone – including its lead actor – seeming completely confused, it works exactly as it’s intended to. Despite the questionable quality, the Venom franchise once again tore the doors off the box office this past weekend, making it likely we’ll get more. Bring on Nicholas Cage as Knull the King in Black in two years, I say. Let’s see just how crazy this franchise can get.

Check out more reviews at Wanderings and Woolgathering.

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