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Venom: Let There Be Carnage

(SPOILERS) I get the impression that, whatever it is stalwart Venom fans want from a Venom movie, this iteration isn’t it. The highlight here for me is absolutely the wacky, love-hate, buddy-movie antics of Tom Hardy and his symbiote alter. That was the best part of the original, before it locked into plot “progression” and teetered towards a climax where one CGI monster with gnarly teeth had at another CGI monster with gnarly teeth. And so it is for Venom: Let There Be Carnage. But cutting quicker to the chase.

Andy Serkis’ movie knows to be brief, although there are occasional moments where one wonders if something wasn’t lost on the cutting room floor (particularly during the climax – one moment Hardy’s Eddie Brock is lying on the ground after being beaten by Carnage, the next he’s Venom pinned beneath rubble). There’s a more studied darkness to Serkis’ sensibility than his lightweight predecessor Ruben Fleischer, and for all that he may have more potential as a director – Mowgli, certainly, was way better than the billion-grossing The Jungle Book – I’m not sure that necessarily helps Let There Be Carnage’s comic energy.

Serkis is no one’s idea of a virtuoso, and he’s never visibly or rhythmically quite in tune with co-producer, co-story deviser and co-star (with himself) Hardy’s verbal dexterity or the ongoing mayhem – a Sam Raimi would have been ideal. He gets the job done, and he brings a similarly dampened-down darkness found in Mowgli to the frame, rather like a less flamboyant or imaginative Tim Burton. He has no panache, basically, but the bits here that don’t involve a surfeit of symbiote(s) often look very good thanks to DP Robert Richardson.

The plot is the usual so-so “birth a villain and have him showdown with the hero, who has his own set of problems” formula, with a certain degree of disconnect in Kelly Marcel’s screenplay (Marcel wrote Bronson, Hardy’s breakout, and has her name on this year’s Cruella. But also Fifty Shades of Grey). The end of the first movie saw Woody’s Cletus Kasady invoking the symbiote he hadn’t yet become, rather confusingly, and in between, there’s a whole gap of Eddie having met with him that doesn’t really feel like it happened, it’s just reported as it did (complete with Stephen Graham in possibly his most thankless role ever as detective Patrick Mulligan).

Woody’s sixty, but I’m guessing he’s supposed to be about twenty years younger, at which he’s less ludicrous than some thanks to a variable rugmaker (Graham’s is consistently less convincing). In truth, the prologue scenes between young Cletus (Jack Bandeira) and Frances Barrison/Shriek (Olumide Olorunfemi, but as an adult Naomie Harris, actually in her forties) are much more compelling than anything that unfolds between them later, and wouldn’t have gone amiss in a more galvanised version of The New Mutants.

Woody’s fine, but he’s doing Mickey Knox-lite, as nothing could out-crazy Hardy, which creates a problem for villains in this series. Besides them all being variations on themselves, that is. The energy between the actors isn’t really complementary; you need someone who stands out sufficiently distinctly and challenges the lead, but Woody as Kletus is renta-villainy, while the relationship with Frances needed a discernible spark it lacks. Eddie and Mulligan fail to spar effectively either; the new additions aren’t quite a bust, but they don’t take off.

Hardy and Hardy have oomph, of course, and Venom’s unwavering line in variations of “Let me eat him!” doesn’t get old. Albeit, I don’t know if it’s simply getting into the part, but Tom’s looking extra shop-worn and shlubby here, like he spent the entire shoot in his trailer eating junk food. The uncomfortable triangle with Anne (Michelle Williams) and Dan (Reid Scott) is amusing too (the latter given some surprising heroics in the final reel). And while I’m making personal remarks about the leads, I don’t know quite what Williams has been doing to her face, but setting your sights on the rictus Nicole Kidman look is never a great plastic-surgical idea.

Venom and Eddie engage in a series of slapstick fights, culminating in the de rigueur sequel plotline where the hero divests himself of his powers (Superman 2, Spider-Man 2) only to reclaim them for the final fight. It makes for a neat bromance, and there’s an inspired scene when Venom shows up at a costume party rave as himself. As a screenplay, however, Let There Be Carnage is never more than going through the motions, lacking the ambition to be other than more of the same, only slightly more comfortable in its own skin with much of that same now being comedy (reportedly, Hardy was pushing that way while Fleischer was resisting first time out).

Lacking an immersion in Venom-lore, the significance of Mulligan’s eyes glowing at the end escaped me. Particularly since his last encounter was with Shriek. Turns out he’s going to be yet another symbiote (Toxin). Somehow, both Venoms have been largely entertaining despite both following the CGI monster third act folly of The Incredible Hulk.

Inevitably then, the credits scene teaser twist of multiverse-ness was probably the most invigorating moment in the movie. How that’s followed up on, who knows, but we’re sure to catch at least a glimpse in Spider-Man: No Way Home (we’ve got Doc Ock, Electro and Green Goblin to be getting on with, so there’s some way to go for a Sinister Six, and Kevin Feige, between bobbing for ultra-wokeness, has implied this scene isn’t the end of the interaction of worlds).

I’m inclined to suggest the formatting of Venom: Let There Be Carnage is too pedestrian to make a great play for meta-commentary. Infection, of course, is the predominate element of the premise, but rather like a Cronenberg affair, instead of weakening the victim, it makes them stronger… if you’re one of the few chosen, that is. Notably, the symbiote is deleterious to everyone else Venom piggybacks on, and even Kletus ultimately clashes with his personal pally on relationship grounds. So be wary of what you let into your bloodstream?

Venom 3, then? I’m not desperate to see Hardy rematched with Graham, to be honest. But Hardy and Holland? Yeah, I could see that working. And perhaps even beyond Spider-Man: No Way Home and into uncharted territory.

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