I’ll be the first to admit that I— along with many others— entered 2018’s “Venom” with the wrong expectations (you can read my lukewarm review from its initial release here). I distinctly remember sitting in the theater, not quite able to believe what I was watching. A gritty, serious comic book movie, “Venom” is not. And while that first movie is admittedly all over the place, a change of filmmakers and a shift in focus that emphasizes what did work in “Venom” makes its sequel, “Venom: Let There Be Carnage,” a much more fun experience.
The film opens with a sequence that establishes the relationship and the current situation of the movie’s pair of villains: Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson), who we met in the post-credits sequence of the previous film and who ultimately becomes Venom’s arch-nemesis, Carnage, and his love Francis Barriston, alias Shriek (Naomi Harris). Meanwhile, journalist Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) is trying to regain control of his life after bonding with the blood-thirsty symbiote Venom, who lives inside Eddie and can manifest himself into a hulking creature around Eddie’s body. An interview with serial killer Cletus leads Eddie to discovering where the bodies of a large portion of Cletus’ victims are located, landing Cletus on death row. But something goes wrong during a conversation between Eddie, Venom, and the imprisoned Cletus that leads to Cletus bonding with Carnage and escaping from jail, and of course only Eddie and Venom can them.
The face-off between Carnage and Venom, while it is the climax, feels more like the B plot of the movie. Instead, “Let There Be Carnage” rightly focuses primarily on the odd-couple relationship between Eddie and Venom. In fact, it’s the battle with Carnage that prompts them to re-examine their hitherto rocky relationship. Venom sees him and Eddie as being in a true partnership— and it often seems like he is the one caring for Eddie, doing things like making him breakfast and being more open about his feelings— while Eddie isn’t fully at that stage yet. The films spends a lot of time just with the pair together, at home in their apartment, squabbling about what to do about dinner (Eddie has a strict no eating people rule that Venom struggles to abide by), what to do with their pet chickens, what case Eddie is currently investigating, or what to do with the feelings he still harbors for his ex-fiancée Anne (Michelle Williams), who is newly engaged to uptight doctor Dan Lewis (Reid Scott). It’s all pretty ridiculous, frequently funny, and often sweet— Eddie and Venom may not be in an explicitly romantic relationship with each other, but they are a couple.
“Let There Be Carnage” features a script by Kelly Marcel, based on a story by Marcel and Hardy (who is very invested in this series, which comes through in his eager performance in front of the camera), and they really leaned into the queer subtext that a lot of fans saw in their relationship in the first movie, pushing it to the forefront here. This is the most evident in a sequence occurring after Eddie and Venom effectively break up, and Venom wanders the city, traveling from body to body, though none of them are able to bond as well with him as Eddie does. He ends up at a rave where he gets up on stage, a wreath of glow necklaces around his neck, and preaches to the cheering crowd about how Eddie basically kept him hidden in the closet, but now he is free to be his true self. That’s definitely not subtext— if anything, it’s overly heavy-handed— but it’s big to see such an explicitly queer scene in a big comic book movie, especially when the MCU and DCEU have danced around the subject up to now, doing only the bare minimum in terms of representation.
“Let There Be Carnage” also has a new director in Andy Serkis, who brings his expertise in both acting in and directing motion capture to this movie, getting the most out of the actors’ performances and the action scenes, which may be the usual comic book creature fare, but don’t dominate the movie so thoroughly that you can’t have fun with them. Harrelson really hams it up as Cletus— in fact, everyone does to an extent. It seems like there was more of an understanding this time around as to what kind of movie they were making, allowing returning actors like Scott and Williams to let loose a bit more (Williams still feels a little out of place here, but I’m willing to roll with it). The plot may be slight in the grand scheme of things, and unfortunately the most talked-about aspect of “Let There Be Carnage” will likely be its post-credits scene that refers to another movie entirely, but this film manages to be a lot of fun and carry with it a nice message and good representation, all in around 90 minutes. I call that a win.
“Venom: Let There Be Carnage” is now playing in theaters. Runtime: 97 minutes. Rated PG-13.