The CBMU (Comic Book Movie Universe) has been buzzing for a long time about a true merging of the Spider-Verse and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and I’ll neither confirm nor deny there’s a mid-credits scene in “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” that will add jet fuel to the fire, but I will make this humble suggestion:
If Venom’s world were to expand one day, here’s hoping the hulking, black-clad quipster with the insatiable appetite and a set of choppers that would make Alien drool with envy will actually discover a cohesive script with better dialogue, more interesting characters and something more creative than a standard-issue, CGI battle like we’ve seen dozens of times before — because so far, the big guy is 0-for-2.
When “Venom” was released in 2018, it was widely panned as clunky, loud, unimaginative action-comedy. (I gave it one and a half stars for the murky cinematography, the surprisingly ineffective performances and the forgettable villains.) But when a superhero movie has a worldwide gross of some $856 million, the sequel is inevitable — and while “Let There Be Carnage” is marginally better than the original, with a firmer commitment to the comedic angle and Tom Hardy clearly having a lot of fun playing a somewhat hapless character trapped in a relationship that’s part “Ted,” part “Mask,” part “The Odd Couple,” with a sprinkling of body-switch movies, bromances and rom-coms, this vehicle runs out of gas halfway through the yawner of a climax. Not a good thing when a movie has a running time of just 90 minutes.
“Let There Be Carnage” picks up about a year and a half after the events of “Venom,” with Tom Hardy’s investigative journalist Eddie Brock living in San Francisco with a permanent “roommate” in the form of the alien symbiote Venom, who is trapped inside Eddie’s body and vice versa, although Venom occasionally slithers partially out of Eddie’s form so they can banter face to face. Eddie and Venom spend much of their time squabbling over what’s for dinner, and I’m not kidding. Venom would prefer human brains, but he has reluctantly agreed to subsist on a diet of chickens and chocolate — at least for now.
Meanwhile, Woody Harrelson’s psychotic killer Cletus Kasady, a thinly drawn, maniacal caricature who’s not 1/10th as terrifying as the serial murderer Harrelson played a quarter-century ago in Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers,” has requested Eddie’s presence for a jailhouse interview, in which Kasaday might reveal where he buried the bodies of his multiple victims. Upon Eddie’s second visit to the prison, something shocking and terrible happens — but neither Eddie nor the supposedly otherworldly brilliant Venom figures it out until it’s too late, and Kasady has escaped prison on the night of his execution, leaving behind a trail of carnage, because he’s now the host of an enormous, blood-red, powerful symbiote known as, well, Carnage.
(Sidebar: Eddie is a terrible, terrible journalist. He doesn’t know the first thing about how to interview someone and he doesn’t recognize clues when they’re staring him in the face. He’s kind of an idiot.)
The wonderful Michelle Williams, looking like there’s a sign saying “Contractual Obligation” hanging over her head, pops in and out of the story as Eddie’s ex, Anne Weying, who is now engaged to Reid Scott’s Dr. Dan Lewis, much to the heartbreak of Eddie but especially Venom, who is more in touch with his feelings than Eddie — and if Eddie and Anne got back together, would that be a threesome, what with Venom living inside Eddie? Yeesh! And we’re introduced to Naomie Harris’ Frances Barrison/Shriek, who has been in love with Kasady since they were in a home for unwanted children, is criminally insane, and has the ability to manipulate sound to harm or kill her enemies — which makes things tricky, given Kasady is now the host to the alien Carnage, who like all symbiotes is sensitive to sound (and fire).
You can see the easy punchlines coming across the Golden Gate Bridge much of the time, e.g., when Eddie is hanging from a ledge and Anne calls and he tells her he’s just “hanging around,” groan. Tom Hardy scores some laughs when Eddie and Venom get into public spats that make it look like he’s arguing with himself, and the whole brains/chicken/chocolate thing makes for a few mildly funny dark comedic moments. Mostly, though, “Let There Be Carnage” just can’t get wait to get to that big, overly symbolic, dragged-out, CGI-dominated confrontation between Eddie/Venom and Kasady/Carnage, and though there are a few clever attempts to make this something special (including the participation of a number of key supporting players), at the end of the day we might as well be watching King Kong take on Godzilla or Optimus Prime duking it out with Megatron. The fine actors onscreen are mere accessories to the computerized puppets thrashing and slashing and stabbing and biting and roaring and breaking stuff all over the place before only one of them is left standing. Sigh.