The overextended world of big-screen superheroes has recently extended even further than previously thought possible with a desperate lurch into the realm of the multiverse, allowing for rules to be rewritten, characters to be resurrected and audiences’ pockets to be milked. It was introduced in 2018’s unusually smart Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse before being teased in the trailer for this December’s Spider-Man: No Way Home and it will probably be dogging the genre for years to come, appetite or no. The Venom franchise, which started in 2018 and continues with Let There Be Carnage, exists in an unofficial multiverse of its own: one that eradicates the elevated, overly self-serious worlds of Marvel and DC and continues directly on from the flip flashiness of the 90s Batman films and the slick straightforwardness of the 00s Spider-Man franchise.
The first film was a surprisingly fun, if unsurprisingly disposable, throwback adventure that embraced its glaring Happy Meal tie-in goofiness and didn’t care for the overcomplicated world-building and portentous tone of more recent comic book fare. It was big and silly and anchored by an everything-thrown-at-the-wall performance from Tom Hardy as a journalist who has to live in the same body as a brain-eating alien, with space for thoughtful actors including Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, Jenny Slate and Melora Walters alongside. After it became a bigger hit than expected, gobbling up over $850m worldwide, a sequel was inevitably steered to the screen, with the original director, Ruben Fleischer, replaced by someone who knows all about duality: Andy Serkis. But while Serkis and the returning screenwriter Kelly Marcel have maintained the first film’s light zippiness (there’s none of that darker sequel nonsense here) and dated idea of cool (The Black Keys’ Howlin’ For You is an almost Xavier Dolan-level music choice in one scene), they’ve lost almost everything else, a pile of monster mush that should have been left in the lab.
Hardy, to his credit, works hard for that big paycheck yet again, not required to show off quite as much manic physicality as before but committing himself to the stupidity of it all with full vigor. This time around, his reporter Eddie Brock (who in one scene appears to also be designing the front page of his newspaper, which is impressive) inadvertently transfers his alien-infused blood to a serial killer, Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson), who escapes execution with the help of his newly acquired tentacles. Calling himself Carnage, he vows to track down Brock and Venom and also his long-lost love, Frances, AKA Shriek (Naomie Harris), whose scream is able to kill those unlucky enough to hear it.
It’s all far goofier than it sounds but while Marcel tries to up the ante from the last film in many ways, the mayhem wears thin far too soon. There’s a more pronounced lean into the humour of the Venom/Eddie dynamic but the film remains aggressively unfunny throughout, bar some decent sight gags, and so despite the alleged viciousness of Venom (who is desperate to eat brains but has to settle for M&Ms), it often feels like a film for kids who might find something dumb to laugh at among the gristle. There was an (unintentionally?) homoerotic undertone to the first film, amplified in a 2019 comic that had Spider-Man and Venom involved in a jokey scene of sexual flirtation, and Serkis has hinted at how there is a pronounced queerness to the sequel. Venom gets a “coming out” scene at a party that is “sort of an LGBTQIA kind of festival”, in his words, but on screen, it’s all predictably blurry and ultimately one of many scenes that hints at a more interesting, yet denied, take on the material. The PG-13 Venom movies take cues from R-rated body horror but pull back before things get really gnarly, a sort of frustrating tease of something as loose and wild as these films seem to think they are already.
While Hardy emerges unscathed, he’s surrounded by actors who get precious little out of the film other than money towards a down payment on a new beach house. Harrelson tries to conjure up some of his Natural Born Killers malevolence but feels miscast for the role, acting younger to seem like he was at a reform school at the same time as his childhood sweetheart, played by the 15-years-younger Harris, who barely gets a look in. Williams understandably sleepwalks through the few scenes she has, much to the envy of us in the audience who are still awake, barely, for a finale that’s all sound and fury but no real fun.
It’s at least a short film, clocking it at around 90 minutes, Serkis chopping off any extraneous fat, but it floats by and floats on without ever causing us to sit up and pay attention. Let there be no more.
Venom: Let There Be Carnage is out in US cinemas on 1 October and in the UK on 15 October