Back in 2018, a delightful surprise was smuggled inside what would otherwise appear to be just another rote comic book movie. It was Tom Hardy’s performance in “Venom,” playing a San Francisco journalist, Eddie Brock, who becomes the host body for an alien symbiote affectionately known as Venom. As the possessed Eddie and the voice of Venom, Hardy’s funny, freewheeling and frequently unhinged performance felt like an alien parasite inside a Marvel movie itself. As a result, “Venom” was that much more entertaining, anarchic and punk-rock than any other comic book movie going. Watching Hardy splash around in a lobster tanks, ferociously chomping crustaceans, felt like we were getting away with murder, because in a sea of crushing sameness, Hardy dared to grab the wheel and steer “Venom” straight into the land of weird.
It also seemed that “Venom” director Ruben Fleischer was merely along for Hardy’s wild ride, in the same way Eddie Brock was overtaken by his dark passenger. The sequel, “Venom: There Will Be Carnage,” is directed by Andy Serkis, and now, host and alien have achieved symbiosis. The person quite obviously steering the ship is Hardy, who has a story-by credit on the film. The screenwriter, Kelly Marcel, is his longtime friend and collaborator.
The sequel doesn’t have that sense of joyful discovery and gleeful mischief that the first film did, because it’s obviously now a comedy on purpose. But the Venom/Eddie dynamic remains the best buddy action comedy going these days. Back in the 1980s, it was Mel Gibson and Danny Glover; now we have Tom Hardy and Tom Hardy, and Tom Hardy pulls it off and then some.
This time, there’s a lot more Venom, as the cheeky alien symbiote yearns to be free, eating as many brains as he wants. A rebellious parasite would be enough to deal with, while Eddie also works to get his journalism career back on track and tries to move on from his ex-fiancee, Anne (Michelle Williams, the only other actor as committed as Hardy to the gig and the wig). Living with Venom is like having a very rambunctious, hungry roommate, with the added complication of sharing one body.
The “Carnage” part of the title comes in the form of Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson), a Bay Area serial killer on death row. Harkening back to classic killers like Ed Kemper and the Zodiac, Cletus is as hard and psychotic as they come, and he’s decided to tell his life story to Eddie alone. Cletus still holds a torch for his teenage sweetheart, Frances Barrison (Naomie Harris), who possesses a lethal shriek. The two lovebirds were institutionalized together before they were cruelly torn apart. Now, all Cletus cares about is seeing his Frances again. Opportunity arrives when a droplet of Eddie’s alien blood curdles his own, transforming Cletus into a many-limbed red alien, and Venom and Eddie will need to learn to get along again in order to defeat Carnage and save Anne.
The climax is predictably chaotic and cacophonous, and while the action may be a mess, at least it doesn’t overstay its welcome. “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” dares to be a tight 90 minutes, unprecedented in these times. There’s some humor and romance, a splash of comic book violence, references to the lore and a story about friendship. Plus, the film allows Venom to really shine. While he’s no longer novel, he’s still just as outlandishly funny. Who knows if the joke will have any staying power, but for the time being, that alien remains as entertaining as ever.