One of the best things about Venom (2018) is that it so often flew over the heads of people who fashion themselves smart. The movie had an admirable target — and even better aim. Here’s a story about a has-been loser journalist and his alarmingly emotionally-codependent alien-symbiote inner self, starring Tom Hardy doing an enthrallingly indecisive Bobcat Goldthwaite impression for an entire movie; with a rickety plot involving a big-tech bad guy (Riz Ahmed) whose whole character profile is a list of Short Guy Energy stereotypes; CGI, pacing, and writing that seemed maddeningly unpolished, at times to the point of making you wonder if the studio actually watched the movie; and a titular weirdo antihero-alien whose brazen tongue-flicking should probably have attracted more MPAA scrutiny. The movie was and remains gloriously silly, and brash, and just the right amount of shoddy, with none of the odd energies ricocheting from scene to scene getting smoothed over in favor of the overly professional, overly world-built, vacuum-sealed, product-tested perfection of many of its peers.
The result: a dirtbag delight. An actual B-movie, hardly as brainless as it seemed to be but oh-so-very willing and able to seem to be, a piece of throwaway fun that I refuse to throw away. Venom isn’t any less of a product than any other superhero movie. Nor is the new sequel, Venom: Let There Be Carnage. But the fact that someone allowed that string of words following the colon to make the final cut, and slapped it onto every poster, shipped it out to every theater in the country, and just let it be corny — without needing to perform that hands-off distancing of self-parody — is at least one sign that this sequel, directed by Andy Serkis, is taking a page from its predecessor’s leaf, leaning into everything bad that was actually good, and making good on it.
It’s not as good as it was the last time. The spontaneous pleasures of the first movie are a little less fresh the second time around. A few of its forays into strangeness outstay their welcome; you can feel the movie trying harder than the original had to to prove its bullshit-artistry bona fides. But this is still the cozy, goofy universe Hardy and gang carved out for us last time, with the benefit of Serkis making it altogether more lean — the main setup has already been accounted for; not much has changed — and doubling down on the man-baby theatrics that made Venom so disarmingly funny.
We are once again treated to an excuse to hang out with Eddie Brock (Hardy), who is back in the saddle, positioned to repair his reputation as a star journalist, this time thanks to a cop named Mulligan (Stephen Graham, so memorable as an upstart gangster in The Irishman). Mulligan gives Brock access to the story of the century: a final interview with the serial killer Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson). Mulligan’s not selfless; he sees this as an opportunity to get some final details out of Cletus, some last insights into where the bodies might be buried. Cletus, too, has his motivations, much of them tied up in the fate of a young woman he met back in a boarding school for the criminally depraved, Frances Barrison (Naomie Harris), a.k.a. Shriek, a sobriquet that speaks for itself.
It is obviously a bad idea to let Brock, and by extension Venom, anywhere near Cletus Kasady. For one thing, Venom is — Venom. Restless, hungry, twined to a complete loser whose ex-fiancee Anne (Michelle Williams) is sorely missed by Brock and Venom, both. Plus there’s Venom’s whole head-eating deal: He needs to do it to survive. He’s spared himself the moral philosophy hang-ups of whether it’s OK to eat the heads of bad guys just because they’re bad guys; he just wants to eat heads; he needs Eddie to let him off the leash. Things happen, tempers get lost, and one symbiotic splash later a villain named Carnage, the Venom counterpoint to match Cletus’ psycho-killer self, is accidentally born.
That accounts for the central conflict, but not the central pleasure, which remains the humor of Venom (voiced by Hardy) doubling as Brock’s hater-ific inner voice — that part of himself that knows he’s a loser, calls him a loser, and undercuts his self-confidence, while also being the aspect of his personality about which he can be most confident. How does that work? I don’t know. I’m just here for the good-natured shambliness of it all. Pour one out for Eddie Brock’s apartment, which by the time of this movie has been Venom-proofed, as in, reduced to the appropriate state of disarray. There’s a tire swinging from the ceiling for Venom to, I guess, nibble on — he’s prone to cabin fever — and chocolate wrappers everywhere, and holes in the ceiling, and Brock’s work detritus everywhere. The TV hasn’t been broken — yet. And they’ve got pets! Sonny and Cher, a pair of chickens that Venom considers to be his friends. Technically, like the chocolate, they’re supposed to be food: alternatives to only grub that really gets Venom going (again, human heads), good enough to keep him satisfied until he isn’t.
When the first trailer for Carnage dropped, a friend complained that Harrelson seemed too old for the role — he wasn’t what they’d imagined. But in the cockeyed negative vision of these Venom movies, it’d be inappropriate — inept! — for some young, plausible whippersnapper of a villain, some actual superhero-movie threat with well-laid plans and style and all the cringe airbrushed away, to play the foil to Eddie and Venom’s sentimentally stupid Dumb and Dumber routine. No, better we get the stranger danger manifested by Harrelson — a serial killer before Carnage even came into the picture, remember. Better the ample servings of middle-aged creep with a side of awful one-liners, and a bad haircut befitting a Slim Shady Halloween costume. Maybe the easiest way to sum up Cletus is that he lives up to the name “Cletus.”
Because that’s the man who’s a spark for one of the more interesting dynamics in Carnage, a movie whose central conflict isn’t so much Brock v. Kasady or Venom v. Carnage but the more intriguing problem of true symbiosis, that can’t-live-without-you dependency of the kind that Brock and Venom have. It’s a rare connection. Brock and Venom are a match made in shitbag heaven. If the first Venom used an implausible sense of humor about itself to sell us on Brock and Venom as a screen couple worthy of our time, Carnage is the movie that pushes their unwitting bromance to the limit. It’s a classic buddy-comedy arc: two misfits joined unwillingly, forced to live with each other, then without each other, only to reinforce how much they need each other. One of the smartest choices in these deliriously silly movies was to eliminate the Spider-Man of it all — just, pretend the Topher Grace thing in Spider-Man 3 never happened — and hone in on this odd couple, this loser and his symbiote loser second-self, two throwaways attached at the brain stem, inseparable, compatible, incredible. Soul mates.
Carnage is for the most part, in ways that count, another dirtbag delight. It’s a lesser movie than Venom, but one that scratches many of the same itches and then some. Cletus, by way of Carnage, reveals himself to his beloved and she responds “That is so hot” as his symbiote tentacles overtake her. A garishly spooky wedding ceremony unfolds and it’s like a young Tim Burton has taken the helm for a few minutes. Venom has a night out on the town, without Brock, and the movie avails itself of an obvious joke about the closet.
Venom, the comics character, is a co-creation of Todd McFarlane. Maybe it’s appropriate that what these Venom movies often call to mind is the not-good, yet quaintly disreputable 1997 movie Spawn, based on another of McFarlane’s more popular creations. Specifically, they bring to mind John Leguizamo’s John-Wayne-Gacy-be-damned killer clown of a villain, Violator, the kind of morbidly rotund astonishment of a mess that I wish our current genre fare had more of. Not because the character’s unicorn-poop makeup is some shining example of Nineties trash we’ll be reconsidering in however many years, nor because of the alien symbiote of a performance Leguizamo divined to match that getup. It’s simply one-of-a-kind, ill-advised, low-stakes trash. A studio’s fate didn’t depend on it, the returns didn’t need to be that high, and in retrospect, the movie comes off as liberatingly tasteless, meaningless in a way that got at least a couple of people’s creative juices flowing in awkward directions, as if they didn’t think anyone was looking.
The Venom movies aren’t good because they’re unabashed trash. They’re good because they’re good; they’re trash because they have the good sense to be trash. They aren’t the only movies around flowing on this wavelength — not that there are so many. They’re simply among the few to make it halfway worth it.
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