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In an age where so many superhero-centric comic book adaptations take great pains to ease audiences into the weird nature of their source material, and gently encourage a certain forgetfulness about how gonzo those properties once were, Venom: Let There Be Carnage shoves it down audiences’ throats with a manic gleefulness. If the first film was reminiscent of the early 2000s superhero features, then the sequel reaches back and goes for full ’90s excess, and queer-coded camp. There are certainly Schumacherisms, but the film manages to avoid some of the traps of Batman Forever and Batman & Robin with moments of genuine humor, a wicked final battle, and the fact that the entire cast, from Tom Hardy to Michelle Williams, and director, Andy Serkis, are entirely in on what the tone of this movie is.
What I find fascinating is that for all the fanboy-driven online criticisms about Sony venturing out on its own with their Spider-Man universe, and all the expectations, and misplaced hopes, that it would fail, Venom and now its sequel are proving to be a welcome part of the ever-growing superhero landscape. It’s the variety we crave from the genre. In fact, Sony Pictures’ universe of Marvel characters may do for the superhero films what the horror film landscape has achieved so well: We can have our meal and our junk food too.
Horror has always invited variety, but just looking at the last few years, we’ve been treated to full courses like Us, Midsommar, The Lighthouse, Candyman and Midnight Mass, along with our candy-coated delights like Hell Fest, Freaky, The Fear Street trilogy, Malignant. It’s not an issue of quality, but rather the fact that these films have different priorities, that all make the genre stronger. We can want and have both A24 and Dark Castle horror and find meaningful flavors within them. Along that same line of thinking, Venom: Let There Be Carnage is like a Snickers bar instead of a full meal like Zack Snyder’s Justice League or Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, or to stretch the metaphor to its end, the sharable nacho appetizer you substitute for your meal that is The Suicide Squad.
The campiness of Venom: Let There Be Carnage is a win because the superhero landscape is so populated by movies that, even with frequent doses of comedy, take themselves seriously. If we weren’t living in an age where there are so many superhero films and Let There Be Carnage was our only release in a two-year space, I don’t think audiences would take to it in quite the same way. But because of the period it’s being released in, unlike Schumacher’s Batman films, we’re willing to embrace its tonal zaniness. This isn’t to say that all of Sony’s Marvel films, such as Morbius and Kraven the Hunter, should aim for the tone of Venom: Let There Be Carnage, but rather that they should comfortably exist in a kind of B-movie space that embraces the eccentricities of its filmmakers and actors.
Hardy has made no secret about his passion for the character of Eddie Brock/Venom, going as far as to earn a story credit on the sequel. It is unusual for an Oscar-nominated performer of his caliber, and one of the most sought-after actors in Hollywood, to go all-in on a comic book property like Hardy has, especially a property lacking critical approval in a franchise that internet rabble-rousers would have you convinced wasn’t wanted. Yet that disapproval and notion of being unwanted has only made the franchise something of an underdog, as much as any superhero movie can realistically be called an underdog of course. But I think Hardy is attracted to the underdog narrative, both within the context of the film and outside of it. After all, Eddie Brock is an underdog, and along with his symbiotic other, he’s a weirdo. Hardy has built much of his career playing underdogs and weirdos, and Venom is his opportunity to not only have more say in that depiction but celebrate it as well, as Let There Be Carnage’s LGBTQ+ rave scene and Venom’s speech about “coming out” attests to.
As silly as Venom: Let There Be Carnage is, with Woody Harrelson and Naomie Harris chewing scenery as Carnage and Shriek, Tom Hardy doing the absolute most as Venom and Eddie Brock, Stephen Graham giving heartbreaking earnestness as Detective Mulligan, and Williams so keenly engaged in the absurdity of it all as Anne Weying, there is a sincerity to it. It never feels like the cast, Serkis, or screenwriter Kelly Marcel are making fun of or dismissing the source material. As much as the film’s humor and action will be what draw audiences in, the moments that have lingered on my mind are Mulligan’s face when hearing, “You don’t deserve nice things,” and Anne telling Eddie she’s engaged to another man and imploring him to lie and say he’s happy for her. And when Eddie, broken-hearted drives into traffic and talks about his inability to hurt himself or self-medicate because the symbiote will always save him, the film quickly cuts to the ever-present suicidal core of Eddie Brock as we know him from the comics.
Ultimately, this manic episode of a film that culminates in two alien monsters thrashing tentacles around, is about the difference between healthy and abusive relationships and a desire to belong to something or someone. Venom: Let There Be Carnage is tonally unconventional and, at times, starving for brains, but there’s enough to it to leave you hungry for more.
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