In an era when most of these run around 135 minutes and the rather indulgent ones run 150-165 minutes just for spite, there’s something almost refreshing about the mere 97 minute runtime (counting credits and a mid-credit cookie) afforded to Sony’s Venom sequel. The film looks and feels like a comic book superhero movie of a bygone era, a simple, pulpy and disposable entertainment from before these things took over pop culture. That includes a runtime closer to X-Men than X-Men: Days of Future Past. Alas, the film’s runtime does come at a cost. Superhero properties can fall into a trap of having sequels where the heroes and villains interact exclusively with each other rather than with the outside world. Let There Be Carnage often plays as a one-man show.
Director Andy Serkis (whose Mowgli is a fine Jungle Book flick) and writer Kelly Marcel (who pulled off a miracle with Fifty Shades of Grey) understand why folks liked the first Venom. Venom 2 leans into the absurd and quasi-queer romance elements of its Odd Couple pairing, with Eddie (who wants a normal life) and his alien symbiote (who wants to eat people) bickering like an old married couple. Even sans the element of surprise, Hardy is still a treat while Harrelson (as an imprisoned serial killer who ends up tasting some of Eddie’s tainted blood) is an excellent sparring partner. Harrelson plays Cletus like a cross between Mickey (from Natural Born Killers) and a spoof of the “super villain as preacher” trope that’s been fashionable since The Dark Knight if not Se7en.
At its best, its sprint from start to finish, as well as a comparative restraint in terms of big-budget effects work (via a responsible $110 million budget), will remind you of when the mere idea of seeing a big-budget movie about Venom or He-Man or the Ninja Turtles was a huge deal. If you just came to see Tom Hardy act against a comedically disembodied version of himself (there’s a brief glorious moment where Venom slips into the Bane voice) while Woody Harrelson chews so much scenery he’ll probably have to have his stomach pumped, you’ll get your money’s worth. Just as Spider-Man 2 emphasized the romantic melodrama, Venom 2 emphasizes Eddie vs. Venom interactions. I just wanted more time with Venom and/or Carnage interreacting with the supporting cast.
So much of There Will Be Carnage, which feels cut to the bone from a theoretical over/under 115 minute version, is Hardy acting with himself in his tiny apartment. It ends up having the same issue as the first (admittedly well-liked and successful) Borat. Sacha Baron Cohen and Ken Davitian doing improv riffs by themselves isn’t as funny as shtick in the real world with regular folks reacting to the chaos. Likewise, the highlights of this sequel, mostly via scenes already revealed in the trailers, feature good sport interactions between Eddie Brock and/or Venom and Michelle Williams (as Eddie’s ex-fiancée), Reid Scott (as Anne’s current beau, who is amusingly aware of and slightly sympathetic to his girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend’s eccentricities) and even Peggy Lu (quite charming as convenience store owner Mrs. Chen).
However, the focus on Eddie and Cletus means that (for example) Shriek (Naomie Harris) gets only so much time to vamp. The film sets her up as Kassidy’s romantic McGuffin from the start, but withholds the contextual scenes necessary for a three-dimensional character. That she makes as much of an impact as she does is mostly due to Harris being a ridiculously good “do a lot with a little” actress. Much of the movie almost forgets that it’s a sequel, with Eddie having arbitrarily reverted to his “loser” status despite the success and confidence achieved in Venom. There is entertainment value as (slight spoiler) Eddie and Venom break up and Venom goes solo, especially as the movie seems bemusingly indifferent to the random civilians seemingly being Venom-ed to death in the process.
Venom 2 wants to spoof or comedically reference the “hero gives up their powers just before a new villain emerges” superhero sequel formula. Think Superman II, Spider-Man 2 and kinda/sorta Wonder Woman 1984. However, the film is cut too tight to do more than mimic those beats. What we do get isn’t nothing, as the film looks pretty great in IMAX, especially the (no spoilers) gothic melodrama climax complete with battles high above the ground and loose odes to King Kong. Harrelson isn’t allowed to disappear into a CGI creation, as Cletus remains front-and-center even after Carnage is born amid a big-scale prison rampage. Even if it’s mostly confined to Hardy and Harrelson, the budget means that the film must be entertaining even when it’s just humans talking to each other.
As much as I appreciate a big-budget blockbuster that doesn’t stretch out to 135 minutes for sport, Venom: Let There Be Carnage is so concise in its story (relegating major exposition to newscasts) and so seemingly missing contextual tissue that it plays like the abridged version. I won’t pretend to know if there are more scenes involving more characters on the cutting room floor, or if this was a “too flabby and too long” flick that was retrofitted into a lean and fat-free entertainment. My kids both enjoyed this one more than the first Venom, and by default so did I. It gives you more of what worked last time, even if its claustrophobic plotting leaves most of its game supporting cast waiting offstage for their chance to shine.
However, if we’re being honest, we shouldn’t go into a film like Venom: Let There Be Carnage expecting new highs in cinematic art. In a less IP-specific, marquee character-dependent world, Venom 2 would at least earn points for being high-end cinematic junk food amid more conventional studio programmers, prestige flicks and upper-crust blockbusters. Even with the cynical nature of its creation, due to Sony trying to massage its Spider-Man library into their own MCU, the two Venom films are unassuming and (thus far) stand-alone entertainments. They have no goals beyond matinee pleasures, strong effects and/or giving hammy actors a chance to go full-camp. In a world where social media relentlessly debates whether Marvel or DC flicks are “great movies,” it’s nice that Venom is still allowed to be unapologetic trash.