The best thing about Venom: Let There Be Carnage is that Marvel-Cinematic-Universe-meg-producer Kevin Feige never would’ve allowed it to happen.
Feige, the sovereign of superhero sameness, has made a career out of reforming the type of movie that this latest Venom joint aspires to be, the type that featured just as much product placement as it did exciting artistic vision from a director who was more so trying to tell a story with visual flair than build a serialized sequel machine.
The risk-taking feels alive in Venom: Let There Be Carnage; you know you feel right at home when someone compliments Tom Hardy’s Eddie Brock on his new Sony Bravia television. It’s shameless, yes, but in a comfortably familiar sort of way.
Venom: Let There Be Carnage is the Nickelodeon slime of superhero movies. It’s a sticky, sloppy green goo dump on your head when you least expect it, the antithetical to the direction recent Marvel superhero films have been trending in.
While film dorks and Marvel stans debate the definition of what “cinema” is, Venom: Let There Be Carnage is too busy showcasing Hardy’s sweaty, twitchy Brock having breakfast with his sassy symbiote BFF Venom, bickering about bromance drama like they’re in a 90s NBC sitcom with a laugh track.
The longtime Spider-Man antihero/villain didn’t get much to work with in 2018’s Venom, a film trapped between giving into its sillier virtues and clinging to its super-serious vices. As ironic as it is for a director who made his mark with a successful horror comedy, Zombieland director Ruben Fleischer seemed locked in a tug-of-war with Hardy—between Fleischer making a dignified sci-fi actioner and Hardy’s wish to make a movie where a grown man who looks like he’s dying of dysentery hops into a lobster tank in a state of delirium and begins to chow down on a live crustacean.
Hardy’s vision won out in the end, and who better to bring Brock back to the screen than the man who made the de-facto most violent Jungle Book film? Andy Serkis, the mocap acting pioneer, takes his next stab behind the camera and breathes gaseous new life into this series. Venom: Let There Be Carnage looks and feels directed by a pack of Fruit Gushers and written by a WWE wrestler on bath salts.
Serkis strips the series dry of its sophistic drabness and replaces it with a garish sense of wonder. He’s got much more in common with a mid-career Tim Burton than anyone else, utilizing a distinctly gothic, grim filter on top of a wickedly cute sense of humor. Serkis prioritizes puns you’d see on a Spencer Gifts birthday card and PG-13-friendly violent imagery that would make a Disney executive balk. His pacing is frantic, like you’re flipping through the pages of a cheap comic book you got from the “teen” section. His film never takes itself beyond the point of openly winking at how silly it is that a grown man is having an internal conversation with a goop of black alien whatchamacallit.
Serkis’ best directorial decision might’ve been to change up Woody Harrelson’s MopTop. Harrelson, previously teased as Venom’s arch-nemesis Cletus Kasady in the last movie, has gone from looking like Little Orphan Annie to the world’s scariest serial killer, who gets his haircuts at Fantastic Sams. Somehow, that’s a vast improvement and makes the character function better than in that ghastly stinger.
The ‘doo says a lot. The film’s plot is simply a cat-and-mouse for Brock to chase down a Kasady who’s busted out of the hoosegow thanks to his Carnage-y abilities and has snagged his long-lost girlfriend (an equally deranged Spidey villain named Shriek, played by Naomie Harris) on the way. Meanwhile, Brock and his Venom symbiote are experiencing some dilemmas in their relationship, which sets the film’s backdrop for such strangely satisfying scenes as a Brock-less Venom attending a rave that’s ripped out of The Purge movies and Hardy standing in the middle of a park with two chickens he releases into the wild.
Hardy’s too committed to this performance, bringing in the physicality of Bane and the psychosis of Bronson, to miss. Harrelson and Harris are a little distracting at first, the two bringing in the Surge-fueled energy of Batman Forever extras. It takes time to gel with their weirdness, but you’ll get there, eventually.
In the end, Venom: Let There Be Carnage improves everything that didn’t work about the last one. If you’ll excuse a Muppets reference, it’s easy to imagine Brock and Venom singing to each other like Walter the Muppet and Jason Segel in 2011’s The Muppets. Not that they’re trying to decide if they’re a man or a Muppet, mind you, but if their latest project is fully refined like a movie or fully off the wall like an internet meme.
“Am I a movie? Or am I a meme?” The memeification of Venom seems to have been embraced much more this time around, which ironically makes this a much more enjoyable movie than what came before it. Serkis frees this film from the shackles of seriousness, which allows Venom’s latest to reach its freakiest potential.