Venom was a mess, so let’s be honest, the bar for its sequel is low. But Venom: Let There Be Carnage not only clears the bar, it actually raises it. It is not a mess, and by leaning into the accidental magic of Venom, chiefly that alien symbiote Venom and his human host, Eddie Brock, both played by Tom Hardy, are in a relationship, even in love, Carnage becomes its own thing, independent of its sequel status. Carnage is the most romantic superhero movie maybe ever, an honest depiction of a loving but dysfunctional relationship and what it takes to truly bridge the gap between two people who barely know how to love themselves, let alone each other. Is it stupid? Oh my gods, yes, SO STUPID. Just the stupidest movie you ever did see, but it’s no less sincere for its stupidity.
Eddie Brock has settled into something resembling domesticity with Venom, though the seams of their partnership are fraying. Restricted to a diet of chocolate and chickens—which he can no longer bring himself to eat because the chickens are “best friends”—Venom is literally champing at the bit to get out and eat some human flesh. Specifically, brains. Does this make Venom a zombie? Who cares! Carnage takes no opportunities to explain itself. It just barrels forward with sunny determination and unceasing momentum. Since Eddie has to live with the consequences of Venom’s actions, he is not so excited at the prospect of wholesale murder and flesh consumption, even of bad guys. Also, does Venom eating people make Eddie a cannibal? More logistics Carnage has no time for! Eddie and Venom are a classic odd couple, squabbling constantly which is never not funny as it is just Tom Hardy talking to himself.
Their domestic not-quite-bliss is threatened by serial killer Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson), who is on death row and has taken a shine to Eddie for some reason. While interviewing Kasady, Eddie/Venom observes drawings in Kasady’s cell, and from this Venom deduces where Kasady buries his undiscovered victims. This puts Eddie back on top of the journalism game, but sentences Kasady to die as the death penalty moratorium is broken just for him. Through comic book things that happen, though, Kasady ends up escaping and hosting a symbiote of his very own, a bigger, redder version of Venom called Carnage. Do they say the title of the movie in this movie? Yes! More than once! It’s spectacular every time!
Directed with confidence and a brazen disregard for things like “taste” by Andy Serkis, Carnage is orders of magnitude easier to watch than Venom. There is real style here—I would pay to see an Andy Serkis horror movie, for sure—and a deftness with action and the CG-heavy finale, in particular, never loses its sense of space and geography. You can actually tell the symbiotes apart this time, and clearly discern what is happening in any given physical confrontation. And Serkis is especially good with Hardy, reining in his silly voices and innumerable twitches from the first film and shaping his performance into something that is, somehow, grounded despite the sheer number of scenes in which Eddie is talking to black spaghetti emerging from his torso.
Also along for the ride is Frances, aka Shriek, who is hinted at being a mutant—nerds can hash that out—and is played with abandoned delight by Naomie Harris. Everyone is obviously having fun here, even Michelle Williams in the thankless love interest role, but no one is having more fun than Naomie Harris. Frances and Kasady have a twisted Bonnie and Clyde thing going, but Carnage is not as integrated with his host as Venom is with Eddie, and Carnage does not like Frances. More bizarre relationship drama! This movie has more bonkers relationship drama than you can shake a space squid at, up to and including Venom “coming out” at a rave after breaking up with Eddie. Yes, that’s right, there is a human-alien breakup, and it IS emotional, and Venom DOES declare himself worthy of love, and yes, this dumb movie is better at depicting romantic conflict than the vast majority of actual romances on screen these days.
People are going to get hung up on the implications of the mid-credit stinger—there is no post-credit stinger—but don’t let the cinematic universe crap distract you from the fact that Carnage is, like Point Break before it, a movie that is smart about the ways in which it is dumb. This movie knows what it is, everyone involved knows exactly what movie they’re making, and they’re all leaning into it. It works not in spite of itself, but because of that wholesale commitment. Venom: Let There Be Carnage wears its heart on its sleeve and its brain in its butt and it never once looks back to ask if being “good” is important or even necessary when everyone involved is so wholeheartedly committed to the premise. And it’s only ninety minutes long.
Attached: Tom at a Carnage screening in September.