There was something electric about watching the first Venom film in theaters, discovering its gonzo comic energy in real time as it mutated from a C-grade superhero origin story in its first hour to an A+ slapstick body horror in its second. Tom Hardy singlehandedly elevates that film through stubborn force of will, dialing the intensity to a constant 11 while everything else around him is set to a comfortable 6. His performance is not exactly Nic-Cage-in-Vampire’s-Kiss levels of manic, but it’s not not that either. And so, it’s majorly disappointing that Hardy’s no longer working against the grain in Venom 2: Let there Be Carnage – a movie that knows it’s funny and, thus, isn’t very funny at all. Let’s call it the Tommy Wiseau Effect; the Venom series has already become too self-aware of its “ironic” appeal to still be authentically bizarre. It’s still silly enough to be passably entertaining, but it’s far from the Nic Cagian freak show of the lobster tank days.
Even within the Venom universe, characters refer back in awe to Eddie Brock’s “bizarre outburst at the lobster restaurant” as the stuff of legends. Hardy’s still willing to make himself absolutely disgusting in the sequel, appearing greasy, unshaved, and effectively living in a giant ashtray. However, while the first movie was Eddie Brock’s show, the second film belongs to his wisecracking alter-ego. As a voice in Eddie’s head, Venom provides sarcastic, real-time MST3k commentary on how idiotic & edible the rest of the world appears to him. When they have a lovers’ quarrel and temporarily break up, Eddie becomes just another greasy sad sack roaming the Bay Area, while Venom goes out on the town to Find Himself as a strong, independent symbiote. In the first film, their vaguely romantic psychic bond felt like a refreshingly queer angle on modern superhero filmmaking; the sequel instead reverse-engineers Venom as a natural successor to the Gay Icon Babadook meme, getting him bachelorette-party-drunk at a queer nightclub as a way of breaking free from Eddie. They inevitably reunite to take down throwaway villain-of-the-week Carnage (Woody Harrelson reliving his Mickey & Mallory glory days), and the whole thing tidily wraps up in a spectacularly dull superhero battle we’ve seen thousands of times before. It’s all very muted & self-aware in a way that renders it totally anonymous. The first Venom was compellingly chaotic; the sequel is tragically competent.
I’m a simple man. I still laugh every single time I hear Tom Hardy pronounce “Eddie” in his Venom voice, and Let There Be Carnage provides plenty of his Scooby-Doo line readings for my boneheaded enjoyment. I also appreciate that you can watch this frothy 90-min novelty in half the time it would take to watch Matt Reeves’s upcoming gritty Batman reboot. Still, there’s nothing special or surprising about Let There Be Carnage that wasn’t accomplished to greater effect in the first Venom. Even deliriously overwritten lines referring to “this spinning shit wheel we call Earth” feel like a poor substitute for Venom’s musings about his limbless victims “rolling down the street like a turd in the wind” in the original. There was a brief, blissful moment when only Tom Hardy knew what made Venom fun & funny, the same tension that transformed Capone from a tragically bland nothing of a movie into a riotous good time. Unfortunately, that party’s already over, and this hangover just registers as a low-energy Deadpool for goths.