Trauma, prison reform, closeted homosexuality—all subjects given their due in Venom: Let There Be Carnage, the second chapter in the continuing saga of Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy), a recovering “loser” who got his groove back once his goopy, alien shadow alter-ego, Venom, taught him self-respect. We catch up with the two in a tense, if functioning co-existence, the alien symbiote always distracting Eddie by wanting to feed on humans, but still showing a tender side to their two pet chickens named Sonny and Cher… wait, I’m losing you with this sentence, aren’t I?

Anyway. Brock’s latest assignment at the Daily Bugle sees him working up the courage to profile death-row serial killer Cletus Kassidy (Woody Harrelson). Unfortunately, Eddie doesn’t make room for the story of Cletus’s traumatic childhood (rendered as a cutesy animated sequence) in his article and can’t sway public opinion enough to avoid his appointment with lethal injection. But once Cletus gets his own form of the symbiote, Carnage, and breaks out of prison, Eddie is (naturally) his first target for revenge.

The casting of Woody Harrelson as Cletus Cassidy is of course reference to Gen-X favorite Natural Born Killers, telling you the terrain we’re in. Carnage—the bigger, redder, spikier version of Venom—has been something of a controversial character within fan circles; he seemed to mark a symbol of the gaudy ’90s comic-book era with their dozens upon dozens of variant covers, as well as Rob Liefeld and Todd McFarlane’s overly busy designs. While that mentality may have manifested in the biggest and worst of recent tentpole movies, at 97 minutes Let There Be Carnage is relatively reined-in for a comic-book sequel, keeping character motivations concise and plot stripped-down. With something so breathlessly paced, unpretentious, and goofy, it seems like a throwback to before the comic-book movie formula—or, rather, mode for easy-lay respectability—was patented by Marvel. If anything, these two Venom films bear the light touch always desired by the studio, whose mixture of lame quips and deadening VFX sequences always plays like being waterboarded with “fun.”

Basically what separates this from other junky blockbusters is that everyone seems in on the joke, aware they’re making a sequel to a critically reviled, low-brow superhero movie. The easy-going tone set forth is infectious. Even an undeniably slumming Michelle Williams, who returns as Eddie’s former fiancée, doesn’t look sad to be there. (She probably thought of the things she’d buy with her paycheck during every scene.) The fact that she has to be rescued in the climax is, in itself, an unfortunate “throwback” element that isn’t totally charming.

Yet in lieu of a romance with Williams, there’s more a comedy of remarriage between Eddie and the symbiote that suits the star of the show. Tom Hardy is perhaps past the point of prestige actor he once was, but he seems at home with Eddie Brock, his story credit pointing to some intense identification felt with the man split in two. Though maybe just a vehicle for him to enter bozo mode, one wants to read into how this actor’s once-open bisexuality suddenly disappeared the second he started getting cast in action movies, and that itself manifests in Eddie’s tortured relationship with Venom; a mid-film rave sequence where the alien delivers a mic-drop monologue about being out of the closet basically says this outright. 

The appeal of Tom Hardy making himself look like an idiot in ways few A-listers are willing to do may be lost on some, but this writer is for one excited to see the trilogy completed. In fact, maybe it could go beyond that. If the Joker is our new Travis Bickle, Eddie Brock and Venom possibly deserve to be America’s Antoine Doinel.

Venom: Let There Be Carnage opens in theaters on October 1.

Grade: B

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