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Venom: Let There Be Carnage Review: Down With The Sickness

Has a movie ever implanted a vision in your mind so outlandish, so off-the-wall, that you wonder whether you really saw it or perhaps it was some sort of dream? As I sit down to type out a review for the "Venom" sequel, all I can picture is the enormous, rasping black and white symbiote onstage at what appears to be some sort of Pride-adjacent rave, with the body language and actions of an intoxicated person spiraling from rejected love, wearing a half-dozen glow necklaces and declaring before a crowd of newfound fans that he's "out of the Eddie Brock closet."

Then I remember that "Venom: Let There Be Carnage" is a PG-13 blockbuster, made to thrill audiences, sell popcorn, and (perhaps) further the MCU. At some point comes the realization that it is all real, that director Andy Serkis has subverted tentpole tropes at nearly every turn, and the result is another beautiful, bizarre monster deserving of the "Venom" name.

2018's "Venom" was one of those flicks that comes along every few years, where behind-the-scenes rumors of frustration, failure and re-shoots seem to doom the project before it ever reaches the screen. Sometimes, such rumors yield clunkers like "Town & Country" or 2015's "Fantastic Four"; other times, sheer determination seems to salvage (and make thrive) films like "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" or "The Bourne Identity." The Ruben Fleischer-directed "Venom" landed in theaters like a freight train without tracks, anchored by a sweaty, disheveled, schizophrenic Tom Hardy performance that had him jumping into a lobster tank and chomping the heads off crustaceans. But its ugliness became its beauty — it was a film made not in Hollywood but on the Island of Misfit Toys — and the end result was one of the most unique, defiant mainstream comic book movies the genre has ever produced. Some hated it, others respected it, but you couldn't look away from the end result, and it made a lot of money.

Could they do it again? Should they do it again? It felt like "Venom" caught lightning in a bottle, and trying to recreate that performance might not only kill national treasure Tom Hardy, but be akin to ill-advised sequels for "Ace Ventura" or "The Big Lebowski" — you caught the right actor at the right time, Hollywood, don't push it.

But "Let There Be Carnage" makes clear that this particular dark, quirky corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has plenty of stories left to tell. This one begins with a flashback to serial killer Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson, glimpsed briefly in the last film) and the equally lethal Frances "Shriek" Barrison (Naomie Harris), locked away at a reform school in the '70s and pledging eternal love for one another. This quickly yields to the current day, when Eddie Brock (Hardy) continues to grapple with the alien parasite living off him, granting occasional superpowers and an endless running commentary in his head.

Eddie and Venom have reached a sort of understanding where the creature stays in hiding and subsists on chickens (which roam freely throughout Eddie's apartment) and chocolate. Brock's journalism career seems to be blossoming thanks to exclusive interviews with Kasady, even if poorly-timed bathroom confrontations from Venom make you wonder how this guy could manage to get through a morning. Well, at least Venom makes him breakfast.

We soon learn that the love of Eddie's life, Anne (Michelle Williams), is engaged to be married to Dr. Dan (Reid Scott). This throws Eddie into a tailspin, he takes a lot of his anger out on Venom — and the pair have a knock-down, drag-out fight that leads to the symbiote splitting. Much of this is played like a romantic falling out, with Venom looking to "rebound" with someone else (of course, no other host is as sufficient as Eddie) and Brock simply excited to duct-tape the Venom-sized holes in his apartment and have a peaceful life again.

Did you bring any lobsters?

This is around the point that "Let There Be Carnage" goes from being off the rails to off the map of any comic book movie you've ever seen before. When Eddie visits Cletus in prison, the serial killer's bite interacts with the reporter's blood, giving him enough symbiote to respond to a lethal injection by becoming Carnage — a beloved comics character who, to the layman, is Venom but red and way bigger. In no time, Cletus and Shriek have gone full "Natural Born Killers" (delightfully so, since Harrelson seems to be channeling his iconic Mickey Knox as a supervillain), Michelle Williams is talking sexy to Mrs. Chen (Peggy Lu) the grocery lady, and Venom seems well on his way to becoming a gay rights icon.

"Let There be Carnage" really leans into the notion of its main character as a gender-fluid entity, one dependent on a man who loves someone else. Although such themes are never directly stated, the film relishes going right up to the line, if not stepping over it. The overall impact is fascinating — by the end of the film, Venom has appeared in both male and female form, participated in a sort of love quadrangle with Eddie, Anne and Dr. Dan, and had at least one tender moment with his host while the two of them are canoodling on a beach, rubbing their toes in the sand.

Unfortunately, there are times when the movie seems to be playing loosely with its own rules. How can Venom inhabit Mrs. Chen temporarily, but not drain her of life? How can Eddie survive without Venom, after the original film established he no longer could? How can Eddie afford all these TV sets Venom keeps breaking, particularly on a journalist's salary living in San Francisco? Also, the film's climactic showdown between Venom and Carnage suffers a bit from the "Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots" mentality that so often plagues CG-powered films, where characters get stabbed, beaten, and broken countless times without any real sense of injury.

But it feels only appropriate that the movie is directed by Serkis, as it contains possibly the most fully actualized, endearing CG character since he inhabited Gollum all those years ago. Venom is a blast of a character — powerful and bloodthirsty one moment, suffering from low self-esteem and crippling fear the next. Comic book movies have given us numerous human performances that haven't as accurately depicted scorned love, adversity overcome, and identity confusion. Also, almost everything the character says is hilarious, right up to when he justifies biting someone's head off with a simple "F*** this guy."

The big red one

That right there is the brilliance of the "Venom" films. It gets you cheering for a character who could just bite anybody's head off at any moment without warning. Venom is part "Mystery Science Theater 3000" (he provides a hilarious running commentary throughout the entire film), part slasher (when you see an unappealing character, you're begging for them to be chomped), and part "All of Me" (Hardy and Venom are the best body-sharing-couple since Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin). Also worth mentioning, and perhaps lost in the insanity of Hardy's flop-sweat-heavy, world-weary performance, is that he might be one of the best ever at acting opposite CGI. Hardy always seems to be looking in the right place, always has his rapid-fire exchanges with Venom perfectly timed, and never fails to make you forget that almost every one of his scenes began with a great actor screaming at a tennis ball on a stick.

Also deserving of praise is Harrelson, whose hairline — like Venom — similarly seems to be an amorphous being that changes shape from scene to scene. Quoting poetry and cackling with glee, he's having a lot of infectious fun with his character, and the role plays perfectly to the veteran actor's unique, beloved talents.

But at the end of the day, the best thing about the two "Venom" films is that you have no idea what to expect from scene to scene. For better or worse, both the Venom and Carnage characters from the comics have been largely left behind, perhaps because the filmmakers aren't as burdened by personality expectations as somebody who is making a Superman or Captain America film. There's a scene when Venom goofily sings "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off"; there's a heartfelt moment when Eddie wants to kill himself and Venom provides a sympathetic ear. It's all over the map, and it's all extremely watchable.

Where does Venom go from here? There are some hints in "Let There Be Carnage" that a Tom Holland Spider-Man crossover might be in the near future, and if this universe can continue to walk the is-he-a-hero fine line with Venom, that could be a lot of fun to watch. If you like your comic book characters murky, misshapen, and magnificently deranged, Tom Hardy's Venom is one nasty piece of work.