Tom Hardy returns as Venom, in a sequel that’s already been tearing up the US box office – here’s our review of Let There Be Carnage.

Venom is as clear an example as you can find to prove that the opinions of film critics don’t matter.

The 2018 superhero adventure was greeted with a critical raspberry louder than just about any other recent major release – with the exception, of course, of the unity of displeasure which greeted Cats. Audiences didn’t care a jot though and the film duly raked in more than £600m at the global box office. The sequel was inevitably greenlit and exasperated sighs quickly gave way to tentative intrigue when Andy Serkis was announced as director and names of the calibre of Stephen Graham and Naomie Harris joined the cast.

That intrigue has been rewarded by a sequel which maintains much of the enjoyable weirdness of its predecessor, that I maintain was an unfairly maligned treat. This sequel delivers a silly and compelling love story between man and head-chomping alien symbiote. A tale as old as time.

 The relationship between journalist Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy, with an odd voice) and his extra-terrestrial buddy (Tom Hardy, with an even odder voice) is becoming a little strained. Venom “cannot live on chickens and chocolate alone” and wants to taste human flesh, but Eddie is – understandably – keen for him to avoid indiscriminate murder. He’s approached by cop Mulligan (Graham) in order to help officers looking for other victims of serial killer Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson, without the silly wig he wore in the post-credits scene last time around), who will only speak to Brock for reasons as yet unknown.

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Let There Be Carnage has the luxury of being able to simply get to the point, without the origin story furniture that filled the opening act of the first film. The early going finds Eddie and Venom reckoning with the idea of embracing vigilantism – particularly as Eddie’s connection with Cletus is enabling a resurgence of his journalism career. It’s an interesting wrinkle to the relationship between the two protagonists and triggers fun tension between them, culminating in an energetic, slapstick-infused fight sequence between Eddie and Venom. Like much of the film, it only works because of the frenzied commitment of Hardy, who throws himself into every facet of the job with both barrels – including hitting himself with various household objects.

That commitment holds true even in the most out-there moments, including a sequence at a rave-cum-costume party. The image of Venom draped in glow sticks and delivering an on-stage monologue about tolerance – complete with climactic mic drop –  is destined for meme royalty. A running gag about the “Lethal Protector” moniker ascribed to Venom in the comic books – dismissed as “so eighties” – also lands very nicely and feels like a pointed response to those disappointed that these movies aren’t more serious, Batman-esque antihero tales.

 The feel of Serkis’ direction is more reminiscent of a safe pair of hands than anything more inventive and idiosyncratic. This is very much Hardy’s beast – he’s exec producer and shares a ‘story by’ credit with screenwriter Kelly Marcel – and it’s his mark of authorship which rings through most prominently, much like Ryan Reynolds in the Deadpool world. Hardy’s no-holds-barred performance is still an array of weird flourishes and strange line deliveries, but it’s the perfect fit for a comic book movie which remembers that often the best way to approach the genre is just to have as much fun as possible.

Harrelson certainly got the memo on that point, rivalling Hardy with his bizarre inflections and gleefully affected performance as Cletus Kasady, who reaches new levels of psychopath once he has his own symbiote running through his system. There was much consternation online about the movie receiving a family-friendly PG-13 rating in the States – it’s a 15 certificate on these shores – but Serkis and his team certainly push that rating to its limit with the cranium-gobbling, ripping and tearing, just as the previous film did with the same rating. The first film already gave us the spectacle of Venom fighting another, more formidable symbiote and this one feels a little repetitive as a result, but the operatic setting of a church and the addition of Naomie Harris as screaming mutant Shriek adds enough variance to make the final conflict a fun one.

Such is the amount of real estate taken up by Hardy and Harrelson’s enormous performances, though, that there’s little room for anybody else. Harris’s character feels far more interesting than her role allows for and Graham is unforgivably sidelined given the sheer force of his acting talents. Michelle Williams – returning as Eddie’s ex – also gets very little to do, but does seem to be enjoying herself in a rare foray into the blockbuster world.

It’s true that the double-edged sword of having such extravagant central performances is that it can leave the supporting stars looking a little thin and under-developed. The film is a refreshingly lean beast in blockbuster terms at just over 90 minutes, but it’s also a little emotionally slight. Any attempt to examine the relationship between Eddie and Venom in detail becomes secondary once the starting pistol fires on the climactic action and pixels start flying.

But ultimately, the reason Let There Be Carnage is less effective than its predecessor is a simple one: the element of surprise. In 2018, Venom had been in development hell for a long time and delivered a handful of uninspiring trailers, with a turkey seemingly on the way. But the wild, inventive heart of Ruben Fleischer’s movie and Tom Hardy’s take on the character was something strangely special. Even the best comic book films can sometimes feel like they’re all playing in the same sandbox. Venom felt like it wasn’t even in the same playground.

It was never going to be as much of a surprise the second time around, but Serkis and Hardy have ensured that this spiky, weird corner of the superhero world is still going strong. And with that, Venom would definitely drop the mic.

Venom: Let There Be Carnage is in UK cinemas from October 15th.

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