Asked for his definition of a great movie, director Howard Hawks supposedly responded: "three good scenes and no bad ones." Somehow, Venom: Let There Be Carnage is the precise opposite—a handful of truly godawful scenes, and no good ones. The movie is an ugly, unpleasant, nearly unwatchable mess, and the only movie I have actively regretted seeing in a theater this year.
In that, at least, it follows through on the promise of its predecessor, the 2018 Spider-Man-adjacent comic book film Venom. Based on a fan-favorite Spidey antagonist, who also appeared in Sam Raimi's unfortunate Spider-Man 3, Venom was a disaster on nearly every level. The character, who in the comics typically plays either a villain or an odd bedfellow-frenemy role, felt lost without the friendly neighborhood web-slinger around. Tom Hardy's antic performance as the title character veered between cringe and camp, turning the gator-mouthed alien symbiote into a clownish rendition of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The whole production was pointlessly dark and brooding, and the highlights, or at least the parts that weren't quite as bad, consisted of intendedly comic slap fights between Hardy and a toothy glob of talking computer-generated black and white goop. LOL, sure.
Clunky scripts and incoherent stories are of course commonplace in Hollywood. But the underlying craftwork tends to be reasonably competent, if not always thrilling, especially at higher budget levels. Yet rarely have I seen a film as tedious, turgid, unpleasant, ill-conceived, and downright horrid looking. Even with a budget reportedly somewhere in the vicinity of $100 million, the movie simply looked like garbage—expensive, elaborate, computer-generated garbage, perhaps—but garbage nonetheless.
Naturally, the studio made another one. And somehow it's even worse.
The slap fights and comic hijinks have returned in louder, more obnoxious form. Indeed, Venom is even more of a comic-relief character than ever, though it's hard to call anything in this film funny. He spends the middle of the film at some sort of costume party rave, where no one notices that he is an eight-foot-tall computer-animated monster. "Cool costume!" is all anyone will say, as if globular animated tentacles are a perfectly ordinary part of everyday cosplay. The movie's attempts to make him sympathetic are bizarre at best: He wants to eat brains and feel personally validated by a bunch of kids dressed in wearable glow sticks. Who can't relate?
The new villain, Carnage, is a sort of son-of-Venom character—another alien symbiote, this one bonded with a murderous serial killer by the name of Cletus Kasady (a smirking, inessential Woody Harrelson). Carnage has many of the same goopy, gloopy abilities as Venom, except that he's bigger, red, and looks even shoddier when rendered on screen than his progenitor. He changes size from shot to shot, never looks like he's actually interacting with his surroundings, and moves with the herky-jerky digitized weightlessness of a Playstation 2 cut scene.
Yes, Let There Be Carnage looks even worse than the original. With a budget of about $110 million, it doesn't look cheap, exactly, just crappy. It's not just that the effects work is of such low quality, either. It's that every shot, every cut, every image in the movie has been constructed with a brutal and almost overwhelming thoughtlessness.
There is, however, something fitting about all of this. The character of Venom sprung up in the 1980s, during the runup to the comic book boom of the early 1990s. For a period of time, Spider-Man wore a black suit, which turned out to be an alien symbiote that wanted to bond; when Spidey rejected the bond, the suit turned to a new host, Eddie Brock, a newspaper-world rival of Spider-Man's plainclothes alter-ego, Peter Parker. Thus, Venom was a dark mirror of Spider-Man turned back on him; he viewed himself as good, but was driven to madness and villainy by his hatred of the Parker/Spider-Man pair.
Carnage, in turn, came about at the peak of the early 1990s comic-book boom. He was an even darker version of Venom, with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. He was just a murderous psychopath—bigger, louder, and meaner than Venom, created only after Marvel's bosses wouldn't let a writer proceed with plans to kill off Venom, who had become a high-selling fan favorite. So for reasons of corporate strategy, fans got a grosser, cruder version of the original, a kind of violent parody of a character who was already a violent parody of his heroic source character.
Let There Be Carnage is a rotten film from start to finish; it exists only because Spider-Man remains popular, and the first Venom was something of a hit, thus necessitating a sequel. In a movie landscape still in the throes of a superhero boom, there is something strangely appropriate about the sheer crudeness of this hackneyed sequel to a comic book spinoff given that it is based on a comic book character who was, at the time of his inception, an uglier, crasser derivative of an already ugly, crass derivative.