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► Venom: Let There Be Carnage is in UK cinemas now
Technically, Venom is a symbiote rather than a parasite, though his (its? their?) franchise sprouts like mistletoe from multi-media manifestations of Marvel’s Spider-Man. Venom has, on occasion, come close to eclipsing its first host by riding waves of popularity that spilled over from many comic book iterations to Ruben Fleischer’s surprise hit reboot Venom (2018). The character first appeared in a years-in-the-making comics saga Spider-Man 3 (2007) from director Sam Raimi but barely managed to offer a precis. A long-winded origin, involving a shapeshifting sentient outfit adopted, then cast off, by Peter Parker and put on by embittered journalist Eddie Brock, was ditched in Venom but, with a multiversal cosmic event hinted at in the coda, may be back on the books again in the future.
Motion-capture veteran Andy Serkis, director of Breathe (2018) and Mowgli (2018), professionally copes with an overload of CGI tentacle-waving, while star Tom Hardy follows Christopher Reeve (Superman IV: Quest for Peace, 1987) and Paul Rudd (the Ant-Man films) by co-scripting his own superheroic vehicle. This allows Hardy to talk to himself more than he did (and to funnier effect) than in Locke (2013), providing a strangely affecting, if farcical emotional spine. The two halves of this monster-cum-hero only function when bonded and then only barely, as demonstrated in an Odd Couple-ish sequence with Venom cooking messy breakfast while crooning ‘Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off’.
A frequent problem with second-tier comics characters is having to make do with virtual doppelgangers as nemeses – for every Flash, there’s a Reverse Flash, for every Black Panther a Killmonger. Venom is particularly mired in this monotonous rut: the big bad of Venom was a symbiote (‘Riot’) attached to an Elon Musk stand-in (Riz Ahmed), and this has serial killer Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson, not reprising the comics-accurate mop of red curls of his Venom coda cameo) invested with a new generation symbiote (‘Carnage’). Like the Deadpool films, Venom springs from Marvel’s often embarrassing 1990s sticky patch and feels obliged to lampoon lacklustre character names and plot developments it still gets stuck with. Here, Eddie cringes when Venom tries to pitch his ridiculous comics miniseries title (‘Lethal Protector’) as a job description.
Besides weird humour, the keynote of this sub-franchise is more or less non-stop action. Supporting characters including Eddie’s ex (Michelle Williams) and Kasady’s mutant girlfriend (Naomie Harris) barely get a look-in, while a full third of the trim 95-minute film consists of an interrupted wedding which devolves into a tentacle-teeth-snarl tag-team battle between human and alien antagonists in an abandoned cathedral.