Venom: Let There Be Carnage is the best studio rom-com since Crazy Rich Asians.
To be clear, there are plenty of criticisms that can be made of Let There Be Carnage as a superhero movie. As my esteemed colleague Matt Razak pointed out in his review, the movie lacks the traditional superhero second act, in which Eddie and Venom (Tom Hardy) would confront Cletus and Carnage (Woody Harrelson) before being defeated, learning an important life lesson tying to the theme of the larger film, and returning triumphant in the final act.
The film plays fast and loose with the conventions of superhero storytelling, wasting little energy on even basic exposition. It is never explained, for example, why Frances Barrison (Naomie Harris) has the power to scream loudly enough to break glass and destroy helicopters. When our heroes confront Carnage at the climax, Venom has a minor panic attack and briefly refuses to fight, warning Eddie, “That is a red one.” The film never explains how or why Carnage being “a red one” matters.
However, Venom: Let There Be Carnage is only nominally interested in being a standard superhero movie. The market is saturated with superhero movies. Instead, Let There Be Carnage is a classic romantic comedy that has simply cloaked itself in the trappings of a superhero movie. Let There Be Carnage is a story about an alien symbiote and its parasite learning to live together and love each other. The film ends with the two of them on a tropical beach together, Venom admitting that he loves Eddie.
It’s worth noting that it has been a rough couple of years for the big-budget studio romantic comedy. For decades, the genre had been a staple of Hollywood’s output. During the 1990s, romantic comedies were often among the highest-grossing films of their respective years: Pretty Woman, Sleepless in Seattle, Jerry Maguire, My Best Friend’s Wedding, There’s Something About Mary, and Runaway Bride all placed in the box office top 10 of their respective years.
The 21st century has not been kind to the rom-com. Part of this is due to a decline in the quality of lead actors associated with the genre. However one might feel about Gerard Butler and Katherine Heigl, they are no Richard Gere or Julia Roberts. Hollywood also just stopped making mid-budget movies like the romantic comedy, so it got squeezed out of the market. Outside of exceptions like Crazy Rich Asians, these days the romantic comedy mostly lives on streaming services.
So it’s fun to see Venom: Let There Be Carnage embrace the genre and wed its conventions to the structure of a superhero movie. Tom Hardy’s committed performance as both Eddie Brock and Venom was a major selling point of the original Venom. If one of the big challenges facing the modern rom-com is finding actors who play well off one another, director Andy Serkis has hit on a novel solution. Hardy has found a worthy screen partner with whom he shares incredible chemistry: himself.
Of course, the original Venom had its own romantic subplot. Perhaps reflecting its status as a superhero throwback, the film was very invested in Eddie’s relationship with his ex-fiancée, Annie (Michelle Williams). Eddie’s betrayal of Annie’s trust was a major driver of the plot. The film’s emotional arc culminated in Eddie sincerely and unreservedly apologizing to Annie for all the harm he had caused. At one point, the two share a passionate kiss as a way of transferring Venom.
Venom: Let There Be Carnage wisely pushes away from any suggestion of a romantic reconciliation between Eddie and Annie. Early in the movie, Annie tells Eddie that she is getting married to Dan (Reid Scott). Eddie does not take the news well, but Annie is mature enough to wish him the best. She also understands that Eddie has somebody new in his own life. Eddie insists that Venom died at the climax of Venom, but Annie sees through him. “Take care of him,” Annie tells Venom.
As such, the relationship between Eddie and Venom is something of a rebound. In classic rom-com fashion, Eddie is a character recovering from heartbreak, and Venom offers the possibility of a new future. Venom earnestly laments that, as an extraterrestrial organism beyond human comprehension, he can heal almost any injury to a human body — but not “a broken heart.” Venom’s a sensitive soul, at one point shrugging off Eddie’s insults because he knows “we are hurting.”
Much of the first half of the movie is given over to Venom trying to make Eddie feel better, trying to instill in Eddie a sense of his worth and value. At one point, Venom tries to make breakfast for Eddie. At another point, Venom tries to walk Eddie through the particulars of his interview with serial killer Cletus Kasady, while trying very hard to make Eddie feel involved in the process. As in Venom, it seems that Eddie is a very bad journalist. Here, Venom singlehandedly cracks Cletus’ code.
While Matt is entirely correct that Let There Be Carnage is missing the plot beats from the second act of a superhero movie, it does adhere to the standard second act structure of a romantic comedy. After trying to find a healthy way to live together, the pair discover that it just isn’t working. Venom wants to be out in the world together as a team, working as “the Lethal Protector” and eating the brains of bad guys. In contrast, Eddie wants a more mundane and normal life.
It’s hardly the most subtle of metaphors. Venom doesn’t want to have to hide what he is. In contrast, Eddie does nothing but hide what he is. He lies to Annie about Venom, even though she sees right through him. Eddie’s afraid of what the world will think if it sees him and Venom together. During a heated argument, Eddie confesses his fears that the two of them might be locked up and hauled away to “Area 51.” Dan is right to suggest that the two need “couples counseling.”
Tensions reach a breaking point. The idea of a superhero renouncing their superhero identity is a standard trope in superhero sequels, in large part because it provides a logical arc comparable to the origin story – the hero has a journey back to heroism. So the idea of Eddie and Venom separating has its roots in superhero cinema, notably the sequels. It recalls Clark Kent (Christopher Reeves) giving up his powers in Superman II or Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) retiring in Spider-Man 2.
However, Let There Be Carnage plays this separation as a break-up. During one argument, when Venom shoves Eddie, Eddie protests, “This is abuse.” When the relationship reaches a breaking point, Venom starts tossing Eddie’s belongings out into the street while shouting “get out!” repeatedly. (For his part, Eddie responds, “This is my apartment!”) Eventually, Venom abandons Eddie and storms off into the night. It’s the second act break-up that is typical of these romantic comedies.
Free from Eddie, Venom embraces hedonism. He has a wild night out, hopping from host to host and finding acceptance at a San Francisco rave. “I am out of the Eddie closet!” Venom proudly boasts, covering himself in glow sticks. (When a young woman compliments him, he considers his options before acknowledging, “Not my type.”) However, none of Venom’s new relationships last. He moves from body to body through the rave, but he just doesn’t connect with any of his new hosts.
While the emotional climax of Venom found Eddie apologizing to Annie as he was coached by Venom, Let There Be Carnage shifts the focus. Annie is able to unite Eddie and Venom and guides Eddie through his apology to Venom. The two are reconciled. While the third act of Let There Be Carnage doesn’t feature a mad dash to the airport, it does feature our heroes bursting into a church at the perfect moment to stop a wedding. There’s even a quirky British priest (Reece Shearsmith).
Crucially, like any good rom-com, Let There Be Carnage features a “beta couple.” In fact, true to the movie’s commitment to excess, it features two beta couples. Annie and Dan represent a much healthier alternative to Eddie and Venom, a couple who trust one another and support one another. In contrast, Cletus and Frances offer a foil to Eddie and Venom. The movie introduces Cletus and Frances as an outlaw couple, and Serkis even riffs on Harrelson’s iconic role in Natural Born Killers.
While Eddie and Venom are a couple who are perfect for each other but need to acknowledge it, Cletus and Frances are fundamentally imperfect for one another despite their love. After all, symbiotes are vulnerable to high-pitch frequencies, which means that Frances’ sonic superpowers render her incompatible with Cletus’ new alien symbiote. In turn, this tension puts Cletus and Carnage at odds with one another. “They are not symbiotic!” Venom realizes, in a key moment.
The climax of Let There Be Carnage finds Eddie and Venom at a church for a wedding. The closing scene finds the two together on a tropical beach, enjoying a honeymoon of sorts. If one commits to this reading, even the post-credits scene fits. As Venom talks to Eddie about his own “secrets,” there’s a dramatic reveal of a character that most audience members will recognize as Venom’s former partner – at least in another dimension. The returning ex is a classic romantic sequel hook.
Venom: Let There Be Carnage might be a so-so superhero movie, but it is a great romantic comedy.