Once, thespians hungered to play Othello. For Tom Hardy, an actor devoted to the art of emoting behind a mask (and eight figures of special effects), there is Venom.
In “Venom: Let There Be Carnage,” the continuation of Marvel’s dirtbag demi-franchise about the fusion of the San Francisco journalist Eddie Brock and Venom, the tar-like alien symbiote who inhabits Brock, envelops him and demands to be fed human flesh — or, failing that, chicken and chocolate — the main character is two roles, squeezed into one body, that occasionally pop apart to punch each other in the nose. Not only does the actor have to keep his face reactive when the often unseen parasite hollers in his character’s inner ear about its lust to solve crimes and eat bad guys; Hardy also voices Venom in a gravelly, greasy baritone that sounds like Orson Welles fighting a coyote for a ham bone. If Welles were alive today, he might want to play Venom, too.
The first “Venom,” released in 2018, suffered from the need to set up Hardy’s one-man production of “The Odd Couple.” This sequel is directed by Andy Serkis, the actor underneath Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings,” who is happy to let his camera chase after his star and an inexhaustible supply of flinging CG tentacles.
Assuming one sides with the gooey parasite who treats humans like Cheetos, the villain is Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson), a serial killer on death row who scuffles with Eddie — or rather, Venom in Eddie — and accidentally fuses with his own symbiote, Carnage, who turns the inmate the color of a boiled lobster. Between Cletus-Carnage’s romance with Frances (Naomie Harris), the reformatory sweetheart he wooed after pushing his grandmother down the stairs, and Eddie-Venom’s tangled feelings for his forever-sidelined ex-fiancée, Anne (Michelle Williams), this is, in essence, a slapstick blood bath about two threesomes both in desperate need of throuples therapy. The screenwriter Kelly Marcel (who shaped the story with Hardy) gets playful with the Bob and Carol and Eddie and Venom high jinks, even setting a scene at an L.G.B.T.Q.-friendly disco where Venom, testing out the single life, drapes himself in glow sticks and bellows, “I’m out of the Eddie closet!”
Yes, there are battles — all of them exponentially less interesting than a twitch of Hardy’s eyebrow. “Let There Be Carnage” flourishes in high-energy moments and feeds off low expectations; it’s the mold in the Avengers’ shower. Perhaps the next installment could do away with the pretense of these dingbats needing to save the world? As Venom growls, “Responsibility is for the mediocre.”
Venom: Let There Be Carnage
Rated PG-13 for intense violence and an alien parasite with a potty mouth. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes. In theaters.