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The refreshing, bad romance of Venom: Let There Be Carnage

What superhero movies can learn from the campy alien symbiote.

Venom perched on the side of a tall building at night with a skyline and lights below him.
It’s Venom!
Courtesy of Sony Pictures
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Twelve years ago this month, Italian American singer, songwriter, and actress Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta gave us a ballad about the erotic thrill and vampiric pain of loving someone who is terrible for your existence. Doubly terrible if that someone is also your best friend.

“I want your horror. I want your design. ’Cause you’re a criminal as long as you’re mine,” she sang on her No. 1 hit “Bad Romance,” which channels Hitchcock a few bars later. “I want your psycho, your vertigo shtick. Want you in my rear window, baby, you’re sick.”

It’s not specified if Germanotta was crooning about an alien symbiote. But after watching Venom: Let There Be Carnage, I’m convinced she should have been.

Directed by Andy Serkis, Venom: Let There Be Carnage — unofficially known as Venom 2 — is the grimy sequel to 2018’s $850 million hit story of a man named Eddie Brock who meets and is subsumed by a shape-shifting alien life form. That alien, the titular Venom, is more parasite than being and cannot exist on his own; he must bond with a human to continue living. But when he meets Eddie, who is played by Tom Hardy, Venom’s survival becomes less about utility and more about bending to emotional attachment. It’s a love story.

With that foundation set, Serkis’s sequel leans further into the Eddie-and-Venom dynamic, showing us life beyond the honeymoon phase of alien-human bonding. Eddie’s world isn’t open-minded enough to accept a fully consensual human-symbiote pairing. Fearing exclusion and even imprisonment, Eddie and Venom retreat into the metaphorical closet. Eddie pretends Venom doesn’t exist, straining their relationship when Venom’s wants and needs — human flesh and, inexplicably, chocolate — become too fearsome to ignore. It takes an emotional toll on both Eddie and Venom.

Perhaps it just comes with the job. Maybe you can’t save the world if you have competing priorities; Wonder Woman, Captain America, and Iron Man all have made this point. Maybe superheroes are destined to live lonely lives. But Venom 2 dares to ask what would happen if superheroes didn’t have to be so alone. Maybe it’s as Germanotta sang, a destined bad romance — but that’s a romance nonetheless.

Venom 2 is about the luck of finding your soulmate — and the give-and-take of long-term relationships

The character of Eddie holds a live chicken while Venom coils around to face him.
Eddie <3 Venom 4-ever.
Courtesy of Sony Pictures

Serkis sets Venom 2 at a ballistic pace — so much that I think the 90-minute runtime feels generous. There’s no exposition, no world-building, no long-winded villain speeches about motivations. It’s just high-velocity Venom, via a plot about a serial killer who’s accidentally imbued with a variant strain of the symbiote.

On its face, Venom 2 is a no-frills, rock-and-roll superhero flick that unashamedly swings for the fences when it comes to camp and cheese. Yet beneath those elements, it’s strangely about finding love and the intimacy of relationships, building on the rom-com core of the first movie.

We catch up with Eddie and Venom still living in a one-bedroom apartment (do not quote me on this, because it could be a really big studio) in San Francisco. Eddie has transitioned back to print journalism after a stint doing independent viral video reporting in the previous movie. I suppose in Venom’s reality, print journalism thrives. Another quirk in this world: Print journalists do not seem to have editors, and answer only to themselves.

An alleged serial killer named Cletus Kasady contacts Eddie and asks for a one-on-one interview. As played by Woody Harrelson, Kasady is loony and maniacal. This is telegraphed to the audience because he sometimes speaks in haikus; we also learn that he told Eddie he suffocated his grandmother and electrocuted his mother in a bathtub when he was a kid. Since Eddie hides Venom from the outside world, Kasady doesn’t realize that his one-on-one interview — Kasady’s grab for fame and chance to indulge in his infatuation with Eddie — is a tag-team encounter with a hyper-intelligent and hypersensitive alien symbiote.

With Venom’s prowess, Eddie and Venom find Kasady’s burial ground and Eddie becomes mega-famous. However, their success leads to emotional conflict.

Ostensibly, Venom can enjoy the perks of his and Eddie’s collaborative success, but he needs more than just bylines and nice television sets to stay alive. Venom needs to eat human brains to keep his intergalactic metabolism going. Eddie can’t give him those, and only allows him chicken brains (attached to live chickens), which Venom scoffs at.

And even as Eddie’s journalism star rises, he can’t make himself desirable enough to his old flame Anne (reprised in Let There Be Carnage by Michelle Williams, who also reprises her wig from the first movie). She’s the only person in the world who understands Eddie and his relationship with Venom, and unfortunately, she’s moved on, at least in theory, engaged to her loyal boyfriend Dr. Dan (Reid Scott). She knows all too well that Eddie doesn’t have a lot of space for her in his life.

Their clash over cracking the Kasady case and Anne is just a symptom of a bigger problem between Eddie and Venom. Neither can meet the needs of the other. Eddie does not speak in Venom’s love language of fresh medullas oblongata. Venom cannot fathom the limitations of Eddie’s humanity or why he chooses to shrink himself by living as a tabloid journalist instead of living like a god. Because the two understand each other so well, Eddie knows he can hurt Venom by telling him he’s just a loser parasite from a different world, and Venom knows he can hurt Eddie by destroying the belongings that Eddie has finally earned.

While Kasady’s transformation into the mutant symbiote Carnage turns him into the movie’s titular villain, the real villain of Venom 2 is the fallout between Eddie and Venom. Learning to love each other is more important to Eddie and Venom than defeating the prescribed foe.

In exploring this strange romance, Serkis and Venom 2 tap into emotional territory rarely explored by superhero movies, no matter the studio. While superheroes often have girlfriends (or implied girlfriends) and boyfriends, those significant others rarely feel like anything more than accessories. They’re often flat characters, and that in turn makes their relationships feel hollow.

Because the focus of a superhero film is typically on some global threat and what the heroes must do to thwart it, we rarely get to see the needs, wants, or desires of the heroes’ loved ones, or how the consequences of those instincts and impulses affect them and their relationships. It’s a slice of humanity that’s missing from the people tasked with saving the world in movie after movie.

What other superhero stories could learn from Venom

Michelle Williams in a wig and Tom Hardy in a leather jacket in Venom: Let There Be Carnage.
Courtesy of Sony Pictures

The most fascinating and distinctive element of both Venom movies — more than their action, humor, and gore — is how hopeful they are about companionship.

While almost all superhero movies run on themes of personal sacrifice and putting everyone else first to save the world, Venom and Venom 2 emphasize, in their own unique and sometimes raunchy ways, that finding someone who completes you can make you stronger, better, and happier. Venom 2 in particular lowers its storytelling stakes: The goal becomes just getting through this life with a little more joy. The film suggests that finding your soulmate — whether they be romantic or platonic or symbiote alien parasite — can be just as important as anything else in the world.

Venom’s freedom to tell what is primarily a wacky relationship story comes from being self-contained. The Venom movies and all their camp, in contrast to Marvel’s endlessly interconnected cinematic universe, can exist simply on their own and in their own world. It’s difficult to imagine a typical MCU film making space for a wigged Michelle Williams to earnestly say lines like “I’m sorry about Venom,” like you would offer condolences to someone who got dumped, or constantly ask a frenetic Tom Hardy, in séance style, whether Venom is currently in the room. Not being part of something bigger allows Venom to take risks with its tone, humor, and scale.

At no point during either Venom movie are earth and all its citizens ever in danger, nor are Eddie and his symbiote the only obstacles that stand in the way between humanity and its sheer obliteration. In Venom 2, Carnage doesn’t seem like an unstoppable force; the movie never suggests that the only way to fight him would be to rope in more superheroes to help. In fact, both Carnage/Kasady and Eddie/Venom seem like they’d be fine never interacting with the world again if they could simply have their significant others and an endless supply of brains.

It wouldn’t hurt to see Marvel or DC make room to tell these kinds of more personal stories about their heroes. Or if they were to approach romance or deep friendship for those heroes, to really explore how being superhuman affects someone’s relationships, and consider the consequences of their global-scale actions.

We saw a bit of that in Marvel’s Disney+ series WandaVision, as Wanda Maximoff channeled grief over her dead husband Vision into a romantic fantasy that brought Vision back but victimized hundreds of other people. The storyline wasn’t without faults, but it made the character much richer, sympathetic, flawed and more human than she’d ever been in earlier movies. It showed that for as much as we love to watch superheroes save the world, their social and personal lives are what make them resonate with fans.

But as I wax nostalgic about Eddie and Venom’s bad romance, it’s worth keeping in mind Venom’s self-contained world may soon expand. The financial success of the first film and projections for the second may have already convinced the powers at Sony to open up a Spider-Verse where Tom Holland’s Spider-Man and Hardy’s Venom must collide, just like in their source comics. For now, though, it’s nice to be able to appreciate a superhero movie that understands how scary the world can be even if you have literal superpowers, and that there’s something beautiful in not going it alone.

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