The character of Eddie Brock/Venom first appeared on film in Spider-Man 3 (Raimi, 2007). Even though the character and film were poorly received, Sony Pictures and the producers were adamant about spinning off a solo Venom film. They developed it for several years until it was decided that the Spider-Man series would be rebooted with The Amazing Spider-Man (Webb, 2012). That film was a relative success, but more importantly, that same summer, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) reached enormous success with the release of The Avengers (Whedon, 2012). Marvel Studios had made five loosely connected films leading up to the huge team-up film, which proved greater than the sum of its parts. Sony hoped to copy this success by building a cinematic universe around Spider-Man. To that end, they dusted off their abandoned Venom project.
But the next Spider-Man film, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (Webb, 2014), was a disaster, scuttling shared universe plans before they even began. The final nail in the coffin seemed to occur when Sony negotiated a deal to share the cinematic rights to Spider-Man with Marvel Studios. This allowed Spider-Man to appear in MCU films and MCU characters to appear in solo Spider-Man films. It also prevented Spider-Man from appearing in films based on ancillary Spider-Man-related material from the comics. It was a bit baffling when Sony Pictures moved ahead with a solo Venom film, given that the character’s origin is inextricably linked to Spider-Man in the comics. How could a Venom film be good or successful if it is cut off from its parent character?
Venom (Fleischer, 2018) may not have been good, but it was wildly successful. It was so successful that it completely revitalized Sony’s seemingly defunct plans for a Spider-Man cinematic universe. A variety of films were greenlit, including Morbius (Espinosa, 2022), Kraven the Hunter (Chandor, 2023), Madame Web (Clarkson, 2023), and, of course, a sequel to Venom, Venom: Let There Be Carnage (Serkis, 2021). These all feature characters from Spider-Man’s comic book orbit, but the films lack Spider-Man. This remains a foolish idea, but the massive success of Venom convinced the studio that Sony’s Spider-Man Universe (SSU) can be successful even without its eponymous character. The sequel to Venom was the biggest sure thing in the whole enterprise. Not only is Venom: Let There Be Carnage able to build on the pre-established world of the first film, but it is also a chance to feature the best-known Spider-Man villain that had not yet been introduced on film: Carnage. This was a surefire recipe for success, but did it work out?
In the comics, Venom has a complicated history. It first appears as intelligent, symbiotic black alien goo that adheres itself to Peter Parker/Spider-Man in Secret Wars #8 (December 1984), giving him a new black costume. Peter soon realizes that the symbiote is consuming him, and he gets rid of it. Its next host, as of Amazing Spider-Man #300 (May 1988), is Eddie Brock, a disgraced journalist who blames Spider-Man for his mistakes. Brock and the symbiote bond over their hatred of Peter/Spider-Man, and turn themselves into a larger, toothier, black version of Spider-Man named Venom. Venom was the most popular new Spider-Man villain in years, and his every appearance was an event. Writer David Michelinie, who created Venom with artist Todd McFarlane, originally planned to swap out hosts for the symbiote, but the Eddie Brock/Venom character proved too popular to change.
Venom was so popular that the publishers of Marvel Comics were interested in spinning him off into his own stories. The character is violent and garish, with a twisted moral code, but this mirrored many of the dark, grim anti-hero characters that were popping in the early ‘90s. To push a more anti-hero approach with Venom and to give him a reason to team up with Spider-Man, the decision was made to create a more evil, extreme version of Venom. Venom was a darker, more violent Spider-Man, and Carnage was a darker, more violent Venom. This was the trajectory of superhero comics in the early ‘90s.
Cletus Kasady, a crazed serial killer, first appears as Eddie Brock’s prison cellmate in Amazing Spider-Man #344 (March 1991). When the symbiote breaks Eddie out of prison, it leaves behind its offspring, which binds with Kasady to create Carnage, which first appears in Amazing Spider-Man #361 (April 1992). Carnage is a skinny red version of Venom, with numerous tendrils used to make sharp weapons. The character is more grotesque, violent, and extreme than Venom, again following the trends of the time. He was fairly popular, starring in a large Spider-Man crossover storyline entitled “Maximum Carnage” from May to August 1993.
Venom was always kind of a bad character in terms of his quality and actions. I say this as a Spider-Man fan. The introduction of Carnage, a much worse character in terms of quality and actions, allowed Venom to flourish as a solo character. Meanwhile, Carnage reliably recurred in both Venom and Spider-Man comics over the following decades. Many dark, extreme early ‘90s characters dropped sharply in popularity when superhero comics shifted away from violence and brutality later in the decade. Still, some characters such as Venom, Carnage, and Deadpool managed to endure. Carnage remains the last massively-popular breakout new villain in Spider-Man comics. All of this made his appearance in a film inevitable.
Venom‘s filmmakers planned to include Carnage in the first film. They decided smartly that the first film would be too occupied with setting up the world of Venom and the symbiotes. Carnage would be better served with a whole film to himself, which would be a natural escalation for the sequel. The filmmakers did call their shot, however, by featuring Woody Harrelson as Cletus Kasady in the credits scene of Venom. All of this made sense during the making of the first film. Little did the filmmakers know that Carnage would become a sort of albatross around the neck of the sequel.
The film that would become Venom: Let There Be Carnage ultimately developed in an interesting, fruitful direction, into which the filmmakers failed to incorporate Carnage properly. The villain pulls focus from the film’s best parts and fails to mesh thematically with anything else. This happens to Venom: Let There Be Carnage might have been better off writing out Carnage, which would be impossible since they had already promised to use the fan-favourite character. What happens when the main selling point of the sequel is the weakest part of that sequel? You get Venom: Let There Be Carnage.
Some of the Carnage problems begin with Harrelson. This is unfortunate because Woody Harrelson is a good actor, but he’s miscast here. He appeared in the credits scene of Venom as a favour to director Ruben Fleischer, his director in Zombieland (Fleischer, 2009). He also seemed like a perfect choice for Kasady, as he had played a crazed serial killer 25 years earlier in Natural Born Killers (Stone, 1994). This put Harrelson on the hook to play Cletus Kasady/Carnage in Venom: Let There Be Carnage, even after Fleischer left the project. Fleischer initially stated he quit the project to have time to complete Zombieland: Double Tap (Fleischer, 2019).
He later added that he was greatly disappointed and discouraged that critics had panned Venom despite being well-received by fans. Andy Serkis, best known for portraying Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films, was hired as the new director. During production, Harrelson became reluctant to voice Carnage, even asking Serkis to do it. Harrelson was also nearly 60 at the time of production, playing a character written as being in his mid-30s, closer to Harrelson’s age in Natural Born Killers. So his friend exits as director, he is uncomfortable with the Carnage voice, and he is decades too old for the character. This all adds up to a poor fit for an actor and character.
But beyond casting, the biggest issue with Carnage in Venom: Let There Be Carnage is that the parts of the film without him are vastly better than the parts with him. Worse, the writers failed to tie the two main storylines together in any satisfying way. As they evaluated the first film’s success, the studio and screenwriter Kelly Marcel observed that audiences responded favourably to the bickering, antagonistic friendship between Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) and the Venom symbiote. Serkis would later compare them to the Odd Couple.
So that relationship became the focus of most of the film. Venom: Let There Be Carnage is the story of two characters who are fundamentally different, with different goals, approaches, and attitudes, but stuck together. They fight, argue, have a bitter breakup, miss each other, and then come to understand that they need each other. This is a relationship comedy by way of a superhero film, and those parts of the film are vastly superior to the previous film.
And yet, the filmmakers committed to putting Carnage in their film. So Cletus Kasady/Carnage mostly operates in a parallel story far less interesting, involving, or entertaining than the relationship comedy. Although there is ample opportunity to thematically mirror or relate the Kasady/Carnage dynamic with the Eddie/Venom dynamic, the film never does so in any meaningful way. The film fails to use Carnage effectively and seems like it would be better off without him.