Venom: Let There be Carnage is Gooey Trash

Venom: Let There Be Carnage' Movie Review - Full Circle Cinema

Low Brow and Low Tier

I’m not super familiar with the Venom character in the comics nor have I ever been particularly drawn to it. Sure, that doesn’t belay the fact that Venom is an extremely popular character in Marvel Comics and that its first film (if we ignore Spider-Man 3) was a surprise hit.

The first one was mildly entertaining and had some funny bits. The sequel, Venom: Let There be Carnage continues in that vein. It’s entertaining, has some funny bits. But ultimately it’s dumb, silly, and it’s trash. It’s basically what comic book movies used to be but just better made. It fall short of the mindless cinematic fun of the last few Godzilla films.

When Let There be Carnage begins, we are introduced to a young Cletus Kassady who is voiced by Woody Harrelson, but played by another actor. He and the girl he loves, Francis, are residents of St. Estes Home for Unwanted Children (yes, that really is the name). Frances is being taken away to the Ravencroft Institute because her “mutation” is getting worse. This makes Kassady sad and will later motivate what he does for the rest of the film.

We skip forward to the present to the present day as we see Eddie Brock has not improved himself since the last outing and is engaging in perpetual bickering with his symbiote. He is still an out of work journalist, and not even a very good ne at that. He’s given the opportunity to interview death row inmate Cletus Kassady, a supposedly dangerous serial killer, for no other reason than Cletus asked for him, not because he’s any good. Detective Milligan, of the SFPD thinks, that it would help reveal the location of other bodies. Brock needs the work hoping he can sell the story somewhere, and obviously Cletus is using Eddie to code headlines and quotes as a message to his old flame, who he doesn’t even know is even alive.

There are indeed clues as to where the notorious killer buried other bodies, and in true Hollywood fashion, they are hidden in plain sight for everyone to see. Except it is Venom who is able to piece the clues together, thus allowing Eddie to take the glory. Who these other victims are, and why they were killed, we are not told. Conveniently, after bodies are discovered, the governor lifts the moratorium on the death penalty and good ole Cletus is on a fast track to execution. This upsets him mightily for in a subsequent interview with Eddie, Cletus takes a bite out of Eddie, drawing blood. Yeah, you saw in in the trailer “I have tasted blood before, and that is not it.” So in a sort of reverse vampirism, Cletus has a bit of the symbiote in him. Just as he is near death, the symbiote manifests in him and becomes…CARNAGE. Prison wackiness ensues, including the ability for all the prisoners to just leave their cells for whatever reason. Bodies pie up in a bloodless PG-13 rampage of violence.

Meanwhile, Eddie and Venom’s bickering gets to comical levels as Venom throws Eddie’s things out the window, including his TV, telling him to get out. All the while Eddie saying, this is my home. Yeah, this is the major breakup scene in the movie usually between married couples.

But we know how this goes. Boy meets symbiote, boy and symbiote break up, boy and symbiote gets back together. There is a scene of Venom, in his natural form, going to a costumed rave where people just love his “outfit” and accept him for who he is. The icing on this particular metaphorical cake comes when Venom goes up to the entertainment’s mic and proclaims his “I don’t need that man in my life” moment. And there is much rejoicing.

Kassady makes a deal with the Carnage symbiote. He wants to find his old lover and Carnage wants to kill Venom. They figure it’s a win win situation. They easily find Frances and free her from the institute, not without leaving a trail of bodies in their wake, however. In a PG-13 version of Natural Born Killers, they gleefully make out while killing people.

This could be quite a deadly trio, except that Frances’s “mutation” is a deafening shriek. In fact, that is her character in Marvel comics. But for the symbiotes, loud sounds and fire are their weaknesses. So not exactly a match made in heaven.

There is little to fault the actors. They are simply doing their best with the thin material that they are given. Tom Hardy is a likeable enough Eddie Broke, but Eddie himself is not very smart or good at anything he does. I think Woody Harrelson’s performance as Kassady works only because he pulls his crazy Woody act which we have all seen many times before. The biggest tragedy was the wasted character of Frances “Shriek” Barrison as portrayed by Oscar nominated Naomi Harris. Much of her character is relegated to just being in her cell making menacing eyes at her captors. Michelle Williams as Eddie’s ex girlfriend is given even less of a significant role other than damsel in distress, who really should have been killed several times over if you can believe the villains. Seriously, my favorite character is the corner store owner, Mrs. Chen, played by Peggy Lu. She has some actually funny lines and displays more authentic personality than the rest of the characters.

As with a majority of comic book movies, the last act of the film is an indulgent all you can eat buffet of CGI and loud noise. It is handled as well as could be expected, but also as badly as can be expected. It is many times dark, confusing and extended longer than it needs to be.

The best reason to watch this, unfortunately, is to see the mid-credits scene which made the whole 90 minute runtime worth it as it is a significant twist to…well, everything. But other than that, the movie is a fun romp that is an easy 90 minute distraction for a matinee or rental. The plot is thin, and relies on too many unfunny lines. We really get no sense of any real characters, especially Cletus Kassady who is supposedly some notorious serial killer, but his back story is only given to us in a cartoon form.

Final Verdict: 7/10

Review: Shang-Chi is a Top Tier MCU Film

Growing up as a young lad in the 70s, The Hands of Shang-Chi Master of Kung Fu, was one of my favorite comics to read, more so than Batman or Spider-Man. Yes, I knew it had some racist imagery, but there were no Chinese heroic characters in any comics at all at the time. We took what we could get. The writing by Doug Moench was a bit more mature and the art of greats like Paul Gulacy and the late Gene Day were eye popping. It helped, of course, that that era’s depiction of Shang-Chi was modeled heavily after the likeness of the late Bruce Lee. So it was with great anticipation, hope, and fear when Marvel announced they would be making a Shang-Chi movie. Would they make a cringe inducing cliché of orientalism like Mulan or would they make something that respects culture? Well, with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, the MCU has expanded their roster of big screen characters and not only added more representation and diversity to their ever growing dramatis personae, but also created a top tier entry into the Marvel movie pantheon of heroes with one of the most if not the most compelling origin stories in years.

Simu Liu, who is best known for his stint on the Canadian series Kim’s Convenience, makes his leading role debut on the big screen as the title character of Shang-Chi (calling himself Shaun in America) where he plays an everyday slacker youth pretty happy at his job as a San Francisco hotel parking attendant (honestly, in San Francisco, that can be pretty decent money). He is content to do his job and hang out with best friend Katy (Akwafina).

That simple contented life is interrupted one day as a random stranger demands the pendant he wears around his neck that was given to him by his late mother. And in the tradition of Jackie Chan, he is forced to defend himself . What follows is an incredible fight scene with choreography by the late Brad Allan, a former member of Jackie Chan’s stunt team. With a judicious blend of practical stunts and effects mixed with some CG, we get the first true action scene that will probably go don as one of the most memorable in MCU history. The influences of Jackie Chan films are very clear as the stakes go higher and Simu Liu plays the reluctant badass fighter.

It is revealed after this that Shaun, came to America to get away from his criminal father and his past. His real name is Shang-Chi and his father is the true criminal mastermind behind the Ten Rings organization that made its first appearance in Iron Man and was given the false face of The Mandarin in Iron Man 3. Shang-Chi reveals that if the men who attacked him were after his pendant, then they are after his sister’s as well. He decides to travel to Macau to find his sister, Xialing, played by Meng’er Zhang. Since Katy is his best friend, she goes along for the ride, because that’s what best buds do.

It doesn’t take long (besides another excellent fight, this time on scaffolding) before we have a full family reunion with their imposing father who is played by Hong Kong cinema’s legendary Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, as Xu Wenwu. Against comic book tropes, he is not a villain of pure evil. His history is much more nuanced than that and he knows he has done many bad things in the past in a personal quest for power. He gave all that up when he met their mother, but reverted back to his ways after her death. And in that time trained Shang-Chi to be an instrument of death by training him in every form of martial art.

Revealing much more after that will give away too much plot details. In fact, there is not much wasted in this film and an odd side effect of that is that the not so great trailers were the way they were because showing more would give away too much of the plot. And there is a nice plot going on with some drama and performances that stand out more than is not usually seen in films based on comic books. The family dynamic here is believable, much more than what is portrayed in Black Widow which wavered from fake to just jokes. And much of that believability belongs to Tony Leung, who lends a majestic gravitas to his performance as man who has lived for over a thousand years because of the power granted to him by the Ten Rings. Tony Leung is a legend of an actor and if you have not had a chance to see any of his films, especially ones directed by Wong Kar Wai, I highly recommend you seek them out.

Not content to have only one regal supporting role from Asian cinema’s legends, we also graced with MIchelle Yeoh, who plays the aunt of Shang-Chi and Xialing and who wants to stop Wenwu. As in everything that she has done lately, Michelle Yeoh instantly classes the place up. Whether it’s in the high profile Crazy Rich Asians or the little rom-com Last Christmas she provides an air of legitimacy to the more fantastical elements of the plot latter. Yeoh plays the protector of a village that holds a secret that Wenwu desperately wishes for. As is often the case, be careful what you wish for. Though his motivations are not unsound, his reasonings definitely are relatable.

At one point, the movie has to acknowledge that it’s a Marvel film and, for better or worse, we have the inevitable effects laden last battle that has become not only a mainstay of Marvel movies, but comic book movies on the whole. I would understand those that check out at this point because the movie goes full on fantastical. We are treated to mystical creatures straight out of Chinese mythology and a CGI filled battle between multiple forces that humans and non-humans. But bare with me, what still keeps this interesting is the family conflict between father and son. Shang-Chi must inevitably battle his father and yet there is an emotional honesty between their conflict. Neither wants this but they have to do what they have to do. And it is a testament to Tony Leung power as an actor, who has never been featured in a Hollywood movie, to provide us with a character that is human and sympathetic instead of a two-dimensional villain who merely wants power.

It is both a good and bad thing that this is a Marvel film. It does fit well into the Marvel universe. But unfortunately it also has to be part of that larger narrative and as such the Ten Rings will indeed be very important. We don’t know where they truly come from, only that they are very old and they are very powerful. Don’t bother checking up wiki or YouTube because any explanation of them you’ll find are from the comics and the actual powers are fully explored yet. And of course there is the heavy CG battle that was mentioned previously. For some this may come as a heavy break from the relatively grounded fights from earlier. This, for me, nails the multiple genres of Chinese martial arts films and manages to balance the two of fantasy kung fu with grounded fights. This is a genuine martial arts fantasy that does not render itself into absurdity.

Simu Liu is a true breakout star in this vehicle. His character is not the usual arrogant flippant quip filled protagonist who has to be humbled like a Tony Stark or Stephen Strange. He is pretty much a guy who enjoys his working class life until he has to step up. Now, Awkwafina, who I have been a fan with her performances in Crazy Rich Asians and The Farewell, is there to not only provide the comic relief but is also there as our anchor from the normal world to this fantastical world of mysticism and martial arts. And against typical trope, she does not serve as the typical love interest for the hero, they are best friends and she is not afraid to call him out for doing something stupid, such as choosing the name Shaun from Shang-Chi to hide from his father. Meng’er Zhang, who has mostly done stage work in China, is another breakout star of the film as Xialing, Shang-Chi’s sister. Fala Chan manages to hold her own against Tony Leung, playing his wife and the mother of Shang-Chi and Xialing. Needless to say, this movie does really well in its portrayal of women who are able to hold their own.

Director, Destin Daniel Cretton makes his big-budget debut with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. His previous film, Just Mercy, featured performances from MCU alums Michael B. Jordan and Brie Larson (who was also in Cretton’s Short Term 12). He made a very conscious and rather brave choice to have the actors speak much of their lines in Mandarin and it gives the film an air of authenticity. He also contributed to the screenplay with Dave Callaham and Andrew Lanham. This is not only the first Marvel film with a predominantly Asian cast, it’s the first one with an Asian director. Chloe Zhao will be Marvel’s first Asian woman, and first Academy Award winning director when The Eternals comes out. Cretton very consciously breaks away from Asian stereotypes yet still manages to add the touches of Asian culture that is authentic, such as what many typical Chinese household have for breakfast.

Yes, representation matters, both in front and behind the camera. Shang-Chi feels Asian in not only it’s the performance off its actors but from the production as well. There are subtle details that add verisimilitude to not only Asians but Asian Americans as well, such as that one point that Wenwu addresses Katy as “American Girl” and asks her if she even knows her own Chinese name. This is actually a big thing about the Chinese and Chinese American experience. Katy is not just the outlet for the outsider to this world, but she is the outsider to the Chinese. Her family is inhabited by three generations, hers, her mother, and her grandmother. The grandmother speaks Mandarin, while the mother speaks slightly accented English. Katy is straight up ABC (American Born Chinese). There’s even a joke when Katy and Shang-Chi meet a character who speaks Mandarin to her, he pauses and says “Don’t worry, I speak ABC.”

I highly recommend this movie, not just because it’s part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it’s a damn good film that is enjoyable on its own as a martial arts film that genuinely entertains. Forget what you know from the 70s comics and even the modern ones for a bit. You may be feeling a bit of Marvel fatigue, you may be feeling superhero fatigue, but if you pass up seeing this, preferably in a theater, you are missing out on something that is genuinely fun to watch. Yes, see this in the theater if you feel safe to do so. And need I say that you have to stay through the very end as there is a mid credits scene and a post credit scene? Yes, it’s Marvel.

Final Verdict: 9/10