Cards on the table, back when a lot of my peers were so eager to see Venom show up in a Raimi movie, I thought that was pushing things. I knew and enjoyed the character from various comic book reads, the '94 animated series (which, in my opinion, STILL does the best Venom story overall), and the PS1 'Spider-Man' game that no one seems to remember for some reason. Familiarity was there, but knowing Spidey's rouges gallery, there was a LOT to go through. So for me, Venom was cool, but I didn't NEED to see him in a movie as a one-off villain. Bottom line, turn to the '94 cartoon for the best version (aside from comics).
Anyway, when it came to the 2018 film, I rolled with it and accepted it for the fun, albeit dark comedy that it was. I even reviewed it for my 2018 Halloween Special, because it totally had that Halloween vibe to it - almost horrific, but silly enough not to be. I gave a a 3/5, considered it a guilty pleasure and moved on, wondering what the future would hold with that stinger involving Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson) and his clown hair. The answer came in a couple of forms - first and foremost being this continuing story that I enjoyed just about as much as the original. However, due to a stinger scene that I will not spoil here, more questions were answered as to even further films in this series. As a result, indeed, I did like this one a bit more (but not solely based on that).
We open back in 1996, where we meet a young Cletus Kasady (Jack Bandeira) communicating back and forth through holding cells with Frances Barrison, AKA Shriek (Naomie Harris); his love interest. It's unmentioned in the film, but some may recognize her as being a mutant from the comics, and... well, that's all I'm gonna say about that. I'll just say that her appearance on top of the mid-credit stinger and a couple of other curious details do help push this one up for me in quality as opposed to the first. Anyway, long story short, we see Shriek's powers at work as she attempts to escape from a team trying to take her to a facility, led by officer Patrick Mulligan (Stephen Graham) but is ultimately unsuccessful, and separated from Cletus.
In the present, Mulligan contacts Eddie Brock - still bonded with Venom (Tom Hardy) - to speak with Kasady, who he interviewed a year prior. Kasady offers him all of the information he can offer on his crimes in exchange for a favour, otherwise he ends up on death row. This, of course, eventually leads to a little piece of Venom bonding with Cletus to create our favourite symbiotic psychopath, Carnage, who helps Cletus with his search for his lost love. Meanwhile, there's a secondary plot involving Eddie's ex-fiancée, Anne Weying (Michelle Williams) and her engagement to Dr. Dan Lewis (Reid Scott) which kind of does the 'Spider-Man 2' in that so much of it has to do with his secret life interfering too much with his normal one.
Now, for as much as I love the casting of Tom Hardy as Eddie Brock/Venom, I think it's safe to say that Woody Harrelson is the one who really steals the show here as Cletus Kasady/Carnage. For yours truly, this was always a weird case. I saw Cletus a lot like a Joker-type psychopath, and therefore if he was ever cast in a movie, there's some flexibility depending on how you want to interpret the character. Eddie, on the other hand, wasn't so flexible. He needed specifics, and our experience with 'Spider-Man 3' really showed us that when we collectively gasped "Topher Grace!?" But damn, Harrelson sets the bar here. This is one of those cases where I feel if he's to be recast in the future (as Joker has been so many times) it would be a very tough act to follow.
On top of Harrelson's acting skills, I also really just love the way things look in these movies. Venom already always looked great, but what they do with Carnage here was just awesome. There's a big final fight where they show you all the crazy stuff Carnage can do, as Cletus has no problem with letting his symbiote take the wheel. So in case you haven't picked up on it, Carnage is what makes this movie worth watching more than anything. Otherwise, Eddie's relationship with Venom continues to be strained, and ultimately comedic, we see the return of Mrs. Chen (Peggy Lu), and one can get a few good laughs from Venom playing off his hatred of "Dr. Dan". All in all, I feel pretty much the same as I did with the first one, but I did appreciate Cletus/Carnage just enough that this is a "High 3"