I had a short conversation with a friend about Venom: Let There Be Carnage that seemed pretty all-encompassing: he felt that the best parts of 2018's Venom were the scenes where Tom Hardy played off of Michelle Williams, and since there are fewer of those in Let There Be Carnage, he thought it was a slightly worse film. I felt that the best parts of Venom were the scenes where Tom Hardy played off of his own voice, digitally modulated to play the part of the psychopathic man-eating alien parasite of the title, and since there are more of those in Let There Be Carnage, I thought it was a slightly better film. I wouldn't say that's the entire range of possible reactions - presumably one could altogether love or altogether hate one or both of the films, which feels like more effort than is justified by a pair of fairly run-of-the-mill comic book adaptations - but it does feel like that includes everything worth including: there is less Michelle Williams, and that is bad; there is more Hardy-on-Hardy, and that is good.

Anyway, since I have already staked out the position that Venom: Let There Be Carnage is better than its predecessor, and since this puts me in the extraordinarily uncharacteristic position of being a "yea" vote on a comic book movie that has, at this moment, a negative score on Rotten Tomatoes, I suppose I had better start making the case. Let There Be Carnage has one unambiguous advantage over Venom: because the origin story already happened, it can go right into the good stuff (a longstanding advantage of superhero sequels). The good stuff being the comic bickering between Eddie Brock (Hardy), a San Francisco-based journalist who speaks in a depressed whine and wears sweatshirts so grubby you can almost smell them over the screen, and Venom, the irritable, brain-hungry creature that lives inside of him and can take over his body, turning it into a hulking jet-black pile of muscle, teeth, and claws. Or at least shoot tentacles out of his back as needed to interact with the world or harm passers-by. It's about a year after the last movie, and Eddie's sad-sack life has gotten sadder, and sackier, and the only thing that might turn things around is that he's been selected by notorious serial killer Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson) to conduct the final interview of that man's life before he's executed via lethal injection. Flashforward a bit, and Kasady bites Eddie's hand, getting some of the Venom-infected blood inside of himself; the execution triggers something in the blood that creates a new symbiote, Carnage, who has none of Venom's relative patience and convivality, and of course Eddie and Venom are (is) the only one(s) who can stop the made rage of Kasady, Carnage, and Kasady's old girlfriend from the asylum for the criminally insane, Frances Barrison (Naomie Harris), who can scream loud enough to shatter a man's skull. And both Venom and Carnage are extremely sensitive to loud noises, which if nothing else puts a strain on Kasady and Carnage's relationship.

That last bit is by no means incidental: Let There Be Carnage is absolutely most interesting when it's about the relationships between human and symbiote. Plenty of people made the joke, or simpy the observation, that Venom was basically a romantic comedy between Eddie and Venom, and the sequel takes that farther: this is almost exactly a 1930s-style comedy-of-divorce-and-remarriage, and the only reason I won't say that's been done 100% intentionally is that I don't trust contemporary filmmakers to know that the comedy of remarriage was a thing. It is, however, absolutely the case that the writers - Hardy himself helped write the story with Kelly Marcel, who then wrote the screenplay by herself - are very knowingly making a romcom out of the interactions between Eddie and Venom, who bicker and grouse and break up and find after doing so that they just can't live without each other. In one of the film's best scenes, paced excellently by director Andy Serkis, Venom prepares breakfast while tonelessly and arrhythmically singing along to "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off", which now that I think of it maybe does suggest that they had '30s comedies in mind.

Regardless, the film is fully invested in treating Eddie and Venom as an old married couple, and with Hardy being involved in creating this story, it's unsurprising that he seems to be having a terrific time camping it up as both the schlubby disaster that is Eddie and the violent, vulgar bully Venom (the latter only as a voice - a voice sweetened considerably in post-production at that - but the actor's delight in what he's doing comes through extremely clearly even so). The CGI used to bring Venom and Eddie into face-to-face contact is quite good, and cartoonishly expressive without giving up the illusion that it takes place in the real world (it's probably a stretch to credit Serkis with this - visual effects in these big tentpole movies are made a world away from the live-action production - but given his career-long gift for pouring actorly emotion into CGI effects as the most famous of all mo-cap actors, it's certainly tempting to speculate). It's not high art, and not even the terrific pop art of a really good '30s romcom, but it charmed me enough.

There is, of course, a whole entire movie around all of this, and it's fine. Whatever. It's a superhero action film, in which one big CGI critter and another CGI critter fly into each other as the soundtrack bellows and the sound editing people put in all the texture that makes us believe that they're interacting with each other and the real world. It's harmless as such things go; the muted realism of the film's visuals (this was somehow gifted with the great cinematographer Robert Richardson, and outside of a few shots in the climax making good use of the light streaming through stained glass windows, you'd never be able to guess) means that Carnage's red skin isn't too meaningfully different than Venom's black skin, so there's not actually much that you can do to tell one CGI blob apart from the other. There are some good beats for Williams, who is barely used and is putting in the exact least amount of work to seem like she's not just coasting. There are fewer good beats for Harrelson and Harris, which is a crying shame, since they're both really good: playing big, unnuanched bloodthirsty bad guys, they cackle and leer and snap out threatening one-liners, and there's a genuinely unnerving demented edge in both performances - condescending and sharklike for Harrelson, spittle-flecked rage for Harris - that makes something effectively memorable out of the broad strokes. But the movie doesn't seem to have realised what it had in them, or more likely it was just locked into one course of action and couldn't swerve away to take advantage of what they were providing to it, so we just get these live fuses of extravagant villainy, burning down harmlessly without a bomb connected to them.

But at least it knew what it had in Hardy, and frames everything around making that as pleasantly goofy in its macabre, snarling way. It's not much, but it's enough, especially since it never gets swamped by the rest of the movie, the way it did in Venom. There just isn't enough material to swamp it. The whole film, credits and all, comes in at 97 minutes - a wonderful length of time for something this insubstantial and laser-focused on the easiest pleasures of its set-up. It all feels very like a '90s comic book movie: short, punchy, probably too hung up on "edgy" nastiness, but really just focused on being a breezy bit of escapism, and not laboriously trying to insist on its on epic scope or doing any grand-scale worldbuilding. Which, to judge from the film's mid-credits scene, will all be going to hell with the next entry in Sony's "the villains of Spider-Man universe", or whatever the hell it is. But that's next time, and this time is fun enough, if watching Tom Hardy be weird is your idea of fun.