Sunday, December 19, 2021


Here’s a Spider-Man movie about how much fun earlier Spider-Man movies were. Sure, it’s also about second chances (for Spider-Men) and learning from your (Spider-Man) mistakes and finding the people who truly love you for who you really are (Spider-Man). But I guess that makes it all the more a movie that begins and ends with nothing but Spider-Man and references to Spider-Man and cheap hits of nostalgia for Spider-Men we’ve loved and lost before. By the finale of Spider-Man: No Way Home, which brings together a cavalcade of cameos for web-swinging acrobatic action and pretends it built (or re-built) characters along the way, it made me, as someone who, I’ll admit, would call Spider-Man my favorite superhero, want the impossible: less Spider-Man.

This oddly flat and clunky project, the latest in the ongoing Marvel Cinematic Universe, opens up a live-action Spider-Verse to tromp around in. Peter Parker (Tom Holland) asks Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to help the world forget he’s the friendly neighborhood superhero. The spells goes wrong and results in characters from previous Spidey pictures stumbling in disoriented and wondering what to do with themselves. There’s Doc Ock (Alfred Molina) and Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) and Sandman (Thomas Haden Church) from the Tobey Maguire movies and Electro (Jamie Foxx) and Lizard (Rhys Ifans) from the Andrew Garfield ones. The movie’s best idea is also what saps it of energy: these guys are way too confused to be much of a real threat. Instead, Strange and Spidey argue over how best to solve the problem. The wizard doctor wants to zip-zap them back from whence they came where they’ll meet their doom, while good ol’ Peter thinks he can save them. They’re scientists, after all, victims of one misfiring experiment or another. (This movie thinks their villainous natures can be subsumed under the audience’s affection for the characters and performers.) Practically, however, it’s a movie going around in circles, hoping to keep an audience’s interest by trotting out these cameos and lingering long enough for applause breaks before giving each returning face pretty much nothing to do.

And, for how befuddled they should be, and are at first, about getting ripped out of their universe and into another, these villains quickly get pretty casual and blasé about the situation. In typical MCU fashion, there are long scenes of actors standing around trading quips, smirking and giggling at the outsized sci-fi suspense whipping up around them. There’s nothing so heavy—not even the death of a major character—that can pause the deflating jokes for too long. And these have to be the cheapest and emptiest cracks, as Peter’s pals picked to help present possible solutions to this whole mess—MJ (Zendaya) and Ned (Jacob Batalon)—find themselves scoffing in disbelief at names and powers from these inter-dimensional interlopers. It want to both play off how much people love the earlier Spider-Man iterations and set itself up as the best one. (That they start calling Holland “Spidey 1” gets a little funny in that regard when he’s literally sharing the screen with people whose movies worked way better than this one.) No Way Home wobbles between these two modes: reverent celebration of what came before, and goofy puncturing of any possible seriousness. The entire multiverse is threatening to collapse on itself, and it feels about as monumental as channel surfing. That leaves vast swaths of the movie to clunk along in scenes that aren’t shaped so much as plugged into place, and moments of real high drama played off so abruptly and drearily—there are deaths and magical amnesia that’d hit harder with better track laid for it—that one forgets these are supposed to be real characters to care about and not just action figures clattering around.

Worst has to be the movie’s total lack of interesting style. Much has been made of the MCU’s bland house style, closer to network procedurals than cinema spectacle during downtimes between animated action. The style can be pushed here and there—one could parse the fine gradations between a Johnson, Gunn, or Waititi and a Russo bro—but often settles into a bland TV-style over-the-shoulder conversational tone mixed with quick-cut action in sets that trend to muddy grey. (That this year has found the theatrical and TV sides of the universe ever more immeshed makes this homogenized smallness ever more apparent.) This one’s pretty ugly most of the time: photographed with rarely more than three or four actors in frame together, and dialogue often in alternating tight medium or close up shots. Maybe it’s the fact the whole thing was shot last fall taking COVID precautions, but the look ends up cramped—few extras, smallish sets, and tons of flat blocking that has performers so separated from each other that they might’ve been green-screened in separately. When it comes to Big Names swanning in trying to steal scenes in this airless environment, it feels all the worse.

This ill-fitting sense of where to put people in the frame and how to track their behavior extends to the larger sense that nothing much matters herein. When any character can be whatever the plot needs and come flying in on magic sparkle dust from any other movie of which they want to remind you, it doesn’t much matter what happens to them. There’s something hollow at the core, and no amount of emoting can fill it. There’s a silly scene where characters from three different universes seriously compare iterations of advice from dead mentor figures, all tearing up and nodding sagely and talking about how meaningful the franchise’s triplicate pop psychology is. It goes for heavy meaning, but instead piles up comic cliche until it triple-underlines the silliness because the story’s only connection to anything real or human in its movements are to what it means for Spider-Man. And the collision between different visions of the character ends up highlighting how directors Sam Raimi and Marc Webb, for whatever missteps one might concede, were making real movies with their earlier versions, and Jon Watts, on his third go around, is stuck making a product. When characters from the earlier pictures arrive it’s from a different world entirely—one where these superhero movies weren’t only about themselves and pitched for a blandest possible homogeneous outcome. They interact awkwardly with the MCU world because they carry with them messy tendrils of style and substance that can’t entirely get polished away by the shallowness they’re asked to play.

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