23 December 2021

First Impressions: Spider-Man No Way Home

Alright, it's time to review the biggest movie of the year, a movie that will push Omicron across the entire United States and proves once and for all that people really, REALLY like Spider-Man - Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021). SPOILERS forever, because this movie is impossible to talk about without spoiling everything.

Should we dive into context first? I usually like doing so, but it's going to take forever with this one. Okay, fine. Let's take it back to 2002. I was in High School and a big budget Spider-Man movie was coming out. There has weirdly emerged a distinction between those early 2000s-style superhero movies that cranked out as many low-level heroes as possible that were all pretty formulaic, but also so obsessed with edge (and looking back today - cringe). But that's kind of what makes them memeable today in our regurgitating culture that thrives on nostalgia and post-modernism.

Superhero movies today are simultaneously more grounded while also being less ashamed of their pulp origins. It's a weird zone. Marvel is an obvious juggernaut whose synergy and cross-feature easter eggs are only rivaled by the comic book medium itself. DCEU movies are continuously trying to catch up, but honestly, the last few have ended up pretty good, as just like their comic origins, they focus more on telling serious stories with these godlike figures, more mythology than friendly neighborhood.

Anyway, I generally liked No Way Home a lot with some important caveats. First, it trades on a tremendous amount of nostalgia. I struggle to sort out why I bought into the bait here while reviled similar things in JJ Abrams' Star Wars movies. I suppose it's because this film doesn't just throw up fan service for the sake of fan service. There are moments that exist only to recognize as moments, but most are still in service of THIS particular story. When Osborn says "I'm something of a scientist myself" again, it's part of a genuine new conversation with Peter Parker and advances the story and their relationship.

So, let's just get into it. The film picks up immediately after Far From Home (2019), and deals with the fallout of Spider-Man's identity being blasted across the world and accusations that he's Mysterio's murderer. Here's my first big problem - all this early stuff is incredibly fascinating. These MCU movies have really tried to mess with the Spider-Man formula, I know to a point where fans get upset. I don't really are, we've had five previous Spider-Man movies, two of which are really good. Those stories are out there, and I'm into a new take. It's basically a huge What If story, and I've always been fine with that, especially since all these movies are pretty good in terms of character growth, challenges, and honestly just how damn charismatic Tom Holland is.

We've challenged a lot of our interpretations of Peter Parker. He's a little richer, a little more of a team player, Iron Man's little buddy, all that. The first movie even challenged his webslinging by taking him out of Manhattan. His road to heroism has been shifted. Uncle Ben does exist here, but it seems more likely after this that the circumstances of his death are radically different than what we're used to. It seems like Peter never learned a certain lesson about responsibility that more traditional Peters did. You can see that - this Peter is never evil or vengeful or anything, but he's naive and selfish and struggles making the best decision all the time.

Add to all that the core twist that everyone knows who he is. Spider-Man is great because he's one of the most powerful Marvel superheroes, that can hang with Wolverine, Hulk, and Captain America, but he operates more like the street level heroes like Daredevil and Punisher. He's got both blue collar grit but white collar superpowers. This all means that his secret identity is integral to his operation, which is unlike Cap, Thor, or Iron Man, who are all synonymous with their public identities. It's amazing that the MCU in particular really hasn't cared much about secret identities at all. Every hero is more intrinsically their alter ego, that's their job and public image. Spider-Man, however, is trying to lead both a normal High School life and a superhero life. The sudden notoriety is a huge challenge to his character and his mythos, and presents a fantastic challenge - a threat that he can't punch his way out of.

I get why they didn't want to keep this going. I mean, it's far more fun to watch him punch nostalgic villains, and there's enough going on here that you roll with it quickly. But it's also odd fridge logic that the two biggest cliffhanger issues that extend into the first third of this film are waived away fairly quickly. Matt Murdock deus ex machina's his legal issues (okay side note - FUCK YEAH CHARLIE COX!! I was so pumped to see him here, I kept thinking he'd be the ideal public defender to bring in, but never thought they'd do it. Obvi I was looking for him to suit up and team-up, I get that this isn't that kind of movie, but might we get there?! Also, no one in my theater cheered, did we forget those Netflix Shows so soon? When do we get the Jon Bernthal Kills the MCU What If episode? Oh, we never will because Disney+ only wants Disney+. Ugh).

But Murdock also mentions that Stark Industries is in tremendous trouble. This is never really revisited, which should have been a huge problem. Spider-Man's public identity is also a huge issue, especially when it threatens his friends' college careers. Someone said it better than me - this all happens because Peter Parker didn't want to go to Community College. There are some privilege issues there, especially because they're all obsessed with MIT (How the hell did all four people from this HS, especially Ned and Flash who are definitely dumbasses get into MIT? It did kind of feel like a weirdly specific advertisement for that college. Doesn't MJ feel like a Bryn Mawr person? And Peter has to go to Empire State obvi. Whatever.) Also, didn't Tony Stark go to MIT? No pull there with Happy or Pepper?

The film then cops out of its major issue by just using magic to make everyone forget his secret identity. This would normally be a narratively cheap solution, but it works here for a few reasons. First, magic straight up exists in this universe, and Peter has a connection to the Sorcerer Supreme, why wouldn't he try to abuse magic? Also, his goal is first to reverse time, if you were a teenager who had been in the presence of an infinity stone, why wouldn't you? It trades on cheap narrative devices, but these devices have been already long established, so it's a bit less cheap.

But there's also serious repercussions for this young kid trying to take the easy way out. It pretty much wrecks his life and threatens all of reality. Ultimately it does reset his entire life. It ends up being this solid morality tale, that yeah, uses cheap nostalgia to drive the superhero-ness of the story, but the bones are solid. I was slightly disappointed to see all the early issues that seemed really significant outright dropped in favor of this stuff, but that's honestly what this movie is.

I am still a bit in awe at how this film was even made. SONY really created the deal of the century being able to stick this iteration of Spider-Man squarely in the MCU while also being able to throw in all of its older Spider-Men. It's definitively hokey - everyone who knew Peter Parker is Spider-Man from other Universes are drawn into this one when Doc Strange's spell backfires. This doesn't even work because Electro didn't know he was Spider-Man (he even says as much later in the movie). Whatever, you need to get past that pretty quick, because we're ultimately just here to revel in Alfred Molina and Willem Dafoe again.

Right off the bat we can remember how good these casting choices were. Molina is spectacular again here, and he slips right back into this role. His character was always far deeper than the comic origins, where Otto is really just a jerk, but he's always a tortured soul, corrupted by the AI of the tentacles. I loved how he's amazed by the technology of their universe, which is from being set in 2025 as much as it is just advancements in movie effects. The nano-bots controlling Doc Ock's arms is a nice touch of how these worlds would actually interact. Norman Osborn is the same way, honestly, but their internal struggle is compelling. It forms the basis for the long second act of this film (the structure is odd, really. That might be a third act of a five-act film?). Tom Holland is so damn earnest that he pities these men out of time and universes and seeks to cure them.

There's a nice pro-mental health current here, that we don't need to fight or shun these broken members of society, we can rehabilitate them. This is underscored a little bit by the fact that they don't really want help, they want power and destruction (because this is still a comic book movie) so then it actually gets a little problematic that they are cured against their will. But there's also a nice boost to Andrew Garfield's Spider-Man, who has clearly gotten the short stick from fans over the years by appearing in by far the worst Spider-Man movies. It's nice to see Tom and Tobey cheer him up a little and legitimize him as a worthy Spider-Man. Even if he's clearly Spider-Man 3 when they divvy up numbers.

Let's get back to SONY. Putting all three Spider-Men in one movie is downright surreal and it's about damn time they pulled this off. You've got to think that the success of Into the Spider-Verse (2021) helped a little, as has recent comic obsessions with Spider-Totems across universes. This merges a lot of comic ideas, and if you're ever pissed at a giant forgetting spell, Peter being rich, or Aunt May dying, keep in mind that these are all ideas that originated in the comic books!

But SONY finally realized that they had all these great actors and history just sitting there and signed enough contracts to get them all in the same room. Now, it's not as impressive as it seems. Rhys Ifans and Thomas Hayden Church are clearly voice only, and their transformations back into humans are apparently repurposed old footage. There is clearly some upgrading the villains that didn't work, the biggest being Jamie Foxx's Electro, who is just Jamie Foxx now, but a huge upgrade from both the nerdy Max Dillon (a casting that never worked) and the big blue Dr. Manhattan villain (who was really just Ultimate Electro, but whatever). He works here really well, even if it elucidates the fact that Spider-Man's connection to him was never as strong as some of the other villains here.

I'm also struck by how much worse Tobey Maguire looks than Willem Dafoe and Alfred Molina! Maybe it helps that they've always looked old and weird, and Tobey looked like the oldest high schooler of all time in the mid-2000s. He still has such earnestness, though, and serves well as the elder statesman Spider-Man. A Peter B. Parker if you will.

Andrew Garfield really takes it, though. His Spider-Man is the most broken, and you can tell that's more from the critical drubbing of his films than anything else. No Way Home does significant work to elevate his status up to that of Tobey and Tom. It reminds me a little of how the Fast and Furious series tried hard to bring up characters from their joke films like 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003) and Tokyo Drift (2006), although it took until F9 (2021) to really achieve that with the latter. Anyway, Garfield reminds us that he's probably the best Spider-Man of the lot. He's the only one who can cleverly quip and has an edge during his fights. I always thought he was far too cool to pull off being Peter Parker, but surprisingly (or maybe not surprisingly), breaking his life apart makes him more believable. He carries this haunting sadness and weariness that's awesome.

And of course there's THAT scene. MJ is falling to her death and Garfield dives and saves her exactly like he did for Gwen Stacy in Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014). You can tell that he's thought about this a thousand times and how he'd do it differently, and he is sure to grab her himself and secure her landing. He then just breaks down crying, knowing both what he should have done differently to save Gwen, and out of emotional release of actually saving MJ. It's an amazing ode to a shitty scene from a shitty movie and honestly a great moment here.

Shall we get to Dafoe? Holy crap. This dude BRINGS IT. He's just an amazing actor that can be gentle and sorrowful one moment and then terrible and menacing in the next scene. They also update his costume to be a bit more comic accurate and it looks great. I love that he drives the idea to cure the villains instead of sentencing them to death in their own universes (that doesn't make sense, they're all literally about to die, but whatever) but then also drives the idea that they don't need curing and to rebel.

This brings us awfully, awwwwfully close to a Sinister Six movie. There are only five major villains featured, though. Green Goblin, Doctor Octopus, Sandman, Lizard, and Electro. This is pretty close to the original line-up, but assuredly feels like a missed opportunity. When trading in pure nostalgia it becomes hard to justify someone else getting in, though. They could have had James Franco or Topher Grace, but I suppose Franco has his own baggage now. New Goblin also brings baggage because paring him with his father could be a whole movie, and he doesn't quite fit into the "cured" theme.

Topher Grace as Venom would certainly be fun, but that was also the miscast of the century and likely gets a little confusing with Tom Hardy's Venom. Who DOES make an appearance, but only has a glorified cameo. But by the logic of the film, Topher Grace should definitely be there and Tom Hardy should not. It would have been a whole lot of fun to see Tom Hardy mix it up with these folks, but ultimately that wouldn't work, either. He assuredly can't be cured, he doesn't have history to trade on, he's too big of a personality to be a side character here, and SONY is trying desperately to make him into a hero, not a blatant villain like everyone else here.

And that's where the film does itself a disservice. The Six don't have a plan or anything. They're just kind of there, mostly with the same motivation they each had from their respective movies. I still love that the Lizard wants to turn everyone into Lizard-people. That's a very Lizard plot. It'd be nice to see them working together, scheming, or doing something else grand, but there just isn't room in this movie for that, nor is that how it was set-up.

So Venom could be #6, but the sixth member might actually be Peter Parker. He breaks these guys out of Wizard prison and works with them. It's an intriguing zone. I wish that we saw a Tom Holland villain get in the mix. The obvious one is Vulture since he's still alive. A Mysterio return would have been too earth-shattering (or a Mysterio genuinely from another universe). We also haven't seen a lot of villains that have been hinted at or set-up, like Prowler or Scorpion here. This all extends the narrative of the film significantly. It works as is with the villains basically being stock evildoers to come in, have a big action set-piece and leave without a ton of development or motivation.

Let's move on to the side-characters. This iteration of Spider-Man always has a much stronger supporting cast, which has helped with the teen comedy feel of these movies. I will admit however, that for the first time, they became a little grating in this. I think when we start graduating to Willem Dafoe-level villains, who want to blow up and kill random civilians it's hard to fall back on plucky comic relief. I also love how Ned Leeds in the comics is the Hobgoblin, something I can never see this guy becoming, but there are subtle nods to how both Tobey and Andrew's best friends became Goblins. Goblins, after all, are the natural enemy of spiders. But at one point Ned is wearing an orange and blue varsity jacket, which ruled.

Finally, Zendaya as Michelle Jones Watson is great here. It only took her three movies to get into the spotlight! She has more agency, doesn't get kidnapped, has her own wants, but also very supportive of Peter and his crap. It's really fun to see. I don't care about the redhead thing at all, as Jamie Foxx says, it doesn't make sense for Spider-Man to be white anymore, anyway. That's why Miles Morales works so well, but that's a whole other movie series at this point.

Well, there is Doctor Strange as well. He's like a Mephisto who cares! I really couldn't stop looking at his horrible wig, but his fight with Spidey is a great blend of both these worlds. I enjoy watching these properties bounce off each other, and the math vs magic was the kind of counter that works in a world where everything sorta happens at once. Marvel is a weird place where magic, fantasy, aliens, mad science, and technology all co-exist. It's staggering to think anyone can actually live in this place.

The end of this film brings Spider-Man into familiar territory. He has no friends, no support, no money, and a shitty apartment. Aunt May dying and giving the great responsibility speech is the moment where he becomes a hero. You suddenly realize that three whole movies (plus appearances in three more) have just been one long origin story. You can't help but wonder if this was just SONY wresting control back of Spider-Man. Like, they literally made it so that no one else in the MCU remembers him. He just better pay rent to Mr. Diktovitch. But this effectively undoes his Stark connection, his Avengers connection, and all the stuff that made this Spider-Man a little outside the norm.

So what's next? It's fascinating to see this and The Matrix Resurrections (2021) come out so close to each other. Both trade on nostalgia for film franchises that aren't all that old. I was a little bit old for both, at least High School age, but I'm curious about the kids who grew up watching these like I did with Star Wars and Indiana Jones. They're mostly memes now, but there is certainly a powerful recent nostalgia. I have been long waiting for the early-2000s Carson Daly and Tom Green nostalgia wave. Maybe we're here?! It clearly works, and we'll start to see reboots ordered of the gritty reboots age. It's happening!

With the rifts opening up at the end, obviously there are some familiar villains up there. Spider-Man really has a tremendous rogue's gallery, with quite a few still to go to get the big screen treatment. The last really notable one for a serious movie is probably Kraven the Hunter, but as I think about it, maybe it's tough to find a way to do that not racist-ly? Scorpion is okay, but he kind of sucks. He's a better side villain. There's of course way weirder shit like the Clone Saga. Bring back Andrew Garfield and have him fight the Jackal! Demogoblin? I dunno, there's fun things out there. But Kraven's really the only big gap left.

In the end, I did enjoy this a lot, but there are clearly problems here, and the story is built around a marketing idea that's powerful as hell. That's not necessarily a bad thing, and you can go into it with as cynical a viewpoint as you want, but it hits the emotional beats it needs to, busts Peter Parker around more than ever, and in the end, he does the right thing. That's what we want out of any Spider-Man story!

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