Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends
Warning: This review contains spoilers and should not be read by anyone who hasn’t seen this title (in any universe).
Let’s leave aside the fact this Avengers: Endgame modelled bunching of two decades worth of spider-flicks will be the only substantial box office smash of 2021. That’s terminal for what passed for the theatrical experience as recently as 2002 and 2012. Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield debuted in a world without streaming. The cinema was still the place to go if you wanted to see a varied diet of new movies. Now, those Spider-men have joined Tom Holland in a world where nostalgia-driven blockbusters are one of the few levers studios can pull to persuade audiences to turn out.
Spider-Man: No Way Home will be lauded as the saviour of the box office, post-pandemic, but in reality – any reality – it’s confirmation that new, adult-oriented movies are toast at the multiplex. I hope you have good memories of movies past because they’re going to be the basis for every film you see at the cinema from now on. The question is, how long can the movies eat themselves before there’s nothing left? Will we be caught up in a spell that makes us forget why we used to go to the flicks – to discover something new?
As noted in discussions of previous Marvel movies, the irony of their success is that they’re patterned on a form of entertainment the cinema used to look down upon – a medium to which it was once the prestige alternative: television.
No Way Home, more than any of its predecessors, emphasises the degree to which MCU flicks, as episodes, are almost story adjacent; they occupy a liminal position in respect of other stories, and in this instance, previous franchise iterations. In other words, they’re reliant on your knowledge and understanding of parallel narratives and old movies. They have no life, or weight, of their own.
The benefit of No May Home’s approach is that it recasts failure as success. Suddenly, as if by magic, Sony’s mishandling of their most lucrative and enduring Marvel property (including mid-credits their Spider-man less spin offs) is reimagined as a selling point.
Retconing Sam Raimi and Marc Webb’s flicks into MCU continuity is a wheeze – no doubt inspired by the success of animated flick, Into the Spider-Verse, that makes all that is old, new. And as a bonus, some shrewd writing allows for a series of dramatic ironies – redemption for Andrew Garfield’s Spidey, Tobey Maguire saving his original nemesis. It’s all part of a knowing scheme that repurposes what came before to create an Endgame sense of anticipation and payoff. It’s wholly unearned, but you have to give producer Kevin Feige credit – recycling has never been this profitable.
Nostalgia is deemed to be such a powerful drug that it dulls any critical faculty. Ordinarily, critics would feel shooting pain at the unchallenged presentation of three biologically divergent Spider-men with claim to the same names, family trees and girlfriends, who are vastly different ages. One would think that radioactive spider would bite different men in different universes, but the film’s good natured and gently humorous, so why worry?
Would the memory of someone being removed from the known universe remove the imprint of that person from the life of everyone they knew? After all, it’s only the memory that’s gone, right? Not, a la Frank Capra, to whom the film nods at the close, Peter Parker’s existence. After all, his spider-efforts are still reported on. But No Way Home is packed with Easter Eggs, so who gives a fuck.
As a capper to the Homecoming trilogy, No Way Home is suitably grandiose, though Tom Holland may wonder why his version of the character had to be crowded out by franchise imperatives. But as a calibrated money making machine this latest Marvel flick, featuring the warmth and personality notably lacking from recent Phase IV offerings, will fulfil its destiny well enough. And what of original movies that aren’t legacy sequels? Well, Doctor Strange’s words seem pertinent: “if they die, they die.” Let’s just hope there’s more than a couple of mourners at the grave.