Saturday, December 18, 2021

Film Review: Spider-Man - No Way Home


Sexuality/Nudity Acceptable
Violence Acceptable
Vulgarity Acceptable
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Acceptable

In 2012, Marvel attempted one of the most ambitious projects ever attempted on film: take the lead heroes from different super hero franchises and combine them into one gigantic franchise film (The Avengers).  It easy to forget now, nearly 10 years later, that nothing quite like this had ever been done before.

Spider-Man: No Way Home is Marvel's most ambitious film since The Avengers.

The movie takes place immediately following the post-credits scene from the Spider-Man: Far From Home.  Peter Parker (Tom Holland) has his secret identity leaked to the world.  This creates a media nightmare for him, his Aunt May (Marissa Tomei), his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), his girlfriend MJ (Zendaya), and Tony Stark's head of security Happy (Jon Favreau).  The public is polarized as to whether Peter is a hero or a villain and the most extreme voices break through their peaceful lives.  This sudden infamy especially hurts Peter and his friends ability to get into college.  So Peter turns to Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to cast a spell to make the world forget that he is Spider-Man.  But as Peter begins to realize that this would mean that even the people he loves would forget, he causes Strange to miscast the spell.  What results is a tear in the fabric of reality where those who knew Peter's real identity from other alternate universes come breaking into our own.  This includes the main villain from Spider-Man 2, Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina), who is as deadly as ever, but confused as to why this Peter does not look like Tobey MacGuire.  

I was very happy that the advertisements did not include a great deal of the plot elements from this movie.  One of the best parts of seeing this movie is the experience of surprise.  So I will do my best from giving away plot details.

But there is something truly delightful in watching these different Spider-Man universes collide.  When I was little, I had a collection of action figures from various toy lines.  My favorite to play with were a group made up of Robin (Dick Grayson), Wolverine, Grandizer, Snake-Eyes, Storm Shadow, a broken Luke Skywalker (who used Galvatron's laser cannon holder as a helmet), and a Rick Martel action figure I called "Mr. Muscle" (later renamed "Titan.").  None of these characters belonged together, but I wove a whole narrative to make them one adventure team I called "The Mutant Squad." (Yes, I know they aren't all mutants, but I was really into X-Men and Monster Squad at the time).  There was something joyous about bringing together different worlds that I had never seen together before.

I had that same feeling while watching this movie.

This film tapped into something very child-like in the way in brings these elements together.  What a delight to see the arms on Peter's Iron Spider outfit match up against Doc Ock's tentacles!  I could give other examples, but again, I won't spoil it.  I saw the film in a packed theater and the joy radiated from the audience in the form of laughs, applauds, and shouts of joy.

But for those who think that this movie is simply a spectacle for franchise fans, I have to say this movie is actually about something.  In terms of substance, it is absolutely the best of the MCU Spider-Man films.  One of the things I've loved about this version of Peter is that we got to spend so much time with him as a teenager struggling through high school.  There was an incredibly fun element to this that we didn't get enough of in other versions.  But the result of this is that Peter has always felt like a junior member of the Avengers... more of a Spider-Boy than a Spider-Man.  

This movie changes that.  By the end of the film I actually looked at Tom Holland with new eyes.  Peter is forced to become a man.  He has to enter a new world of fear and responsibility.  While he hasn't had it easy, this Peter Parker has had the advantage of Tony Stark and his incredible technology to ease his way.  But here we see Peter have to move beyond that.

The movie also deals with the question of heroes and villains in a way I don't think I've seen handled well enough in most movies.  Peter is young and optimistic enough to believe that villains can be redeemed.  Is he right?

That is the question at the heart of this movie.  It reminds of the feeling I had when I first saw Return of the Jedi when I realized that Luke was a greater hero than I ever imagined because instead he chose redemption of Vader over revenge on Vader.  

There is something incredibly Christ-like at the center of that question.  Peter is told at one point that the deaths of these villains are a small price to pay for the greater good.  But Peter, being innocent and uncorrupted by cynicism, sees each of these villains as persons.  We are called by Christ to look at each person as made in the Image and Likeness of God.  This is a dangerous thing.  While amazing good can come from this, people can still make evil choices.  Christ was merciful and He was crucified for it.  Peter is merciful.  And there is a cost.

This movie also has some of the best performances of any of the Spider-Man films.  A lot of credit should go to Holland, though I think people will overlook what a fantastic job he does here.  There is never a false moment to his performance.  He carries the emotional through-line of the story in a way that makes you care about every single moment.  Zendaya also infuses MJ with some much-needed humanity to show us the person beneath the nihilistic exterior.  This movie really shows the chemistry between Holland, Zendaya, and Batalon.  I also think the performances of the characters from the other realities are better here.  Molina has lost none of his menace, intelligence, nor his charisma.  I could not take my eyes off him.  There is another villain from another Spider-Man series who is so improved that it made me forget how much I hated this character in the other version.

Having such a big franchise like the MCU allows the story to bring in elements you wouldn't normally find.  It is amazing how accepting we are of Doctor Strange (or another delightful cameo early in the film) stepping into the story.

This is also the one deficit of the story, but it is also a necessary flaw.  Avengers Infinity War has a much tighter narrative than Avengers Endgame, with a more powerful through-line.  Endgame sometimes feels like it wanders a bit in order to give the audience cathartic moments.  However, this is completely understandable and appropriate.  Infinity War was meant to set up the stakes.  But Endgame had to leave the audience with an emotional satisfaction that Infinity War did not.  Now Way Home has the same issue.

Writers Chris McKenna and Erik Sommer understand that you cannot bring these different characters together without spending time with them interacting.  Throughout the third act, there a moments where the action stops or pauses so we can have funny, nostalgic, or touching moments with these characters.  If director Jon Watts was able to weave this in more organically, this movie might be the best MCU movie of all time.  But it seems like they had to make the decision to either sacrifice narrative strength and moment for emotional catharsis.  The chose the catharsis and I think they made the right call.  For the last few days, those emotional moments (either funny, exciting, or sad) have loomed large in my mind.  I don't remember a lot about season two of The Mandalorian, but I have crystal clear clarity on the finale, which has a special place in my heart.  The same is true of No Way Home.  You can call this "fan service" and that is fair.  But this movie makes the fans feel special.  Watts (unlike directors like Rian Johnson) was not out gain attention for "subverting our expectations."  Instead he wanted to wanted to delight us beyond our expectations.  And that is no bad thing.

Speaking director Watts, he has outdone himself with this film.  His ability to tell Peter's story on camera has only gotten better with each film.  He knows how to use the camera for comedy and how to shift the tone on a dime for drama and tragedy.  All the while, he delivers some of the greatest action sequences ever seen in a Spider-Man movie.  One of the best moments is a single shot that takes place when Peter's spider-sense goes off, but he doesn't know why.  The generalized sense of danger almost feels like a vicarious panic attack and we are right in Peter's head and heart in a way I haven't felt before.

On a meta-level, one of the things I really loved about this movie was that it was a love letter to all the previous Spider-Man films.  Everyone has their favorites.  And everyone has their least favorites.  But this movie celebrates what is great about the previous versions and (dare I say) improves on some of them.  But there is a message here to those of us who live deeply in the pop culture: declaring what you love is better than declaring what you hate.  This doesn't mean we should silence our criticisms.  But ultimately, if we can, it is better to build up than to tear down.

This was the most fun I've had in the theater since the pandemic.  There was something wonderful about all of us in the theater experiencing this together.  This movie was better than I was expecting.  I am definitely going to back to see this again and I haven't said that about a movie in a long time.  

It feels like Spider-Man brought us home.

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