Wednesday, June 12, 2024

‘Spider-Man: No Way Home’ Brings Parker Back to Earth

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In many ways, Spider-Man: No Way Home is the best of the new Spider-Man movies. At the same time, it suffers from many of the failings of the vaunted MCU as other installments, but not without some attempts to reconstruct the current universe into a less Tony Stark-centered lens. As for myself, I laughed, I cried, I had a good time.

Whatever faults I may find with No Way Home, Jon Watts knows how to make a movie filled with heart and genuine human kindness. More so than most of his fellow filmmakers of the popular franchise. Watts continues the trend most comic book movies are attempting to do: grapple with the notion that some villains, especially the Web Head’s rogues gallery, come from broken systems and hardships. 

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MJ (Zendaya) and Peter Parker (Tom Holland) deal with the ramifications of the end of Far From Home

In other words, they are made, not born. Much like Wonder Woman 1984No Way Home gives us villains who need help more than a beating. Yet again, Wonder Woman has challenged the trend of superhero movies and most likely will be given little to no credit for challenging or affecting the trend. I also find it telling that to provide us with these compelling villains, Watts and his writers Chris McKenna and Eric Summers are forced to go outside of the MCU and even the Sony/MCU era to find them. 

It’s fan service, but it’s fan service done in a way to try and explore our past perceptions of what heroes should be. Watts and the screenwriters are trying to retcon the Sam Rami and Marc Webb Spider-Man movies, but more than that, they are trying to reconcile them with the present. In addition, Watts valiantly struggles to bring Peter Parker (Tom Holland) back to his working-class roots, giving him obstacles that he can’t merely buy his way out of. 

No Way Home even seems to understand the difference between being broke and being poor. The difference is that financial setbacks are annoying and not, as with being poor, devastating to the very fabric of your emotional and physical well-being.

Heck, there are even scenes where Peter and Ned (Jacob Batalon) visit MJ (Zendaya) at her job. Seeing an MCU character hold down a job was somewhat startling considering how little connection to reality the oft “realistic” universe seems to be. Even when a shadowy secret organization, not S.H.I.E.L.D., arrests Peter and his gang, including Happy (Jon Favreau), for the death of Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) in the last movie, Watts and his writers dare to understand that our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man isn’t built to be a Government agent’s or a cop’s best friend. 

Here we have a Spider-Man who may be an Avenger but also finds himself uniquely alone, even if he has the world’s best lawyer.

Through all this, Mauro Fiore’s camerawork is at times exciting at times rote but rarely ever ugly. This is not to say No Way Home can escape the visual blandness and torpor of the MCU, but Fiore does a bang-up job at trying to get out from under the franchise’s ho-hum visual language. Of course, it helps that Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) plays a not insignificant role in this installment, allowing Fiore and Watts to grant the camera movements more fluidity.

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Spider-Man (Holland) with Electro (Jamie Foxx) in the background

One instance, taking place in the Mirror universe, starts visually stale, using what I call the Inception template in which buildings collapse onto each other. It’s an excellent effect, but much like the now-infamous “bullet-time” VFX trick, there is a vast ocean of differences between using it and understanding when to best use it for your own movie. But then the filmmakers implement iconography from Spider-Man himself, namely a runaway subway train, and the scene began to take on a life of its own.

Even better is that Fiore and Watts have the guts to frame and stage scenes in ways that amp up the tension and unease. One such scene occurs early on, as Peter and MJ try to keep Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) and Happy (Jon Favreau) from discovering that the entire world now knows Peter is Spider-Man. Fiore does the whole scene in one take, but unlike most oners, it is not done as a sort of visual braggadocio.

Instead, it is used as a simple way to allow tension and awkwardness to ferment. The MCU has rarely been so visually competent that it feels almost quaint to see Watts and Firoe’s display of cinematic language as a tool instead of an aesthetic. And this is the magic of No Way Home.

It is filled with fine scenes handled proficiently, but everyone once and a while, a line is more poetic than we’re used to, or a scene will surprise you with just a bit more life to its action beat, and then-No Way Home does what MCU films have only recently begun to do: it comes alive. At times it is effective and does not require years of “loyal customer service” or “fandom” for a payoff. The unease we feel when Peter and his friends are arrested is palpable as the lead investigator is the type of antagonist we want to see, at the very least, slapped or taken down a peg. 

But the real stars of No Way Home are the bad guys from other universes. Doc Ock (Alfred Molina), Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), Sandman (Thomas Haden Church), Electro (Jamie Foxx), and others are drawn into Peter’s reality due to a botched spell. I hate when that happens.

But, to the surprise of no one, they are all exceptional. Dafoe and Molina are the true MVPs. Dafoe reminds MCU fans that there was a time when villains were almost feral and the villainy was of operatic proportions, which made the humanity of Norman Osbourne so much more heartbreaking. Molina doesn’t get as much scenery to chew, but he makes due with what he has and gives Otto the sublime pathos he brought in Rami’s Spider-Man 2.

I was underwhelmed by how Watts and the VFX team brought Sandman to life. Church’s Flint Marko was one of the highlights of Spider-Man 3. He was able to convey pangs of great poetic sadness, his face, perfect for the era of silent films, so expressive and baleful it breaks your heart. But No Way Home robs Church of this by keeping him in sand form and rarely allowing his face to come through the clouds of dust. When they do, it’s brief and without texture or form. It’s a disservice to Chruch’s performance and robs his screen time of any emotional or dramatic heft.

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Peter (Holland) and Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch)

Still, overall I enjoyed No Way Home. It was funny, and the Peter and MJ romance is still, bar none, the best romance of the entire MCU. Even if the Spider-Man stuff isn’t that good, the Peter and MJ stuff is always stellar, due in no small part to how Holland and Zendaya play two teenagers in love to awkwardly hesitancy perfection. 

However, at one point, Foxx opines that there has to be a Black Spider-Man somewhere, and I get that it’s meant to be a nod to Miles Morales, but the line galled me all the same. Yes, Miles Morales exists, but it’s a sick joke that the most powerful studio in the world can do little more than hint at him. As if it is beyond their power to do anything even remotely daring as having other Spider-Men not yet dreamed of. The limits of white empathy is only matched by the limitations of white imagination. 

Yes, there must be a Black Spider-Man somewhere Electro; there may even be two. But as far as the MCU is concerned, only after Hell freezes over. Until then, there is only one, and he can’t legally be here because of the copyright laws of their own making.

Some may argue that the MCU has earned some leeway with the last few movies. “Isn’t it enough,” you may ask. No, it’s not. It’s a start, but by no means washes away the embarrassing decade of white mediocrity. Fans will give many good reasons for this, but they will all be poor excuses.

The other issue is the way No Way Home undermines its strength. The thing that separates Holland’s Peter Parker from every other is that he’s not alone. He has Aunt May, Happy, MJ, and Ned. Unlike the other Peter Parkers, he understands the value of community; he’s not in it alone. No Way Home does a beautiful job of showing how this is a strength for Holland’s Parker until the end. But, unfortunately, the end requires a sacrifice of Parker that, while emotionally compelling, essentially nullifies everything that made this Parker special. Yes, it once and for all destroys the Junior Iron Man trope issue, in which Spider-Man gets cool toys and financial and emotional support from his billionaire father figure. 

But in some ways, it reduces Parker to the same superhero there are too many of, the type that thinks he must do it all on his own, that his weakness is friends and family. A dangerous thought and even more perilous theme that occurs far too often in these types of movies.  

All of this is not to say I wasn’t balling my eyes out at the sacrifice. Or that I wasn’t sobbing at the way they managed to work in the old “With great power” line. I’m only human; I’m not a monster. I also loved the old married couple vibe Doctor Strange and Wong (Benedict Wong) have. If ever a character deserved his own movie, the charming Wong has to be a front runner. 

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Peter (Holland), MJ (Zendaya), and Ned (Jacob Batalon)

One of my favorite parts of No Way Home is how Strange is equally as worried about reality coming unraveled as he is that Wong might find out he messed up.

Sometimes a movie can work on one level but not on another. It doesn’t make it good or bad; it is what it is. Spider-Man No Way Home is easily the best of the new Spider-Man movies not titled Into the Spider-Verse. But it is by no means perfect. However, it is another possible step away from the blandness of the MCU and into a far more exciting and thought-provoking universe. A place where characters have legitimate morals and principles, loves, and personalities. All that remains is to see what becomes of them. 

Images courtesy of Sony Pictures Releasing

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