‘No Way Home,’ no way back

Images courtesy Sony Pictures Releasing, for now.

8/10 Spider-Man: No Way Home is everything you want from it. No expense has been spared, no stone is left unturned, no fan is left unserviced. If you have a question about this movie, the answer is “Yes!”

This is the first major crossover movie, a type of comic book issue where characters from multiple titles come together in a way that promises to reorder the continuity, which was unheard of in a feature film just 10 years ago, since legendary director Martin Scorsese put his foot in his mouth about Marvel movies in 2019, and entering the theater for Spider-Man: No Way Home feels to me like venturing into enemy territory in a way that no other film ever has. Everyone’s in costume and screaming in anticipation, and the movie’s great and we all have a wild good time, but the sense that they aren’t here for what I’m here for has never been clearer. The sense of an oppressed cultural minority finally getting its day on the silver screen, which first happened in the ‘70s and ‘80s, has somehow carried through to a generation that grew up with these characters dominating our Saturday morning cartoons and holding a vice-grip on the box office that would make the Parker brothers blush, has only increased over time as that “cultural minority” has become a greater and greater share of the mainstream.

Since that two month span in 2008 when Iron Man announced serialized comic book-style storytelling would follow it into theaters and The Dark Knight established movies about men in tights could put conventional movies to shame anyway, comic book movies haven’t been mergers. They’ve slowly become competitions for which storytelling conventions, which theories of audience behavior, will dominate. Spider-Man: No Way Home is “for the fans” in a way that no other movie, even a comic book movie, has ever been.

New York City- Anarchy! After the events of Spider-Man: Far from Home, Spider-Man’s secret identity of Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is public knowledge, and he and his family can’t get a moment’s peace. He asks Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to cast a spell to make everyone forget this revelation, but Strange royally fucks the whole thing up, instead pulling in characters from other Spider-Man series who had discovered the webcrawler’s secret. Parker frantically tries to save the city from the onslaught of villains while trying to save the villains from themselves.

At the same time, a lot of physicality is lost, especially with Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina). In his feature film, where bringing him to convincing life was taken as one of the central challenges, his crazy tentacles were created with puppetry, and great attention to detail was paid to how he’d support himself and what direction gravity would pull and how his tentacles would affect everything around him. In No way Home, he seems to float, and the CGI tentacles that appear to lengthen as necessary gently tip-toe across the background affecting as little as possible.

Spider-Man: No Way Home is at its best when it is absolutely out of control, and that’s where the movie spends most of its time. There are almost always entirely too many leading characters onscreen, and they’re usually doing or saying something insane. The plot funnels everyone toward Parker, and with one big exception, there’s never any separation – everybody is in every scene most of the time.

No Way Home houses some of the best action in the MCU. Every scene is kinetic and crazy but kept within manageable bounds, and most of it is shot from a full wide angle. Director Jon Watts does a fantastic job of keeping things in that sweet spot, where it’s both titillating and easy to watch. The knock on MCU action is that they cut everything up like a Christmas ham to hide their refusal to actually do the stunts, and No Way Home’s necessary focus on computer-generated action provides an easy avenue around that. The lack of real stuntwork is still sad to see, but Spider-Man and his friends are so far beyond human capability that’s not a real criticism, and there’s also a big exception in the film’s best bout – the vicious midpoint showdown between Parker and Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe).

No Way Home also carries some of the best quipping sessions in the MCU, which is saying something, and boy do screenwriters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers know it. This movie passes up no opportunity to cram characters from different series together, and it’s commendable how many fantasy interactions get stuffed in there without the movie ever feeling bloated, even at a plump 148 minutes.

The decision to keep everybody in the same room for most of the show really is invaluable, and it also keeps the settings to a minimum, so every location feels important.

No Way Home, like Watts’ prior Spider-Man installments, has a great way of stretching its jokes and repeating them in a way that adds instead of subtracts, like a good stand-up comic calling back to the start of the show.

There’s a spectacular dedication to maintaining the moods of the distinct franchises. It isn’t just characters clashing, but the melodrama of the Raimi-Maguire series clashing against the pathetic neediness of the Webb-Garfield movies clashing against the irony and innocence of the Watts-Holland films. It’s like seeing the entire history of superhero movies in real time – the earnest Raimi-Maguire movies, I’ve argued before, are the last true superhero movies, with one of the main designing principals of the MCU being to put its heroes into various genres keep them feeling fresh, which would have been done primarily in reaction to these Raimi-Maguire movies. The Webb-Garfield series was meant to contrast with the MCU, and the Watts-Holland movies were meant to fall as closely in line with it as possible.

Most MCU movies have that sort of faux-cynicism to them – we’re tired of superhero movies too, haha! But here’s another one. No Way Home makes that cynicism real by actually putting it onscreen. When Watts-Holland characters undermine the Raimi-Maguire contingent for how gloomy and death-anxious they are, there’s entire movies’ worth of commentary and artistic movement behind those lines. In a crossover comic, this would be the equivalent of characters maintaining art styles from their base titles in different panels. The mandate for the MCU since the first Avengers has been to imitate Joss Whedon’s signature dialogue as much as possible, and Watts has always been the best at doing that, so it’s no surprise he’s great at imitating other directors’ moods as well.

Sony has finally got the Sinister Six movie they’ve been wanting to do for years now, and they got it in a way that both feels like cheating and like the most natural thing in the world. The backstories of all these villains is built in for the viewer and they crash onto the screen fully formed, but Holland’s Parker character doesn’t know them and they don’t all know each other, so there’s reiterating through dialogue and recontextualizing based on what they choose to relate. There’s no sense of repetition, since everyone is in a new situation, but it also keeps time spent establishing new characters to a minimum because none of these characters are new. They’re just suddenly in the same room, and immediately they’re fighting, and new context is only added as needed.

Where many Avengers movies feel awkwardly like directors smashing action figures together, No Way Home feels wonderfully like Watts recreating every cross-series meme and trope he’s ever seen. We’ve seen fan service in recent years as remaking fan fiction or correcting “plot holes” pointed out by fans, but No Way Home does something much better. It takes fan-created concepts that were never meant to be realized onscreen and runs with them in a way that only a full, officially stamped movie could.

That’s another metatextual “conversation” No Way Home seems to be having within its runtime. Sony’s first attempt to compete with the MCU was the Webb-Garfield series, which they planned to supplement with spinoffs for every character imaginable. The Amazing Spider-Man 2’s failure was like a pre-emptive slap on the plans that were discovered soon after, the $50 million domestic dropoff from the previous installment a clear “No, Sony, no one wants to see an Aunt May spinoff movie.” With the licensing agreement that consented to a second new Spider-Man in five years, Sony backed itself into a popular no-win scenario where Marvel would get any credit and Sony would take any blame, which we have seen play out even over widely beloved movies. Now, with No Way Home, Sony declares, “Actually, we’ve had to reboot Spider-Man so many times that our properties can support their own independent crossover now.”  

Spider-Man: No Way Home rewards “homework,” or going back to make sure you’ve seen all the preceding movies, which in this case is 793 minutes worth of the past 20 years’ of Spider-Man content plus Doctor Strange and working knowledge of Avengers: Endgame, not just at the knowledge level but visually. It’s not enough to know what happens in these movies – No Way Home draws on not just stories, but how the stories are told. Every frame is dedicated to the people who consume this content as obsessively as they can afford to, down to including numerous applause breaks.

I didn’t do any homework for this, as no one around age 30 or above needs to – these are many of the most popular movies of the past 20 years, you remember them well enough – but I did think about throwing Spider-Man 2 on, not because I need to refresh myself on Octavius, but because it’s a very well-made movie that I deeply enjoy. Half-drunk, half-awake and half-dead at 3 a.m. on a weeknight, seeing this 17-year-old movie for the dozenth time still excites me, makes me laugh and tugs at my heartstrings. Am I ever going to watch Spider-Man: No Way Home at 3 a.m. on a weeknight?

A major undercurrent in all comic book movies, and this is something Sony is much worse about than other studios, is supporting toy sales. They put Holland in five different spidey suits for No Way Home, including this awful, tacky gold harness that looks like it’s straight out of Power Rangers.

How is this movie going to age? I really want to see this in a dying mall’s empty dollar theater or dolly out some elementary school’s 20-year-old CRT on a post-test throwaway day and show it to some third graders who grew up on Hotel Transylvania or whatever the fuck. Spider-Man: No Way Home is much more event than movie right now, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

It’s not impossible to separate out what part of this is a movie and what part is an event. Spider-Man: No Way Home has tons of the type of power dynamic shifts and visual jokes that make a movie good without the decades of context it’s carrying – even in this raucous theater looking for any excuse to explode, I frequently find myself the only person laughing. Good comic books live on in memory, but they’re printed on cheap paper because they’re meant to be thrown away. Spider-Man: No Way Home is a very good movie, and it doesn’t deserve that, but everywhere in the runtime are reminders that it was made to be.

The most chilling moment is at the tail end, after we’ve all sat through credits that seem to take even longer than usual. In a movie that works several breaks for applause into its runtime, the biggest cheer is for the trailer for another movie.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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