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Spider-Man: No Way Home

*heavy sigh* This is not going to be a typical blog entry, because Spider-Man: No Way Home is difficult to talk about for many reasons.

First of all, Marvel and Disney have both campaigned extensively to make sure that nobody spoils this movie, and for damn good reason. It is literally impossible to discuss this movie in any significant detail without spoiling something. I can’t even talk about who’s in the movie without spoiling certain delightful surprises. It’s going to be at least a year before anyone can openly and sufficiently discuss how and why this movie is such a triumph or nitpick its shortcomings.

For another thing, truly understanding this movie involves a certain degree of familiarity with the past 20 years of Marvel cinema. Everything going all the way back to Spider-Man (2002), arguably the beginning of modern superhero cinema as we know it. Of course you’ve probably already guessed that this movie builds off the Spider-Man films of the Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield eras, plus the ongoing Tom Holland tenure, but even if you know those movies, that’s not enough. Even if you know the behind-the-scenes drama regarding Sony’s stewardship of Spider-Man and the current arcane Marvel/Sony partnership, that’s still not enough. Because we haven’t even gotten started on the bullshit surrounding Marvel Television, regarding the Netflix and ABC shows produced under Ike Perlmutter before the Disney bigwigs took away the TV projects and put them under Marvel Studios.

(Once again, as always, fuck Perlmutter.)

Folks, for better or worse, I put Spider-Man: No Way Home in the same class as Avengers: Endgame in that each film is something so new and so colossal that I’m barely comfortable even calling it a movie. This is a payoff that could only have come after decades’ worth of setup. It’s a film so inextricably tied to so much history that it couldn’t possibly exist or be fully appreciated without intensive knowledge of all the shit that came before.

If you’re not familiar with the previous Spider-Man films, they’re all readily available. If you need more details about the relevant corporate shenanigans, I’ve already discussed them at great length in previous blog entries. And if you don’t care about any of that, I don’t know what to tell you with regards to this movie. Even without getting into spoilers, I have no idea what to tell you that would get you excited about this movie. As I’ve said before, Marvel has reached a stage where you’re either on board with sitting through to see the end-credits stinger of every single film, or you’re better off spending your time and money somewhere else.

But if you are on board and you still haven’t seen the movie for whatever reason, the main takeaway here is that Marvel Studios is getting its shit together. Twenty-five years ago (almost to the day!), Marvel went bankrupt and sold off the film rights to its most popular characters to several different studios in perpetuity. Ten years ago, Marvel started making films and TV shows that were supposedly set within the same continuity, even though the movies and TV shows were made under two separate studios that barely spoke with each other because of petty internecine rivalry. Even now, Sony is still mucking up the works because they’re desperate to rewrite history, throwing good money after bad in some pathetically shambolic effort at convincing everyone that Spider-Man was their creation all along.

Seriously, just look at the mid-credits stingers for Venom: Let There Be Carnage and No Way Home. To say nothing of what we’ve already seen from the trailers for Morbius. The Sony execs are flailing their asses off, pretending they have some huge plan for how their own Marvel franchises are somehow separate from the MCU yet still in-continuity and they have no fucking clue. I keep on wondering why Sony doesn’t just sell off their film assets and put all their focus on electronics, but I digress.

Mercifully, the limping franchise of Venom and the stillborn franchise for Morbius are the last flimsy vestiges of a time when competing studios would churn out half-assed cash grabs with Marvel properties just to spite the ongoing success of Marvel Studios. (And yes, I’m counting Marvel Television as one of those petty-ass rivals.) Marvel in cinema is no longer splintered between so many different continuities, and this movie clearly shows that Marvel is actively working to unify the brand.

For example, it’s a big deal that Marvel Television as Perlmutter ran it is no more, and Marvel Studios is now churning out TV offerings firmly planted in Earth-199999. It’s still unclear what this means for the Netflix/ABC shows produced under Perlmutter’s tenure and whether those are still technically canon. However, recent developments in No Way Home and “Hawkeye” — to say nothing of a specific cameo in Endgame — heavily imply that Feige and company are at least making an effort to integrate some of the more successful and iconic casting choices made under Marvel Television.

For instance, someone had to brilliant stroke of genius to bring back J.K. Simmons, getting him to play J. Jonah Jameson as a parody of right-wing conspiracy nuts like Alex Jones and Ben Shapiro. Same actor, same character, different portrayal in a different continuity. Could we be looking at similar cases with regards to the ABC/Netflix shows? Time will tell, but it’s a promising development all the same.

But of course everyone wants to know about the X-Men. We all know that Fox got bought out by Disney, and No Way Home director Jon Watts is almost certainly working on the upcoming MCU-set Fantastic Four reboot as I type this. But much to the eternal woe (or perhaps the lucrative joy) of clickbait theorists all over the internet, there’s still no sign as to when or if we’ll see mutants in the MCU.

HOWEVER, it bears mentioning that Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, of course) plays a crucial supporting role in this film. And the end-credits stinger for this movie is actually an extended first-look trailer for Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, so Marvel is pushing him HARD. More to the point, there’s the issue of the premise to No Way Home.

As the trailers have already disclosed, the premise to the film revolves around a spell that Doctor Strange attempted to cast with the intention of making the entire world forget that Peter Parker is Spider-Man. In practice, this would mean that literally everyone in the entire world would retroactively forget that Peter Parker even existed. Peter naturally tries to fine-tune the spell, which is apparently so volatile that Peter’s interference causes the very multiverse itself to fracture.

Here’s your spoiler-free summary of the plot: Peter’s own good intentions repeatedly backfire to such an extent that his empathy and altruism threaten the entire goddamn multiverse until he finally learns that he can’t have everything.

Back to the point, the premise to this movie literally revolves around one character enacting a retcon on a massive scale. This after we already saw Loki retroactively alter the entire cosmos in his own TV series. And Phase 4 is already confirmed to include such heavy hitters as Thor, Scarlet Witch, Kang, the Celestials, the Watcher, Doctor Strange, and those are just the ones we know about! (We still don’t know exactly who the Fantastic Four will be up against, and they’ve got some god-tier players in their rogues gallery.) These are all are exactly the kind of massively OP characters whom the Marvel comics editors would regularly employ whenever they needed a seismic retcon.

Put it all together and Marvel Studios is gearing up for a cosmic retcon that could potentially rewrite the entire history of Earth-199999 all the way back to the Big Bang and fundamentally change how the MCU works. Will that make it possible to introduce the mutants in a satisfying and organic way? The top brass would be fools not to go for that opportunity, and this is pretty much what it would take.

But what about Spider-Man? What about Sony’s tenure? What about the two previous Spider-Man film series that so cruelly ended on cliffhangers? For that matter, why is Tom Holland’s take on Spider-Man so consistently dependent on Tony Stark and Doctor Strange, like the character isn’t perfectly capable of supporting a film on his own? Why can’t he put together his own suit and his own web-shooters without Stark tech? Perhaps most importantly, why can’t we have a single live-action portrayal of Spider-Man who can keep his damn mask on and maintain his secret (again, SECRET) identity?!

To the film’s credit, all of these questions are sufficiently addressed. In fact, I think that may be the single greatest accomplishment of the movie.

The crossovers with the two previous Spider-Man film series are frankly astonishing. I can’t even begin to imagine the logistics in terms of getting all these actors costumed and paid. Even getting all of these different actors on set together would’ve required Herculean feats of schedule coordination. Even when the schedules clearly didn’t work out and the actors are obviously shooting the same scene on different sets, the editing and production design to make that work is astounding.

Then we have the characters who were portrayed almost entirely through CGI, which certainly would’ve helped with the scheduling. But even then, we’re talking about CG characters from literal decades ago. That would either mean taking CGI models made by now-obsolete software, taking them to a totally different VFX company staffed by totally different people, and uploading them onto modern systems — or else building totally new CGI models entirely from scratch! — and rendering them up to modern standards while keeping them consistently recognizable from the previous films.

That is mind-boggling. Those VFX artists are not getting paid enough. Give them a year off, give them a 500 percent pay raise, give them all the Oscars, give them any damned thing they want!

The only unfortunate downside to the crossovers is that we’re talking about characters from three wildly different series. This unfortunately results in some notable inconsistencies with regards to tone and characterization. The filmmakers typically sidestep this by falling back on parody, with the various characters taking jabs at each other, making fun of themselves, even quoting their own heavily-memed lines from the earlier films. So even if the presentation is inconsistent, at least it’s always fun.

Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Angourie Rice, Tony Revolori, J.B. Smoove, and Martin Starr, all comic relief mainstays from the previous Tom Holland flicks. Their appearances are brief, yet amusing. While Spider-Man: Homecoming quite cleverly balanced the high school drama with superhero action, the sequel didn’t handle that balance nearly as well. With this picture, Peter’s life as a high-schooler is all but completely forgotten after the half-hour mark. Kind of a shame, as the “coming-of-age dramedy” flavor was always what set this Spider-Man series apart from the rest of the MCU franchises.

The film does end on a promising note, with a heavy emphasis on “promise“. The filmmakers clearly and overtly promise that we’re done with all the origin story stuff, Spider-Man doesn’t need anyone else on the Avengers to be a hero in his own right, and the next movie is totally going to have Spider-Man just like we all know and love from the comics. I appreciate the sentiment, but we’ve seen this bullshit too many times before. I’ll believe it when I see it.

The bottom line is that Spider-Man: No Way Home is a love letter to everyone who’s ever stood by Spider-Man through the past twenty years of cinema. If you’re upset that Sam Raimi never got to direct a fourth Spider-Man film, this is for you. If you think that Andrew Garfield was a fantastic Peter Parker who deserved better than that trainwreck franchise non-starter, this is for you. If you love what Spider-Man stands for, and you want to see his integrity tested with the entire multiverse on the line, you should definitely watch Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse again because it’s still the better movie, but you’ll want to watch this too.

For everyone else, please know that (unlike every other Marvel film released this year, in my estimation) this is not a film for casual viewers. I cannot possibly stress enough that this was a film made of, by, and for those who’ve been closely watching the MCU since its inception and Spider-Man onscreen since 2002. If you’re such a person, you should’ve already seen this movie. Otherwise, this is not the place to jump onboard.

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