Image Credits: Courtesy of Sony Pictures / Fair Use
When a snake eats itself, it also cries for popcorn. The latest Spiderman outing, No Way Home, is meta even for Marvel. Marvellous? Occasionally. Tom Holland is still the best live-action Spiderperson, never less than worried or excitable, his pea head now swivelling on a ripped body you may feel weird about. Zendaya is charming, at ease with herself and the demands of a blockbuster. She has more to do than in the previous films, as does Holland, dramatically, in a story that doesn’t pull its punches, especially when Spiderman flexes his knuckles. For the first time since Sam Raimi’s tenure, there’s heft to the action; blood, soot and bullets. This culmination of a three-film cycle wrestles with grief and hatred, the pressure to live up to ideals that destroy those who embody them. The music’s almost memorable, and the pacing’s okay. Spiderman has time to swing prettily between pylons for five seconds before the screen cuts to his friends at a laptop. For the most part, characters are given air, slowing down and talking in rooms before the next explosion. It’s encouraging that all the spectacle in the world can’t beat watching three Spidermen discuss girls and give each other a back crack.
Yes – by now, you’ll know that No Way Home calls on three Spidermen. They represent 20 years of heroism, of the superhero who lays the biggest claim to breaking the sandbanks for the flood of intellectual property we must wade through at the box office. When Raimi’s Spiderman arrived in 2002, it wasn’t a surefire hit. Toby Maquire was an indie boy smiling dazedly through The Cider House Rules and Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas, telling paparazzi to fuck off at Jonny Depp’s club in Los Angeles. Teaser trailers showing crooks spun on a web between the Twin Towers had to be pulled. Thanks to intricate SFX, the film’s budget blew from $70 million to $100 million. It was a costly flick about New York at a time when any major danger was considered insensitive, based on a character Tobe Hooper once tried to portray as a werewolf, directed by a man famous for gore and goofs.
Yet Spiderman – and Spiderman – did major business, greenlighting two sequels and putting Marvel Studios on course to Iron Man six years later. For tens of millions of kids, Maguire became an icon. I still remember watching the train fight in Spiderman 2, agog, and holding my breath in the cinema for the third movie’s clash between Spidey and Green Goblin Jnr., wincing with every bonk in the alley. It was the dawn of the age of IP; we weren’t spoiled for choice of cape back then. Superman, Spiderman or Batman. They’re all you got, and you had to wait a couple of years for another chapter. You didn’t have to draw a venn diagram for a screening party. Those movies existed on their own, modestly, without Avengers cameos or easter eggs or kooky spinoffs. Maybe that’s part of what made Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin and Alfred Molina’s Doctor Octopus so scary and bizarre: they were a genuine threat to Peter Parker, because they could kill him without upsetting five more films in pre-production.
Indeed, one of No Way Home’s undeniable pleasures is seeing Molina and Dafoe back in their costumes, de-aged, sneering, careless with gravitas. They remind us that MCU villains (Thanos aside) are sorely lacking, stirring more menace with their screen time than an army of space bugs. Doc Oc pinning cars on the freeway, pulling Holland towards him, demanding his thermonuclear reactor through gritted teeth, is like being handed an action figure for the first time in two decades and feeling unashamed to make pow sounds as you jerk the fists. Likewise the Goblin, cackling and scheming, is just what the holidays ordered. “Pound him!” I scream. “Smash that pretender’s skull on the floor of your lair!” They do not have a lair, a mild outrage.
And glancing across the aisles, up to the doors, you see parents and their kids, little boys in Spiderman outfits; hear the guffaw of a man who will choke on an M&M when Dr. Strange says “shit” again; smile, despite yourself, at the applause for Maguire and Andrew Garfield stepping into view, garlanding their legacies for the children of those who loved them in the first place.
Tennesse Williams once remarked that, “The past is the longest distance between two places.” As adults, we remember formative experiences intensely. So much, in fact, that the experience of them changes in hindsight. Can we ever revisit the spark? The origin? The moments that lit our minds so brightly? Perhaps, we reason, with a kid at our side. Marvel and Sony have crossed over because they want to reaffirm our affection for Spiderman, our lost avatar, in the wide gaze of another generation. If we can’t travel back to the past, we might be able to see it alive in someone else. One ticket, please. Return only.
Depending on how you slept last night, it’s either charming or cynical. You may fall for the novelty, the pathos and the enterprise’s sheer speed, a rush of images and lines that echo across the terrain of a story we are asked to call a universe. No Way Home does make its gimmick integral to the plot; this isn’t a jukebox act. There’s a reason we meet these bad guys again, and their narratives force something new out of Peter Parker. His alternate selves have lived with trauma he is just beginning to comprehend. They tell him to stop, breathe and think. Fixing mistakes – or recognising their virtue – is the core of the movie. Taking stock of who Spiderman is, or could be, allows Peter to become a man.
But it’s also wearily impossible to take at face value. There will never be a ‘definitive’ Spiderman because accountants will cough for another. And this version is unable to beat the thrill of Raimi’s predecessors (well, two of them) as well as Into The Spiderverse. It is postmodern through and through – wry, snarky, obsessed with jokes, awed by referential text. There’s a heart on display yet also a pair of wheezing lungs filled with Marvel’s expectations. The filmmaking isn’t great, but capable. The house style remains: zippy and often weightless, giving a pedestal to banter rather than cool ways to block, zoom, pull out, edit or flip perspective.
Even saying ‘postmodern’ seems lame these days. The phrase has been repeated so often, it has lost meaning – the very thing postmodernism seeks to play with. Which is a shame, since it has a stale funk for certain people, an odour of underserved wank. Personally, I find self-aware fiction to be immensely liberating. Once a story looks in the mirror, you realise that neither of us are locked into ours. We can change. We can be anything. Skins shiver, and beliefs lose their acidity. Artists such as Grace Paley, Ben Pester, Charlie Kaufman and Rene Magritte show us the power of shifting sands, of never being certain that you are who you think you are. From there, we can build ourselves anew and remain open to miracles.
The problem with that is the extent to which you’re recycling pieces of stuff to make a point. Dana Knight, writing for The Mix, tries to pin this down: “a consumer culture that celebrates the surface and ‘depthlessness’ of culture; a shift of emphasis from content to form or style; but also a nostalgic, conservative longing for the past [...] intense emotional experiences shaped by anxiety, alienation, resentment and detachment from others.” She quotes another critic convinced that pastiche is gross, rendering an unreal view of history that sticks facts in a clown suit and makes them dance for money.
Now, we can play with familiar culture or lean on it. Playing skilfully can reveal what we’ve missed before: connections and reflections, strange contexts, the reason why we expect something to happen based on what we’re used to. But just hitting a button on a time machine, taking our sagging arses back to childhood, means we’re never challenged. We’re only in a copy of a copy.
Tracey Mollet ably tells us that, “Derived from the word nostos, ‘to return home’, and algia, indicative of a yearning or longing, nostalgia literally means ‘homesickness’.” Spiderman: No Way Home, ironically, gives Millennials every reason to feel as if we have never left our teenage houses, the telly on and Dairylea brushing our lips. The excitement lies in retrieving old images, phrases, sounds and story beats, holding them up to the glare of the modern superhero mega-industry to see if we still like them.
That the film succeeds more than it fails – or plays more than it plunders – makes it an outlier. Wherever you look, from Jurassic Park to Ghostbusters to The Matrix to Jason Bourne and every sticky flap of IP in between, there’s a merciless pillaging of past glories. Many of these films are tired and wan. They do the same shtick as the originals without daring to live up to them in spirit - precisely, to shock us. To be unlike anything we have seen. It’s a tall order, but worth aiming for. How else will the tykes of tomorrow have their cerebrums rearranged? We could stand, as fans, to want a touch more uncertainty in our entertainment. To be slapped as much as satiated.
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