Wednesday 16 March 2022

Little arithmetics: "Spider-Man: No Way Home"

This latest
Spider-Man trilogy will go down as Marvel's Most Improved. 2017's Spider-Man: Homecoming was generally nondescript, failing to answer the question of why we were doing this again while wasting such talents as Michael Keaton, Marisa Tomei and Donald Glover; rapidly promoted director Jon Watts was struggling to find his feet in the face of an onrushing Hollywood juggernaut. 2019's Far from Home was nimbler and livelier, in part due to the nascent goofy chemistry of its young leads Tom Holland and Zendaya, and a far smarter deployment of Jake Gyllenhaal in the guest villain role. It was still largely empty and throwaway, and certainly not the absolute must-see the receipts hinted at, but it was also a nod in the direction of what these event movies used to be, and still could be: two hours' pleasurable diversion, offering acceptable levels of bang and fun for your buck. That film concluded with the cliffhanger unmasking of Spidey as plucky, put-upon high-school graduate Peter Parker. Spider-Man: No Way Home, which had just about hoovered up every last dollar in the world economy by the time I caught up with it this week, has to tie up that throughline while simultaneously re-introducing the multiverse conceit sketched out in 2018's Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (an animated spin-off from the main thread, but another step forward). In short - and this is doubtless the main reason the film has skyrocked past the $1bn mark since its release in December - it is The One With All The Spider-Man (and Several Key Villains Besides). My beloved Coventry City held their annual Legends Day last weekend, an annual event to which former players are invited so as to walk one further lap of honour before cheering fans at half-time in a match involving the current squad. Spider-Man: No Way Home is that, if the event had a $200m budget and immediately recognisable Anglo-American actors in the place of Dele Adebola, Greg Downs and John "The Flying Postman" Williams.

Getting everybody in place necessitates an elevated level of narrative jiggery-pokery and an hour's worth of exposition; there are also several of those playground takebacks that left the later Avengers movies looking dramatically flimsy. The revelation of Spider-Man's identity is brushed off inside reel one by a blind lawyer who'll presumably shapeshift into a dragon or something in MCU Film #57; our grumpy old friend Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, understandably amused to be the last man standing of the Avengers old guard) is called upon to cast a spell that will make everybody - including the audience - forget what they've already been told. These films cannot possibly stick around in your head - if they do, you have too little else going on in there - because they're constantly overwriting themselves as they go along. There's almost nothing sticky about them; Watts might just as well have trained his camera on a script meeting for two and a half hours and watched the Tipp-Ex being passed round like a ceremonial pipe. With all these getouts and cheats, the suspicion persists that both writers and hero have it far too easy (which is why the peril in these films is perennially moderate-to-mild). Given the identifiably blue-collar Peter Parker of the comics, it really does suck that this one should have inherited a whole bunch of useful kit from Tony Stark. (Suckier still, his chauffeur: Jon Favreau, retained to give comfort to any poor sap still in mourning for Iron Man, is again encouraged to improvise his dialogue, and again demonstrates why he should have been forced - at gunpoint, if necessary - to remain squarely on book.) The biggest of these getouts, the multiverse, isn't especially original - or at least it's only original within the context of the MCU - and involves irksome throwbacks to impossibly minor figures in movies you've long since forgotten about, if you've seen them at all. One might also detect an undercurrent of arrogance here: it turns out this is a Super-Spider-Man movie, one that uses its vast resources to rewrite not just itself but the Spider-Man franchises of the past. 

Yet it also - and here's where No Way Home held and even vaguely charmed me - opens a door to an acknowledgement that those earlier Spider-movies gave themselves some good, in some cases very good ideas to play with. Yes, a measure of nostalgia wafts in through it, but it's certainly better stage-managed here than it was in, say, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, a film that was dying on its arse long before it reached out to some crusty old fossils to save it. Watts directs the intersection of Spider-Holland, Spider-Garfield and Spider-Maguire with a touching humility: there's no ego on display, wherever you look in the frame. The film's funniest joke is that these different iterations of the same character like one another - really like one another! - seeing in their other selves not rivals but potential playmates. It's very sweet, and not untypical of what has been a broadly sweet-natured outshoot from the vast, hydra-headed Marvel machine. It's also a sign of how Watts comes back this way to embrace and celebrate the creativity of those who've gone before him. His penultimate scene - set in a donut shop, for extra frosting - even goes so far as to suggest the makers of 2004's The Butterfly Effect were on the right lines after all: stick a Marvel logo in front of that trash classic, and it too might have cleared a cool billion (all right, a hundred mil) in ticket receipts. Watts has become an easy target for Film Twitter's hardcore cinephiles, as the least renowned of the now-multitudinous names tethered to the MCU bandwagon. I'd rather save my ire for those more experienced filmmakers who've pocketed millions for themselves while churning out films that look this much like used dishwater. Watts is a lightweight, but these films are at their best when they're being lightweight - when they're fooling around, rather than labouring to convince you that the very fabric of the universe is at threat in a 12A-rated movie that will just as likely have its reality overturned in a sequel or reboot a few years down the line.

Sure, he could do with switching an actual light on here or there: the narrative reliance on Stark Industries hardware - observed cluttering up the back of these frames like unshiftable Herbalife product - means this is a largely lab- and basement-based Spider-Man movie, largely devoid of the stirring swing Sam Raimi brought to his spider-verse. (I can't be sure from the finished film that any of it was actually shot on location in New York.) But when Watts reaches for light relief - be that Strange's exasperation at Parker's youthful scuttling ("this is why you'll never have kids") or the old Spideys having to explain their presence to new Spidey and associates - it really does function as relief, a scene or two of respite from the relentless, grinding, noisy spectacle of the middle-ranking theme-park movie. (One reason for my general resistance to these things: you really have to want a movie to clank about.) The emotion of the Raimi Spider-Men - which may have been the emotion of the post-9/11 moment, when even a Nickelback song could strike sensitive ears as semi-profound - gets a little muffled beneath the chicanery set over it. You'll have to have a vivid memory of the Garfield years to know precisely why his Spidey tears up upon rescuing Zendaya's MJ. (This far into postmodernism, nothing is as direct or as fresh as it once was.) But for most of these two-and-a-half hours, Watts applies himself to his task like a capable mathematics student sat before a reasonably demanding logistics puzzle. There's a reason this particular trilogy ends with credits scrawled on workbook graph paper: it's been an equation that needed untangling and reformulating before being balanced and cross-checked and submitted for (demonstrably widespread) approval. Those of us more at ease with words and pictures than numbers will have forgotten most of its workings by the time our keys are back in the front door, but if nothing else, No Way Home finally made me understand just why nerds are so into this stuff.

Spider-Man: No Way Home is still playing in selected cinemas, and is now available to rent via Prime Video and YouTube.

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