Spider-Man: No Way Home 93.1: The Big Deal

I’ve been writing about the first Superman movie for several months in this blog, and I’m just reaching the end of his first date with Lois Lane. And if you want to know how superhero movies have changed from their relatively humble beginnings in 1978 to the frantic blockbuster factory of today, consider this: Superman: The Movie just spent a full twelve minutes entirely focused on the two main characters getting to know each other. I can’t imagine a superhero movie in the 2020s spending twelve minutes focused on anything; they can’t even make one movie at a time.

Just the fact that I can think of Superman as a “humble beginning” is insane; in 1978, they spent 55 million dollars making it the biggest and most exciting film that they could assemble. But as of this weekend, the film seems impossibly small.

This blog is a history of superhero movies, but I don’t want to be stuck entirely in the past, while the rest of the world moves forward. So when a new superhero movie is released, I’ve been writing special weekend popcorn posts looking at what the current film tells us about where this history is going. So far, Superman: The Movie has held up pretty well in comparison to Venom: Let There Be Carnage and Eternals, but the scale of Spider-Man: No Way Home is a different universe entirely.

Spider-Man: No Way Home assumes that the audience has spent the last fifteen years watching superhero movies. To fully appreciate it — or even just to follow what’s going on — you need to have watched at minimum eight other movies, with bonus points for following several spinoffs, including TV shows on two different streaming services. In the normal world that we inhabited not that long ago, that level of pre-release homework assignment would kill the picture; you can easily imagine the scathing reviews, saying that this movie is too complex and self-referential to appeal to mainstream audiences. But it looks like No Way Home is on its way to the 2nd best opening weekend of all time, with a 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Anyone who’s been tut-tutting about the future of superhero movies needs to reconsider; the lonely echoes of the singing cowboys calling across the prairie have never seemed so far away.

Spider-Man: No Way Home is a movie about being so famous that you have to break the universe, just to get a little time to yourself. It begins with Peter Parker’s secret identity exposed to the world, which instantly consumes all known broadcast, streaming and social media to the exclusion of all else. If they’d used the same plot point in the first trilogy of Spider-Man movies in the mid 2000s, that would have been an exaggeration, but for 2021, the reaction seems pretty tame; it’s surprising half an hour into the film to see Peter, MJ and Ned having a scene together in a public place, with nobody trying to film them or take selfies.

But in that quiet diner scene where the three friends open their MIT admissions letters, the characters realize that they’ve being dragged down by the weight of their own public profiles. What they’ve done in the past limits their current options, and all Peter can think of to do is try to wipe the slate clean, and start over.

But it’s too late for another reboot. We’ve been introduced to Spider-Man three times in the last twenty years, and his attempt to put the genie back in the bottle is doomed to failure.

The MCU Peter Parker isn’t a solo character anymore, as he was in the previous versions; his existence is determined as part of a larger franchise. It’s no accident that he first appeared in a crossover Avengers film, immediately positioning him in relation to the other superheroes before he could get started on his own trilogy. His high-tech suit was made by Tony Stark, the person he turns to for help is Doctor Strange, and it’s actually surprising that he’s left alone to fight his own rogues’ gallery, without six other Marvel heroes stopping by to see what all the racket is about.

So his attempt to shake free of the continuity quicksand just gets him more deeply entangled in a canon that’s even more complicated than we thought, including villains and plot points from movies that came out twenty years ago. And the audience isn’t expected to just have a vague memory of everything that came before; there’s a major plot point that’s based on the details of how each of the villains were defeated.

There are a lot of surprises in Spider-Man: No Way Home, but the biggest surprise for me was how excited the audience got when anything from a previous film showed up, especially characters and plot points from The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which I thought nobody liked.

Now, I saw No Way Home on Thursday night, which I guess we’re now calling a preview screening, and there were several people in the audience wearing homemade Spider-Man costumes, so it’s possible that I had a biased sample. Maybe on other nights, the theater doesn’t get such a charge out of seeing Electro and Spider-Man Three working through their feelings about unresolved business from 2014. But for the people I was sitting with, every reference to the franchise’s extensive back catalog was understood and appreciated.

So it’s amazing that the film ultimately extols the virtue of forgetting, and leaving the past behind. The question driving the story is whether you should get weighed down with the burden of addressing past narrative mistakes, and the answer appears to be no. Characters die because Peter is trying to rewrite films that were made when he was in elementary school. The film indulges in nothing but celebratory nostalgia — I don’t think there’s a single character with a name and a speaking part who didn’t appear in a previous Spider-Man movie — but it also wants to wipe all the continuity away, and give Peter the opportunity to start over again.

Now that superhero movies are expected to all tie together into ongoing superhero universes, the challenge for both the Marvel and DC blockbusters is to figure out whether all of the accumulated history opens up more opportunities to tell interesting stories, or shuts down opportunities because you have to do so much work keeping everything in synch.

The next MCU movie, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, intended to debut in theaters next May, was reportedly rewritten several times to respond to other people’s creative and corporate decisions. First, Doctor Strange was originally planned to make an appearance in the Disney+ series WandaVision, but when that production decided not to include him, the Doctor Strange team had to change the movie’s introduction of Wanda.

Then when everything had to shuffle around because of Covid, they moved the release date of Multiverse of Madness from May 2021 to November 2021, and then May 2022. No Way Home was originally planned for July 2021 — two months after the Doctor Strange movie — but the Spider-Man movie got shifted to November, and then December, so now No Way Home is coming out five months before Multiverse.

The two stories are tightly intertwined — or, at least, they were supposed to be — with the events of Multiverse of Madness causing the continuity breakdown of No Way Home. The decision to swap the two movies means that now the story happens in the other direction, with Peter’s decisions creating the mess that Strange now has to address in Multiverse. So Peter interfering with Strange’s spell — the entire premise of the movie, as we know it — may have been added while the film was already in production.

That seems to have worked out, as far as No Way Home is concerned — the plot of the film makes sense, at least to the extent that Marvel movies ever make sense — but it’ll be interesting to see how well the Multiverse of Madness story adjusted to the new running order.

Given all of that — and there is so much “all of that”, these days — it’s incredible to look back to the days when there was just one superhero at a time. The Salkinds made five Superman and Supergirl movies between 1978 and 1987, while all the other big heroes politely waited their turn. Once Superman was done, they started producing Batman films, which ran uninterrupted from 1989 to 1997.

The first time there were two big superhero franchises running simultaneously was in the early 2000s, when Sony was making Spider-Man movies at the same time that Fox was making X-Men movies. For the first twenty years of this genre, Superman and Batman were each allowed to operate with no crossover, and no competition.

You’d think that being able to make their own creative choices without the burden of cross-continuity would mean that the producers of the first batch of Superman and Batman films would use that freedom to tell more compelling stories, but the fact is that both of those series had two decent films, and then got worse and worse.

But Spider-Man’s eighth movie, which is explicitly about the challenges of having too much comic-book continuity, feels fresher and more entertaining than Superman III or Batman Forever. There’s no comparison. Both Tobey Maguire’s and Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Man series felt like they went at least one movie too long, but Tom Holland’s third film is terrific, and I for one would love to see another trilogy.

So maybe the concerned Cassandras warning of imminent genre collapse if Marvel continues to produce so much cross-connected material need to step back from those predictions, for now. The singing cowboys are silenced, at least until May, and we’ll see how it goes from there.

Monday:
1978’s answer to the question
we shouldn’t have asked
1.76: The Stupid Answer

Chapters
Movie list

— Danny Horn

11 thoughts on “Spider-Man: No Way Home 93.1: The Big Deal

  1. This feels like a good time to bring up the fact that Kevin Feige — the architect of the Marvel Cinematic Universe — holds Superman: The Movie in the highest esteem.

    “Superman: The Movie is still to this day the archetype of the perfect superhero film origin story and we watch it before we make almost any one of our films.”

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I think part of why the multiverse films can work as well as they do is that when the original Superman films were being made, they were very much Big Deal Movies *for the time*–they were pimped out like a Caddy at a pride parade in terms of publicity and sell sell sell! They weren’t supposed to be indie films or Oscar bait (except for technical awards.)

    But the idea was to make EVERYONE, not just kids and comic readers, care about this big shiny new presentation of a character that had been hanging around the funny pages and newsstands and lunchboxes forever, to the point where he was background Americana. Everybody knew the gist of Superman’s story, to the point that a movie must have seemed redundant. So the first two films were specifically designed to intrigue, excite, and reintroduce a very very familiar face.

    But the story itself is almost quaint in its simplicity. There’s only one Villain, Lex. He’s nearly hipster in his version of badness and world conquering–he doesn’t have elaborate backstory or fifty co-bad guys (I mean, he does in the cartoons and such, but not here.) He just kinda–wants to rule. If we’d been luckier he would have taken up stamp collecting, but as it is thank God Superman’s here!

    By the second film they already knew they had to go bigger and brought back Zod and his cohorts, and it was all a jumbled mess from Three on. They couldn’t coordinate the modern blockbuster logistics we have now because they still thought a Big Movie should tell only one story at a time. And it’s telling that the multiple different modern reboots of Superman haven’t gone anywhere, despite Herculean efforts to duplicate what Marvel does.

    But the modern Marvel films got what kids always grasped–there’s a whole world out there and you can dip in and out of stories to create any kind of collage you want. Once you establish you’re following Spiderman or Iron Man or whoever as the through line, throw as much paint at the wall as you like. Somebody out there gets it.

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  3. I remember trying to watch “Lost” on TV, and I immediately got lost. The premise of the TV show “Heroes” seemed interesting — something about how superheroes are dealing with having super powers on an everyday more mundane basis. Both of these, I just sat down and watched a segment, and I had no sense of who any of these people were – I had no clue about what happened before and nothing about these shows hooked me to even care about the people I was seeing. These were “serial” shows, where I could not just jump in and figure out or infer what had happened previously. I felt like, for both “Lost” and “Heroes,” I would have had to have watched the whole thing – from episode 1 onward – to even begin to maybe understand what was going on.
    This is totally unlike “Mad Men.” To me, “Mad Men” was infinitely interesting, the characters compelling, and I at least could easily guess what had happened before. It being a “serial” did not interfere with me enjoying stand-alone episodes.
    Sorry to sound cynical, but all the modern superhero movie craze is just not my idea of sound entertainment. Danny, I will probably follow your analysis of Superman I and II, but I probably won’t continue with your blog beyond that. Maybe I will drop in to read what you have to say about the first Supergirl movie (which I remember seeing in theater back in the day)?
    It seems like all current superhero movies (and most modern adventure movies) are just vehicles to further promote the invasive videogame industry or other electronic addiction, which is both pervasive and insidious, in my opinion. I was born well into the last century and still consider myself very much a part of the last century. I am one of the few who still has a flip phone, stubbornly refusing to join the 21st century and get the iPhone or its equivalent.
    I had considered maybe going to check out the new “Spider Man” movie as part of a senior-discount-matinee or morning movie at my nearest multiplex (this would be my first film in a movie theater since March 2020), but not if I have to know what has happened in all of the prior movie iterations of “Spider Man.” No thanks. (At least classic soap operas, way back in the day, had lots of explanatory exposition to catch viewers up if they happened to have missed something that happened on your show previously.)
    The “Spider Man” franchise/current superhero movies can get along without me.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The latest Spider-Man is still very enjoyable, even if you know nothing about what has gone before. It recaps Mysterio’s revealing Peter Parker as Spidey, and the rest is story. It adds zest if you know about Toby Maguire and Andrew Garfield as Spider-Men, but it is fun regardless. I was just sorry there wasn’t at least a Stan Lee-style cameo from Nicholas Hammond, the Spider-Man of 1970s television.

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  4. “Continuity” as a concept was barely even acknowledged at DC until about 1970. Modern (post FF) Marvel took it somewhat more seriously but wasn’t obsessed by it. Beginning in the 1980s, however, at both companies it became first an academic discipline and then a religion. So greatly did this inhibit the creative process that it become necessary to blow everything up (several times, in fact) to try to restore some sort of vitality. And it still didn’t work because the siren song of the Old Ways was too strong to be resisted.

    Now movies, of course, are a different beast and they may be able to avoid the pitfalls that have reduced their print forebears to a footnote in popular culture. But history is not on their side.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I’ve watched 30! superhero movies in the last 25 or so years but I’ve yet to watch a stand-alone Tom Holland Spider-Man movie. He managed to make an impression in The Avengers movies, though. He had a genuine charm, innocence and enthusiasm that was appealing. I had previously watched the Tobey Maguire ones and figured I knew the story. But with the Multiverse, maybe not. I’ve enjoyed the MCU. (DC not as much.) Marvel has done a good job in making me interested in characters I initially had no interest in, like Capt. America. Having the stories interconnect is a great marketing ploy but I’m getting a bit old to commit to a new phase that won’t come to a conclusion for 20 years. I’ve come to like movies with a story that finishes in one sitting. I like to know how a story ends without waiting years for the next movie. It’s become a Thing with me. I will probably watch Dr. Strange because Benedict Cumberbatch. Beyond that, I don’t know.
    Yesterday I wondered when it was that Lois actually does find out Superman is Clark so I headed to Google. It turns out that the answers are “Fairly recently” and “It depends on which Lois.” Starting all over again has a long history in comic books and yet judging by some of the answers I’ve read in this blog, fans don’t seem to have any problem keeping track of all of the reboots and variations, though it feels like tumbling down a rabbit hole to me. I think the Marvel Multiverse should do just fine.

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  6. I saw this in the theater with this group:

    Me (seen every Spider-Man movie)
    My wife (has seen all of the Tobeys and all of the Hollands and none of the Garfields)
    My nephew (has seen Spider-Man 1, 3, and all of the Hollands)
    My niece (has seen Spider-Man 1 and Homecoming only)

    And even with varying levels of experience, we all enjoyed it, and they all agreed that Andrew Garfield is delightful in it even though they never saw his terrible movies.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I haven’t gotten to see the movie yet, but I often don’t get a chance to watch movies until they’ve been out a while. And I can tell you my favorite thing about this movie without having seen it. It makes it look like DC continuing to tell the spiderman origin story and then rebooting it after a couple of years was part of a clever long term plan setting up these movies all along instead of them just flaying around. I’m willing to bet in 50 years if people are still watching these movies people will think it was deliberate cleverness.

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  8. I watched it. I loved it. I never saw any of the Garfield Spider-Man movies and I don’t think it was a problem at all.

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