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.
1978’s answer to the question
we shouldn’t have asked
1.76: The Stupid Answer
— Danny Horn