Monday, December 20, 2021

Spider-Man: No Way Home is an exercise in fan service done right

Watching the marketing for Spider-Man: No Way Home promise a smorgasbord of Spider-Man villains from across the multiverse, my primary concern was that this movie would function as a lesser cousin to Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Happily, the actual film is something much more akin to the 2011 movie The Muppets. Like that delightful musical, Spider-Man: No Way Home has been engineered by people with a passion for the material they're adapting, a consciousness of the rich history of the series they're entering, and a willingness to use the toys at their disposal for maximum fun. The resulting blockbuster isn't challenging or a mold-breaker, but does it need to be when it's also so ridiculously entertaining?

Picking up directly from the events of Spider-Man: Far from Home, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) has had his superhero persona of Spider-Man revealed to the whole world. Grappling with how this development is affecting his loved ones, Parker decides to seek out the help of Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch). After this wizard is convinced to come to this teenager's aid, the duo embarks on pulling off a spell that will make the world forget about Parker being Spider-Man. However, something goes awry in this process and instead unleashes figures from alternate universes like Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina) and Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) that have some serious grudges with the web-crawler.

While this is a spoiler-free review, a welcome development in the plot that I'll happily divulge is that Spider-Man: No Way Home doesn't forget that what made the first two Jon Watts-directed Spider-Man films so fun. Specifically, that emphasis on shenanigans specific to High School-aged youngsters. Here, anxiety over college applications gets a significant amount of screentime. Meanwhile, the youthful nature of this version of Parker makes for a great contrast to the world-weary baddies who're all too cognizant of their own mortality. Screenwriters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers have a constant consciousness over the fact that this movie stars a 16-year-old and the production is all the better for it.

The writing from McKenna and Sommers also proves deft in juggling so many characters without No Way Home becoming an incoherent mess. While this movie manages to stand on its own, the smartest storytelling cue it takes from Into the Spider-Verse is centering one character above all others in the multiverse shenanigans. With Peter Parker always center-frame, the film avoids falling into the trap of feeling like a feature-length version of that Rise of Skywalker scene where Chewbacca finally gets a medal . Even better, the utilization of material from previous Spider-Man titles manages to outright redeem certain characters that didn't quite work in their original interpretations, especially Jamie Foxx's Max Dillon/Electro.

Granted, that doesn't mean the screenplay gets by without any shortcomings. The plot does have some moments where it's clear getting to a big showstopper moment took precedent above all else, including the build-up to said showstopper moment. In terms of other shortcomings, there are also issues with proper compositing of CG and live-action elements, especially CG stunt doubles with real backdrops. Plus, it might've been nice to get further closure for some of Parker's high school chums from the last two movies, like Flash Thompson (Tony Revelori) and Betty Brant (Angourie Rice), the latter of whom is only seen for one scene.

These quibbles aren't immaterial, but they do feel like small potatoes compared to the moments of pure catharsis and excitement that No Way Home regularly delivers. The big set-pieces have an infectiously exciting air to them and feel guided by the principle of doing whatever's fun rather than whatever's grounded or cost-conscious. Leaning into the variety of superpowers across the assorted villains means there's always something new that No Way Home can throw at its superhero protagonist and the audience. On his third blockbuster directing gig, Watts has gotten adept at the theatricality necessary to make these sequences click. It's wonderful that his work behind the camera is as lively as the writing, with some especially imaginative pieces of camerawork working well to accentuate Parker's internal emotions when he's in particularly intense scenarios.

Perhaps my favorite part of Spider-Man: No Way Home, though, is how much leash it gives the talented actors in its packed cast. More scenes than expected are handed off to just letting folks like Alfred Molina and Willem Dafoe exchange low-key conversations. That's very much a good thing since the banter is so fun (juxtaposing casual conversation with over-the-top beings like Sandman will never not amuse me) and it gives time for characters like Foxx's Electro to finally come alive as people. Plus, it gives talented performers a chance to do significantly more to do than just reacting to CG objects added in post-production. Dafoe is especially in his element here, not missing a beat in either the menace or nuance that made his Norman Osborne such a compelling figure.

With so many balls to juggle in the air, Spider-Man: No Way Home should be a mess. But much like prior Marvel Cinematic Universe feature Captain America: Civil War, No Way Home manages to make its tidalwave of crowdpleaser moments feel earned, not manipulative. Best of all, it utilizes Spider-Man's past in interesting ways that bring new dimensions to familiar foes as well as the central characters in Jon Watts' interpretation of the character. I'd even go so far as to say the film is an exercise in how to do fan service right with its constant focus on treating its characters like people and a hopeful atmosphere. Spider-Man: No Way Home doesn't transcend the world of superhero cinema or deliver the peak of Spider-Man movies (Into the Spider-Verse and Spider-Man 2 are still superior, for the record). What No Way Home is, though, is the sort of well-made and fun blockbuster confection that's downright irresistible. 

No comments:

Post a Comment