Spider-Man: No Way Home and the Emotional Cheapening of the Modern Blockbuster

Article ID: JAR2201CBSMR | By: Cole Burgett

Film Review

Spider-Man: No Way Home

Directed by Jon Watts

(Columbia Pictures, 2021)

Rated PG–13

 

Editor’s Note: This article contains spoilers for Spider-Man: No Way Home.


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​In some ways, Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021) represents the zenith of the modern pop-culture superhero craze. While it’s certainly better than any film of this sort has any right to be, it’s also not as good as that Rotten Tomatoes score would lead you to believe.1 There is a certain logic that is absent from the core mechanics of how the “multiverse” is supposed to work (although I suspect much of that will be remedied in the next Doctor Strange film). But what Spider-Man sacrifices in the way of coherency (mind you, I’ve seen this film only once), it more than makes up for in the way of generating pathos.

Much to the chagrin of my friends, I bemoan the fact that movies in the past two decades have stopped having to make sense. Part of the blame lies at the feet of Christopher Nolan, who is sometimes too brilliant for his own good and makes his movie plots overly complex when there is a simpler solution staring the characters in the face. But nowhere has logic and common sense been so thoroughly tossed out the window than in the final ten minutes of Spider-Man: No Way Home. By film’s end, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) learns humility and turns to sorcerer Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) for a magical spell that will cause everyone to forget he ever existed. Now, you would think that someone somewhere would have a yearbook lying around, or, in this age of social media, could pull up pictures on a phone or Facebook, that Peter could very easily use as evidence to then explain to the people he cares most about why he had to have that spell cast. Or maybe those pictures just disappeared? It’s never clear how this magic stuff works. We are just supposed to accept that, at film’s end, Peter has gone from the world knowing that he is Spider-Man to the world not knowing that Peter Parker ever existed — somehow. If you can swallow that pill with no explanation, maybe the film’s final moments will work for you and not come across as a disingenuous, ham-fisted way of side-stepping any serious growth for any of the characters onscreen.

Here Come the Spider-Men. The real draw of Spider-Man: No Way Home is the chance to see the three modern cinematic incarnations of Spider-Man all playing in the same sandbox at the same time. If you liked Sam Raimi’s early-aughts trilogy with Tobey Maguire, great. Or, if you preferred Andrew Garfield’s awkward skater take on the character in Marc Webb’s do-over, don’t worry, he’s here too. It helps that both are strong actors, which makes it more disappointing that they are given so little to do before the credits roll. Nevertheless, the reintroduction of these characters is sure to elicit loud cheers from audiences who have come to look at market-researched films as something like rides at theme parks rather than visceral, risk-taking cinema, there for the momentary rush with little-to-no lasting substance.2

Look, maybe we should not expect so much from movies where a teenager dressed in spandex fights a mechanical cephalopod villain with a laughable name. But by the same token, the narrative should not expect the audience to take it seriously if the solution is to say, “It’s just entertainment,” and move on. No, Spider-Man: No Way Home is also the movie where May Parker (Marisa Tomei) dies — and it’s a very traumatic death, at that. It would seem Tom Holland’s legacy as Spider-Man will be kneeling teary-eyed over all the people most important to his development as a hero who have died prematurely. Which really provides fodder for some of the most subversive and interesting storytelling opportunities, such as what happens when you actually have a Spider-Man for whom the weight of losing everything and everyone becomes too much to bear. Since I’ve already taken a swipe at Chris Nolan, let me point out that when he took the Batman in this direction with The Dark Knight (2008), he gave us one of the most inventive and original superhero stories ever put to film. These movies suddenly had risk and strong character arcs; viewers felt as though anything could happen. Not so with Spider-Man: No Way Home, a film that for all its seeming innovation, comes across as strangely timid and declawed.

A Story Already Told. Perhaps the reason Spider-Man: No Way Home seems stale has to do with the fact that this story has already been told in a much more interesting fashion, and recently. There is little doubt that 2018’s Academy Award-winning animated feature Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse played a significant role in the trajectory the current live-action Spider-Man films are now taking. But where Sony’s hit wowed critics and audiences alike with the limitless flair of animation, Disney’s live-action version of the dimension-hopping Spider-Men looks like any of the other CGI-laden superhero blockbusters of recent years. Writing for Den of Geek, David Crow calls Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse “a far greater triumph of style and substance.”3

There is no getting around the fact that movie audiences in 2022 are not made of sterner stuff and are more interested in being coddled by pretty pictures and pleased en masse. Consider what A. O. Scott wrote nearly twenty years ago upon the release of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 (2004): “At the very least, a movie audience brutalized by dumb, loud and cynical blockbusters can always stand to be reminded of what vibrant, intelligent and sincere popular filmmaking looks like.”4 Hardly is there a better barometer for how vastly different the landscape of the American blockbuster looks between 2004 and 2022 than the Spider-Man films released in those respective years. Spider-Man: No Way Home, for all its well-intentioned, good-natured fun, takes the credible villain Doctor Octavius (Alfred Molina) from Raimi’s sophomore Spider-Man film and reduces him to a two-dimensional baddie who, the narrative tells us, could have been turned good again if only he had the right technology. This is cynicism masquerading as optimism, a crippled and naïve hopefulness that the narrative itself can’t even sustain, because the film, after all, needs a villain.

And herein lies a microcosm of the woefully misguided and shallow state of the twenty-first century American mindset. If only the technology was advanced enough, if only people were educated enough, then evil and corruption would be eradicated. Norman Osborne (Willem Dafoe) didn’t mean to kill Aunt May; it was just the voices in his head that made him do it. Gone is any sense of personal responsibility, gone is the uneasy texture of Osborne’s tragic and ironic death at the end of Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002), all so the narrative of Spider-Man: No Way Home can say that if someone had just jabbed a needle with a “cure” into Osborne’s neck, none of it would have happened in the first place.

The Gravity of Choice. In the context of the previous narratives that Spider-Man: No Way Home tries to tie off, what results is something worse than cynicism — sentimentality, the reducing of complexity to trite cliché, preying on nostalgia, the trading on emotion for the sake of emotion, and that is the currency with which this film pays dividends. The folks at Disney, who capitalize on packaging and re-packaging the same tales repeatedly, should take heed of what Oscar Wilde once wrote concerning those who traffic in sentimentality:

Just as they borrow their ideas from a sort of circulating library of thought — the Zeitgeist of an age that has no soul — and send them back soiled at the end of each week, so they always try to get their emotions on credit, and refuse to pay the bill when it comes in. You should pass out of that conception of life. As soon as you have to pay for an emotion you will know its quality, and be the better for such knowledge. And remember that the sentimentalist is always a cynic at heart. Indeed, sentimentality is merely the bank holiday of cynicism.5

To be very clear, I do not for a moment believe the writers or the director struck out with the intention of shallowing out the work of the previous Spider-Man films. In fact, it’s clear that Spider-Man: No Way Home is very much a kind of love-letter to the older outings. But it’s this almost unintentional, not-obvious-until-you-think-about-it-for-a-second approach to the narrative that speaks volumes about the truly warped place we find ourselves as a collective. The hopefulness inherent to the Spider-Man character must be balanced against these kinds of unmoored, pale imitations of optimism. Peter Parker presses on as Spider-Man because he truly believes he’s doing the right thing, and his villains are tragic when they choose the opposite of that.

The issue becomes, however unintentionally, a trivializing of evil, and therefore misrepresents reality. Theologian Jeremy Begbie, in his essay “Beauty, Sentimentality and the Arts,” explains that this pretense is usually the first step on the road to sentimentalism. The sentimentalist must reskin evil to be something lesser-than, something seemingly benign and innocent, filtering the world through those rose-colored glasses John Conlee used to sing about. Begbie’s explanation of how this plays out on a cultural level brings Spider-Man: No Way Home into crystalline perspective, and demonstrates how incompatible this mode of thinking is when held up against the Christian perspective, to which the notion of human responsibility and the inherent brokenness of humanity is essential. He writes:

On the cultural level one of the most obvious examples is the Western doctrine of progress. A heady mix of economic growth and confidence, technological achievement, medical advance, sometimes allied to various theories of biological development, progressive idealism and social Darwinianism, has for many generated a climate of thought that imagines a steady march of the human race toward freedom and justice, and that is characterized by a childlike belief in Western innocence and the fundamental rationality and goodness of humankind.6

The narrative of Spider-Man: No Way Home is perhaps the best modern cultural artifact that validates Begbie’s thesis. Never once does this film have the complexity of thought to assert that Norman Osborne actually likes to be evil, that being a villain is a choice. No, Norman is still cured by film’s end, just not by the mid-point because the characters didn’t get around to making his cure fast enough. The truly brave and worthwhile narrative here would have been to suggest that despite all Spider-Man’s efforts to help, at least one of the villains remained a villain because of personal choice and wickedness, not because of some outside thing that was done to them. It removes all sense of personal responsibility from any of these characters that were, at one time, genuinely scary, and cheapens the emotional force of the previous outings. This film works as the antithesis to Patty Jenkins’s brilliant 2017 superhero film, Wonder Woman, which sees Diana (Gal Gadot) believing that humanity is fundamentally good and, if she could just eliminate Ares (David Thewlis), then humans would cease waging war on one another. But her character arc is growing beyond the naïveté of thinking that Spider-Man: No Way Home is too quick to celebrate and, indeed, champion.

In a particularly clear-eyed take on Spider-Man: No Way Home, Jade King concludes: “I think it’s worth considering how a film this shallow and pandering will only serve to cheapen the art we know and love. It’s putting a reference to our own nostalgia in front of us and expecting us to clap like obedient little seals, even as the substance fades away into nothingness moments after we look away from the screen.”7

Don’t get me wrong — Spider-Man: No Way Home is a film just about anyone can sit down and enjoy. No one can accuse these kinds of films of being poorly made; studios throw too much money at them for that. But when it comes to substance, depth, texture, and contradiction, the thinking filmgoer will be left wanting. But, hey, since cinematic universes are a thing of yesterday now and everything is a “multiverse,” I guess that means that somewhere out there, there is a version of Spider-Man: No Way Home that doesn’t end with cheap cures and magic spells to keep audiences from wrestling with anything resembling a complex emotion. —Cole Burgett

Cole Burgett is a seminary graduate, a graduate of Moody Bible Institute, and an author for the website Christ and Pop Culture.

NOTES

  1. As of January 18, 2022, Rotten Tomatoes “Audience Score” for Spider Man: No Way Home is 98 percent and “Tomatometer” (critic reviews) is 93 percent (https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/spider_man_no_way_home).
  2. Martin Scorsese, “Martin Scorsese: I Said Marvel Movies Aren’t Cinema. Let Me Explain,” New York Times, November 4, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/04/opinion/martin-scorsese-marvel.html.
  3. David Crow, “Spider Man: No Way Home vs. Into the Spider-Verse: Which is Better?,” Den of Geek, December 19, 2021, https://www.denofgeek.com/movies/spider-man-no-way-home-vs-into-the-spider-verse-which-is-better/.
  4. A. O. Scott, “Film Review: Putting Action After Feelings of a Superhero,” New York Times, June 29, 2004, https://www.nytimes.com/2004/06/29/movies/film-review-putting-action-after-feelings-of-a-superhero.html.
  5. Oscar Wilde, De Profundis.
  6. Jeremy Begbie, “Beauty, Sentimentality and the Arts,” in The Beauty of God: Theology and the Arts, ed. Daniel J. Treier, Mark Husbands, and Roger Lundin (Downers Grove: IVP, 2007), 47.
  7. Jade King, “Spider-Man: No Way Home Is the MCU at Its Absolute Worst,” TheGamer, December 20, 2021, https://www.thegamer.com/spider-man-no-way-home-mcu-worst-film-crossover/.
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