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REVIEW: ‘Spider-Man: No Way Home’

It deserves all the wild success it will generate. But it won’t save the dying cinema.

• December 17, 2021 1:45 pm

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Spider-Man: No Way Home isn't going to save moviegoing, because I'm not sure anything can, but it sure makes one hell of an effort. After the horrendous misfire that was Eternals, Marvel has not only returned to form but has made its most dynamic and unexpected picture since Guardians of the Galaxy in 2014. It will make more money than any movie has made in years. It will remind millions upon millions of viewers just how transporting a big-screen experience will be. The problem is it will only help continue to generate audiences for movies like it. The audiences for all other fare have been raptured to Streaming Heaven and will not be returning.

If such movies were all as good as No Way Home, then this would be an acceptable cultural evolution. But they won't be. But unlike others who seem to find fault with the fact that Marvel mostly makes the best possible movies it can make with the source material it has, and therefore respects and serves its audience in the best way possible, I am not going to blame the Marvel movie and its ilk for the death of the kind of moviegoing I've been enjoying for half a century.

No Way Home is so sprightly and imaginative that you can easily get past the fact its plot assumes quite a bit of knowledge of the characters and situations in Spider-Man movies made before the debut of the iPhone. That was also before the creation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2008, to which Tom Holland's Spider-Man was a surprising and wildly welcome late addition in 2016 after a long and actually fascinating negotiation over rights to the character.

Sure, it's better if you know or can remember, but if you don't or can't, you can still relish the fantastic acting chops of Alfred Molina, Willem Dafoe, and Thomas Haden Church—villains from back in the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man days, all of whom seem not to have aged a minute (either that, or Marvel spent an astounding amount of money on the de-aging machine to make them look young-ish). They make up most of the delightful cascade of people from other movies that come joyously stomping through this one.

I am not going to say a word about the plot or its revelations. I am going to tell you that, once again, what Kevin Feige (the mastermind of the Marvel Cinematic Universe) knows better than anyone ever has is that the word "comic" appears in the phrase "comic book" for a reason. It's funny. It's really, really funny. The conversations between Spider-Man and Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) are funny. The conversations among the villains are funny. And there are later conversations between characters that transcend mere funniness and achieve an almost sublime perfection.

The fact that the highlights of this movie, and of many Marvel movies, come when the characters just stop for a few minutes and talk to each other helps explain their overall indelible appeal. Even its setup is funny. This movie is actually about the universe-destroying lengths Peter Parker will go to in a desperate effort to get his girlfriend MJ and his buddy Ned into MIT. They are all high-school seniors, and trust me, as someone whose kid is a high-school senior, the idea that the fate of the universe is in the hands of admissions officers at fancy colleges is not science-fictional at all.

By keeping the stakes at this almost pathetic human scale and focusing almost all the movie's emotional action around this youthful triumvirate, director Jon Watts and screenwriters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers establish a solid basis as the movie's storyline just goes cuckoo-for-Cocoa-Puffs in a wildly imaginative way.

So this movie will make a billion dollars and West Side Story will be lucky to make $50 million. The point is they're both wonderful. And once upon a time, West Side Story would have made more money than Spider-Man: No Way Home rather than eating its dust. But there is no mass audience for West Side Story any longer. There's no mass audience for anything outside of the spectacle picture any longer, and it's not just the pandemic that's caused this. It's been the trend for two decades, and COVID finally solidified it into a permanent reality.

The cinema as we've known it for a century is all but dead. We should take it as something of a relief that what little remains can be as good as Spider-Man: No Way Home.

Published under: Movie Reviews