Stabroek News Sunday
Deferred crises in “Spider-Man: No Way Home”
Credit to Jon Watts, director of “SpiderMan: No Way Home” and the screenwriters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers: in this third iteration of the MCU’s version of our friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man, they have finally managed to liberate Tom Holland’s Peter Parker from Tony Stark and the previous films’ strange class politics. Both forerunners, “Homecoming” and “Far From Home,” found Spider-Man fighting villains – the working-class stand-in Vulture, and up-and-coming tech innovator Mysterio – who felt themselves wronged by billionaire Tony Stark. Spider-Man, the everyman of superheroes, found himself battling every-men with his fate tied to excess and success that felt out-of-place with the normalcy inherent to “Spider-Man” and Peter Parker. This Spider-Man felt like he was living in the shadows of his mentor. Luckily, the spectre of Tony Stark has vanished in “No Way Home” and with it the previously murky class structures. But what’s the saying? Out of the frying pan into the fire? Sure, “No Way Home” liberates Peter from Tony but it chains him to different ghosts…
“No Way Home” picks up immediately after the events of “Far From Home”. J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons returning to the role) has revealed Peter’s identity in a public broadcast with recordings from a now-dead Mysterio. This identity-reveal means the loss of privacy and peace for Peter Parker and for those who care about him, particularly MJ (now his girlfriend) and his best-friend Ned. We imagine Aunt May is also gravely affected by this reveal, but we do not see her truly grappling with any emotional repercussions until a late plot-point; this third entry still does not know how to use Marisa Tomei or the character. In the wake of Peter’s newfound infamy (his isolation and infamy are somewhat unclear considering Spider-Man’s role in The Avengers) the teenaged trio cannot get into MIT, or any of their preferred colleges. Peter, who is either incredibly foolish or incredibly astute depending on what the plot needs, seeks out his “Endgame” co-worker the sorcerer Dr Strange to get things back to the way they were. That’s not possible; Strange offers an alternative in the form of a spell, but it is botched mid-casting due to Peter’s lack of clarity about what he wants and a childish ignorance which exasperates Strange, who asks him to leave, without a solution to his problems. No change. But, not quite. The unfinished spell opens a breach in the universe and soon Peter’s life is overridden with villains. Not his villains but villains from previous “Spider-Man” films in different “SpiderMan” universes: Jamie Foxx’s Electro and Rhys Ifans’ Dr Connors / Lizard from Andrew Garfield’s two entries as Spider-Man; and, Willem Dafoe’s Norman Osborne, Alfred Molina’s Doctor Octopus and Thomas Haden Church’s Sandman from Tobey Maguire’s entries as Spider-Man.
Superhero films need villains. A villain must exist to justify the requisite CGI battle that comes at the climax of almost everyone. Luckily for Peter, he does not have one villain but he has five. But, what does it mean when Holland’s Spider-Man is left fighting villains that are spectres haunting other persons? It is as if he’s a medium that’s shown up at the wrong séance.
There are two vital things “No Way Home” must do. The rupture of the universe must happen to create the complications of the multiverse for later MCU films, and the dichotomous relationship between Peter and SpiderMan must be restricted to point to new challenges ahead in his life. It’s this compulsion to get where it needs to where “No Way Home” betrays ambivalence to its own protagonist in service of what it must achieve. Tom
Holland is a young actor with a charming acuity outside of “Spider-Man”. In brief moments, the structure plays to his strengths, but often he’s left playing varying personalities that change depending on what is needed and that clash with notions of establishing who this Peter Parker is. Here, Peter’s crisis and his tragedies are important for future ruptures in the universe. Certain things must happen, so Holland’s Peter must bend to the wills of the story – tearfully regretful here, defiantly committed there, unusually wise and thoughtful elsewhere. The shifts are engaging, to a point, as they occur but it’s unsustainable for him as a character. The thrills of the film’s multiverse examinations unspool in the second half, any clarity about Peter becomes obfuscated. Yet again, Peter’s wants and needs are deferred for ghosts of someone else’s problems, and that leads to a clash in tones when things come together.
A sequence of scenes in the middle of the film put this problem into practice. A tragedy recalibrates the film and its structure, setting up the solutions of the second-half. But the sequencing betrays a crisis of tone that becomes central to the film. Michael Giacchino’s oppressive score plays incessantly, underscoring the moment of tragedy, as if to hammer home that we must feel moved in the moment. The lead-up to that moment already seems suspect, a series of errors in judgement that feel unseemly for Peter and his Aunt May. That scene is followed by a subsequent reveal elsewhere with another set of characters. This new scene is structured with a sense of wonder, and knowing insouciance. The next scene combines the events of the first tragic scene with the loosely ebullient second one, and when that happens, we recognise the rupture. The emotions of the tragic moment can’t be truly expressed alongside the energy of the subsequent reveal. There is nowhere for the melancholy sadness or the ebullient joy to go, so they are forced together. The tone of later sequences must jockey between conflicting moods depending on what the plot points requires, at short notice. The bevy of villains, and the backstory and contexts they come with, must fit against each other in ways that provide great delights (Jamie Foxx for example works really well here) but they often feel like separate strands that exist in fragmented relation. And within that framework, the script tries to force a connection between Willem Dafoe’s Dr Osborne and Peter that cannot hold – forcing characters in actions that feel incongruous. What motives prompt the chain reactions that lead to chaos and tragedy and then clarity? The script tells us, but never really deigns to sit with them to make them feel worked-out. There’s no time, we need to get to our endpoint. The rapid cutting and camera movement between three “heroes” in a late fight-sequence is particularly unsettled. Instead of getting three times the excitement it sometimes feels like various fractions of various wholes.
The implications of the multiverse lead to some stirring moments, dependent on previous knowledge and – again – deferred emotions. But the spectacle cannot make a whole. It doesn’t have the weight or the muscle of a film that can exist as an entity. What’s the thesis here? Mid-film we hear the loaded truism, “With great power comes great responsibility”. It’s repeated a few scenes later. In the first Raimi Spider-Man, this line was uttered before Peter’s true transformation and understanding of his Spider-Man abilities. He didn’t understand it yet. It was a promise. It was also a curse. The import would be revealed later on for that Peter Parker. But Holland’s Peter Parker already knows this. The entire MCU knows that. Even the moment, misjudges the meaning of that line. It’s delivered when the tragedy has already happened. It doesn’t land as a line with its own meaning, but only as a reference to something we already knew. This Peter should already know that. This teenager has died and returned. He should have learned the lesson by now. But he hasn’t. He can’t learn it because if he does then he grows beyond the limits of what this MCU wants of this Spider-Man. Any chance for growth, for development, for real shifting change rather than recalibrating the past is faint. For this world, this Spider-Man can only be a reference point. So much so that the very last scene, the post-credits one, has nothing to do with him at all. In his own movie, the villains are outsourced and so are the thrills. The loudest responses from the audience, the knowing shouts of recognition at notes of familiarity, were outsourced. And what a tragic thing for this Spider-Man.
The filmmakers want things both ways. They want us to mourn and feel for this Peter, but they keep on surrendering to images from the past – whether within the MCU or the past of other iterations. A late film comparison between different worlds is admirable for the ways it insists on excited comparison rather than competitive argument. But we can’t surrender to the beauty of the past without getting a chance to really settle in the present. And we never can if Tom Holland’s Peter is always a medium for things beyond himself. The last sequence returns things to this Peter, setting up a new series of hurdles for him in the future. It’s the closest the film comes to really engaging with Peter in the absence of anything looming over him. But it feels telling that his development in these moments is not dependent on things that he does. Instead, it depends on him being on the outside looking on at persons close to him whose lives seem to be moving on. The moment is intended as an emotional wallop for the audience but to me it seemed symptomatic of the crisis of this “Spider-Man” series. Peter Parker – doomed to stay the same as long as he is chained to the iteration the MCU requires. I suspect there will be more ghosts of the past in his future.