A Very Loose Review of Spider-Man: No Way Home (and every other 2021 Marvel movie)

Warning: this review hints at major spoilers for Spider-Man: No Way Home.

I haven’t posted on this site since October 15, almost two months to the day that I’m writing this. But I’m going to pretend like that’s not the case, and that I’m a normal film critic and not a graduate student with a job who has realized that it is hard to find time to balance one’s responsibilities with film critic hobbyism.

Anyway…how about that Marvel Studios, huh? Bouncing back from a rough year at the theatrical box office, Disney’s theatrical cash cow had four movies in the can for 2021. Following a glorious financial success with Avengers: Endgame, the studio needed a firm reset of its film properties (its streaming series properties have done their own legwork in moving the IP forward).

Which is what made Black Widow such a strange property. Arguably released at the wrong point in the MCU franchise (what if it had, for instance, been released between Infinity War and Endgame?), the film felt like a backwards step. Why give an origin story to a character dead within this continuity, one might ask.

Viewing the film without the larger continuity in mind, though, there are some competently-directed sequences. (The prologue sequence is cracker-jack, at least). The final act kind of falls apart, leaving the whole thing feeling less-than. But, pound-for-pound, I think it was a middling Marvel effort (and this is a good thing, honestly).

Then there was Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, a film I had no expectations for and which I viewed as an overlong origin story for a character I was unsure how important it is to care about. At this point in the MCU, introducing new characters feels like a chore. Not to diminish Simu Liu’s performance as Shang Chi; he’s very fun. But from a Marvel perspective, this story does little to establish the stakes of this adventure. From a filmmaking perspective, it was hard for me not to think that this was just doing a serviceable job of what many wuxia films have done better.

Eternals was a messy movie with many problems, but I had some fun watching it. It felt less programmatic than Black Widow and Shang-Chi, in that those films are lying stepping stones in this elaborate continuity. Eternals, by comparison, feels like a film throwing a bunch of things at the wall to see what sticks. Most of it doesn’t work, but the fact that it is trying for something different within this formula is mildly exciting.

Which brings us to Spider-Man: No Way Home, a conundrum of a movie. It is certainly out-there in terms of premise. One could say that it diverges from the Marvel formula, and, in terms of being risky, I guess that that is true.

But then again, is it all that risky? Is it risky to put three “generations” of Spider-Men together? In fact, it may be the safest thing Marvel could do with the property. If you put all three Spider-Man film franchises together, then every Spider-Man film fan has something to be drawn in by. And the film pulls on the emotional heartstrings of each fandom accordingly.

Honestly, as a Spider-Man fan myself, these manipulations work. Spider-Man is the only comic book character I have childhood nostalgia for, and this film is playing on my sympathies as much as it can. The film, in creating a multiverse which folds in on itself, makes meta corrections out of narrative gimmicks. You didn’t like how that one death played out in that one previous film? Well, there is a moment here that redeems that one character and retroactively fixes that one film for you.

It’s that sort of thing. I can tell that the film is littered with emotionally manipulative fan service…yet I still had fun. Is Spider-Man: No Way Home a good film? Narratively-speaking? Visually, in the set pieces where it matters?  No. Not particularly. Holes exist in the story. The action sequences are fairly muddy.

Thematically, though, the film delivers on exactly what fans of the character want. I think. Does this make Spider-Man: No Way Home a good action blockbuster? Probably not. But at the heart of this studio is a desire to appeal to the core fanbase. The broad appeal that brings in billions of dollars is part of the equation, as well. Certainly. But without the core fanbase, Marvel isn’t much of a property at all.

Here’s the bottom line: No Way Home is fun. You can see every string if you squint even a little. You can point out every inconsistency, the logic behind every emotional moment. These seams did bother me while I was watching, making it difficult for me to fully buy in and enjoy the experience.

But who am I to ruin everyone else’s fun. My crowd took the bait of this film hook, line, and sinker, cheering at all of the appropriate moments (which is to say, moments where the movie itself pauses for a few seconds in full awareness that they are in the midst of a fan service applause break). I’m happy that everyone around me was happy—even the guy next to me who called his friend for a ride during the credits, then rudely stopped talking to his friend (who was still on the phone) so he could pay attention to the end-credits scene.

Maybe if this wasn’t the 27th MCU film, I would also be applauding at these reveals. Or maybe if these reveals weren’t super calculated and telegraphed. People talk about superhero fatigue, and have been for years and years, and the term is in constant threat of turning into a cliche. What MCU’s 2021 slate showed to me was that I don’t have superhero fatigue. Instead, I have become so inured to the corporate logics behind these films that I am ambivalent to even the ones which should excite me.

There is a consistency to my ratings for these movies for exactly this reason. For Black Widow, Shang-Chi, and Eternals, no expectations were met with mild enthusiasm for the craft behind each film. Each of them have their own style, and I enjoy them all for different reasons. But none of these films excite me, either. In the case of No Way Home, slightly higher expectations were met with a messy film which I enjoyed from my own place of bias for the character. From a visual standpoint, it might be the worst of the four. Storytelling-wise, I think it is as jumbled and overstuffed as Eternals. But No Way Home held my attention, and it is the only film among the four that I want to watch again (eventually).

There was a time when I was pretty excited for a Sam Raimi movie called Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. After an exhausting 2021, though, I’m less confident in that excitement.

Black Widow: C+

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings: C+

Eternals: C

Spider-Man: No Way Home: B-

As always, thanks for reading!

—Alex Brannan (Twitter, Letterboxd, Facebook)

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