Visual Effects (Port/Waegner/Edelstein/Sudick)
Spider-Man: No Way Home surprised me with just how good it was!
Ok, so I’m probably not going to gain a lot of admirers, but I’m not, generally, a fan of comic book films. Sure they have lots of technological features to rattle your eyes and ears, but, as a group they are mostly escapism and, really, don’t offer much to understanding, or enjoying, the real world we live in. So in the last four years, I’ve only reviewed three of the major MCU (Marvel Comics Universe) films (Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame, and Black Panther). While Black Panther was nominated in six technical categories as well as for Best Picture, the two Avengers films were only nominated in the Visual Effects categories. Black Panther was definitely an exception to the normal comic book fare and I suspect we will be reviewing the second in that series in next year’s set of reviews.
Like the two Avengers films, this year’s Spider-Man movie (No Way Home) was only nominated in the Visual Effects category, so I wasn’t expecting a whole lot more than some visual “wow”. I was pleasantly surprised to watch a movie that had great character development, a story-line that was complicated enough to provoke interest without requiring a guidebook to follow, and some genuine emotional connection that brought Spider-man back to the real world. Unlike the characters in the huge Avenger series, Spider-man, aka Peter Parker, is a real person and someone I’d like to know.
This isn’t the first Spider-Man movie and, I’m pretty certain, it isn’t the last. Since I’m not a comic book person, I had to research Spider-man’s film history. Spider-man, as a character, was created by comic book writers Stan Lee and Steven Ditko and I’m not going to pretend I know anything about any of that. There was some television stuff with Spider-man in the late 70s, but he didn’t start to interest filmmakers until two decades later when Sony acquired the film rights to the character. Sony developed a trilogy of films (Spider-man 1, 2, and 3) between 2002 and 2007 directed by Sam Raimi and starring Tobey Maguire with Kirsten Dunst as his love interest. They had planned a fourth film, but creative differences (that’s the usual excuse) caused it to be canceled. In 2012, Sony decided to “reboot” the series – that means they couldn’t figure out how to extend it so they started over – with a planned trilogy of films each to be released over the next three or five years. The “Amazing Spider-man” series was directed by Marc Webb and starred Andrew Garfield with Emma Stone serving as his girlfriend. Unfortunately, the third film in the planned series foundered because of, yes, “creative differences”.
In 2015, everything changed. Sony was no longer a major filmmaker and so they needed help. They negotiated with Disney and Marvel (the comic book enterprise which owns the rights to most of the other characters) to re-establish the Spider-man empire although with some new twists. Sony would continue to have final creative control over stand-alone Spider-man movies and Disney would be the main distributor. But probably the big winner in all of this was Marvel who now could incorporate the Spider-Man character into their own, huge, Marvel Comic Universe (the MCU). The significance of this is that Spider-Man could play along with other MCU characters in all of those movies where they thought Spider-Man could provide added value. This is how you can see Spider-man playing along with the other Avengers in those two films. (Although the MCU series of films isn’t the longest running in time – that’s either the James Bond or the Godzilla movies, depending on how you group them – they are the largest number of films (at 30 earlier this year) and are also the highest grossing films in movie history with more than $27 Billion in revenue as of earlier this year.). With these new contractual arrangements we can expect to see more MCU characters in Spider-man movies and Spider-man appearing in more of the other films in the MCU universe. That might be a good or bad thing, depending on how independent you would want Spider-man to be.
But, given all that, it shouldn’t surprise you in any way to learn that Spider-man: No Way Home is the highest grossing film since the pandemic ($1.9 Billion in revenue), and it is also the most liked film, by general audiences, of all 38 movies nominated for Oscars this year – more than the Best Picture winner (CODA) or any documentary, foreign, or animated feature film which often receive very high ratings from their more selective audiences. Movie critics and the Motion Picture Academy, though, weren’t all that fond of this film. The Academy only nominated it for Visual Effects – which it didn’t win – and the Critics Metascore rating is only a 71, placing the film pretty much in the middle of this year’s pack.
For me, though, it is going to rate much higher. I thoroughly enjoyed this film and so did my wife and my granddaughter. This isn’t like your typical MCU comic-book film. Yes, the visual effects nomination is well earned. The team is super-qualified with 11 companies working on the visual effects which, reportedly, occur in all but 80 of the shots in a film that is nearly two and a half hours long. The nominees have prior nominations in at least a dozen other comic-book films, so they know what they are doing. The sequence I liked the most was when Spider-Man and Dr. Strange are doing battle – yes, two good guys, it’s complicated – in a mirror universe where the visual effects are much like those in Inception, only more so. There are three other fight scenes all of which include amazing CGI effects which you expect and enjoy in No Way Home.
While all enjoyable, the visual effects are not the reason to watch this movie. Unlike most MCU films, it is the characters and the relationships that Spider Man:No Way Home excels at – and I can’t believe I’m actually writing this. When the movie started out, I thought it was sort of corny and camp. But as it progresses, I realized that there are many things going on with Spider-Man that don’t appear in other comic book films.
Spider-Man is, actually, a high-school senior named Peter Parker. (His reveal is the end of the previous film and is the beginning of this one.) So this hero is very different from a Dr. Strange, or Iron-Man, who are fully developed, or maybe over-developed, adults. Spider-man is still a kid, trying to figure out what makes the world, and himself, tick. He is, in this film, trying to get into college – and when have you seen that in a superhero?
Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is the central character, naturally, but he isn’t the only one. His aunt May (Marisa Tomei) is a key part of the story and is part Mom and part best friend. Parker/Spider-Man encounters several foes in this film, many he doesn’t recognize because, well, there’s this complicated multiverse thing. But while he definitely has to battle them, he also tries to save them, just as a possibly naive, but totally human, character must do as part of growing up to be a decent, real, person! We can’t help but root for him.
Then there is MJ who comes on as this believable and lovable high school girl, and Peter’s girl friend. The chemistry between Parker (Tom Holland) and MJ (Zendaya) is palpable and in any other movie, there would have been a bedroom scene. But here it is not even necessary, because they are, essentially, two naive kids who genuinely love each other, even if they don’t know what that might lead to. (It is intriguing that in all three Spider-Men series, the actors dated and developed longer term relationships – Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst, Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, and Tom Holland and Zendaya. There is something about the roles that seems to generate romance with the actors!)
It is very difficult to talk about the final relationship that develops between three very important players without providing spoilers to the movie. Let’s just say that this threesome is central to the resolution of the plot as well as providing that wonderful emotional resonance that makes the film sparkle.
Aside from the visual effects- which are always just amazing – I am not usually a fan of comic book films. But this one is a genuine exception and also leads me to believe that I should probably look at some of the past, and possibly the future Spider-man movies. They are in a different universe and one worth viewing. (4*)
Stream on Starz, Hulu, Sling, Roku, Prime, Philo or rent from multiple sources, or wherever you get your discs!