Pretty much everything that happens in Spider-Man: No Way Home is a spoiler, so I recommend avoiding reading anything like this until after you’ve seen it!
There’s one scene midway through No Way Home where I was taken out of the action for a second, and I had a minor epiphany, recognizing a huge part of what’s made me become such a shameless fan of the MCU, and why I think the formula works so well with this incarnation of Spider-Man in particular.
The set-up: Spider-Man has gone into a wooded area, tracking down a villain who’d been teased in an earlier fight scene. (And in the trailer). Because I can recognize the pumpkin bombs from the Sam Raimi movies, I know better than Peter Parker does what is about to go down. He’s got his friends talking to him and watching what’s going on via a cell phone duck-taped to his chest (a brilliant touch), and they have even less of an idea what’s about to happen. It’s a nice twist on dramatic irony, since it’s based not only on stuff that’s happened in the movie so far, but on the audience’s general pop cultural knowledge.
But then the scene subverts those expectations. And then keeps reinforcing and then subverting them, pulling in stuff we’ve seen from the trailers, previous movies, ideas foreshadowed by Doctor Strange, a general idea of how movies work, and so on. The whole sequence works a little like a horror or suspense movie, with that call-and-response of expectation and subversion. It ends up feeling like a dialogue between the filmmakers and the audience, relying not just on the story so far, but everything the audience knows.
Entries in the MCU are rarely just a live-action interpretation of a comics story, and rarely an entirely new story based on familiar characters. Instead, they’re more like remixes, taking multiple aspects of existing characters and existing storylines, and then recombining and rearranging them, to keep giving the audience that flash of recognition before turning it into a flash of discovery.
Even with characters that aren’t as universally known as Spider-Man, like the Guardians of the Galaxy or Shang-Chi, it still works, because it’s never drawing only from the comic books. It assumes that in addition to comics, the audience is also familiar with science fiction, martial arts movies, other entries in the MCU, and pop culture in general. In fact, it doesn’t assume that; it depends on it. A side effect of that is that the storytelling can’t be condescending, or too smug about its secrets and reveals. It always has to assume that the audience understands this stuff, and we’re on board with seeing it expanded and reinvented.
Explaining more of how that relates to No Way Home requires explicit spoilers, so I’ll put my short review here: it’s extremely well-done and surprising, and it’s a solid finale to the three standalone Tom Holland Spider-Man movies. I’m not as happy about what it means for the future of the character and the MCU in general, but even the parts I hated were well-written, performed, and perfectly integrated into the story. In other words: I hate what it did, but I like the way it did it. Now stop reading unless you’ve seen it.
There’s a great tweet from Matthew Castle: “My favourite bit of Marvel films is where you sit through nine minutes of credits to watch a five second clip of some guy stepping through a doorway and saying ‘It’s me, Blorko.'”
Ever since the first Iron Man trailer, I’ve always just assumed that this is how the MCU works. I’ve been enjoying them, but the True Believers more familiar with all the comics storylines must be enjoying them on a whole separate level. Any mention of Wakanda or SHIELD must be setting off these flashes of recognition that trigger all kinds of wild ideas about where the story can go next.
But now I’m not so sure. You can’t make a billion dollar movie by catering to the guys wearing Blorko T-shirts. I’m not denying that the movies and now TV series have a ton of fan-service; obviously, they do. And it’s probable that at least early on, they were targeted the crowd who would lose their shit over a mention of the Avengers or a hint of Thanos. But I’d say that for the last several years — at least since The Avengers — the mid- and post-credits teasers have been the only parts of the story that don’t depend on your being able to recognize the references. They’re not just rewarding the super-fans for being able to cite the comics by issue number and panel. They’re working on the entire audience, establishing the MCU as serial storytelling. They’re there to build intrigue for future installments. If you’re a Blorko fanboy, your mind is spinning off into all the possible storylines that could be adapted in future installments. But if you’ve never heard of the guy, then you’re not missing out. You’re supposed to be wondering Who is this mysterious Blorko?
I know this is the case, because I’ve watched so many of those 28 Easter Eggs And Details You Might Have Missed-type videos, and I’ve seen how often the speculation is completely wrong. Being a Marvel super-fan with a photographic memory gives you only slightly better odds of being able to predict what’s actually going to happen in the next installment. Knowing what’s going to happen next isn’t the goal; the goal is to be engaged, speculating about what’s going to happen next.
In No Way Home, the introduction of Charlie Cox’s Daredevil into the “official” MCU is like a condensed version of what I’m talking about. He’s only in one scene, but that scene has every bit of it: fans of the comics or the character in general are going to recognize the name Matt Murdock. Fans of the Netflix series will recognize Cox on sight. Plenty of fans were speculating he’d show up in the movie as soon as the trailer suggested that Peter Parker was going to need a lawyer. After that initial flash of recognition and reinforcing expectations, the movie subverted it by Stark Industries was going to need his representation, not Peter or his friends. And then it introduced Spider-Man to another super-hero (more or less), and finished it off with the excellent punchline “I’m a very good lawyer.”
The scene in the woods has the audience expecting the first appearance of Green Goblin in the MCU, but instead we get Electro. And also Sandman. Both are characters we recognize from the earlier movies — or from the marketing of the earlier movies, or just general cultural diffusion. But I’d forgotten that Sandman ended the movie as an ally of Peter Parker, so I was surprised to see them working together. I don’t have any attachment to these characters, but I knew they were going to show up in the movie because of the trailers. So the flash of recognition I got from that scene was predicting what would happen and then being surprised by how the characters’ roles were adjusted and slightly remixed.
Scenes like this made me finally understand the appeal of the Marvel Comics cliche of heroes fighting each other before teaming up to battle the villain. It’s a thrill just to see characters put into new contexts and using their abilities together in clever ways; I love the parts of Avengers: Infinity War with the heroes teaming up in New York for just that reason. But that twist of knowing more than the characters do — these are all heroes! it’s all a misunderstanding! — adds a satisfying energy to it.
“Take advantage of what the audience knows” seems like such an obvious idea that it feels like I shouldn’t be giving the MCU so much credit for it. But I can’t think of any other super-hero adaptation that does it in the same way. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies are obviously full of comic book references, but they’re all direct references translated perfectly to live action. The shot of Peter Parker walking away from a trash can containing his spider suit, for instance, which is a perfect rendition of a panel in the comics. Or the scene in Spider-Man 2 in which Doctor Octopus comes to life on an operating table — one of my all-time favorite scenes in any movie — which is shot as if it were a sequence of panels in a horror comic, but doesn’t do anything to subvert the audience’s expectations.
Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies kind of do it, with characters revealing their secret identities as comics villains. But there’s no back-and-forth with the audience. The character reveals don’t supplement the story, they are the story. Everything in the movies builds to the climactic reveal, which the filmmakers have been strenuously avoiding to keep secret. If you’re watching Batman Begins or The Dark Knight Rises and guess a character’s identity from the comics, you’ve “solved” the mystery and undermined the climax. But if you’re watching the typical MCU story and guess a character’s identity, you’ve added another layer of tension, foreshadowing, and expectation to everything that follows.
Even Into the Spider-Verse, which is overtly, explicitly packed with its comics references, doesn’t work like an MCU movie. Each character’s story is either recounted at their introduction, or it plays out exactly as you’d expect if you knew anything of their origin. You don’t ever really know more or less about the characters than what’s shown on-screen, no matter how much you might know about Miles Morales or Spider-Gwen. You see tons of references to stuff in Peter Parker’s underground hideout, but the story doesn’t really do anything with them. Even the reveal of this universe’s version of Doctor Octopus, which would be a perfect example, doesn’t really work the same way, because you find out their identity the same moment the characters do.
But No Way Home is full of moments like this, which play off the audience’s knowledge outside the movie itself. I’d been convinced when Aunt May said she was going to be fine, but the moment she delivered the “with great power there must also come great responsibility” line, I knew that she was doomed. It wasn’t just a reference to one of the most well-known parts of Spider-Man’s story; it’s the moment that all of us with a cultural awareness of that story knew that something terrible was about to happen. It hit me as hard as Sherilyn Fenn’s scene in Wild at Heart, and yes, reader, I did cry a lot.
Another example is when MJ is knocked off of the Statue of Liberty, and Peter is unable to save her. I haven’t even seen the Andrew Garfield Spider-Man movies, but I still knew exactly why it was such a big deal that he earned a moment of redemption by saving her. I thought the moment was perfectly done, with his crying and MJ asking him if he was okay. And yes, I cried again.
I think what makes those scenes work so well for me — and in fact, everything in the last three Spider-Man movies work so well for me — is that it’s pure storytelling, setting up and subverting the story at exactly the same pace I’m predicting and reacting to it. I never feel too far ahead (I’m supposed to be sad now, I guess), and I never feel like I’m just passively watching a movie without being given a chance to engage with it (Huh, I guess he’s R’as Al Ghul, then. Okay).
Even Doc Ock’s fake-out-heel-turn at the end of the movie is paced exactly as it should have been. There’s no real tension in the moment, so it’s not stretched out as if it were a genuine betrayal. We know that his cure worked, because in the MCU, heroes can be good at what they do, their plans can work, and we in the audience can be optimistic that they’ll save the day. Even if they don’t save it in exactly the way we expect.
All that leads to why I was left sad by the ending of No Way Home, as Sony ruthlessly killed my favorite version of Spider-Man to date.
Maybe that’s a little over-dramatic, but it’s hard for me not to see it as an agenda to undo every single thing that made the MCU incarnation of Spider-Man unique and appealing, and turn him back into the character exactly as he appears in the comics. And the five previous movies.
It felt like the audience has been having too much fun with all his appearances since Civil War, and he’s been grounded. No technically advanced spider-suit. No relation to Stark Industries or Happy Hogan. No happy home life. No friends. No associating with other super-heroes apart from maybe Venom, we’ll see how it goes. The character has to be reset to exactly the state that he was in the comics, because that’s how super-hero movies are supposed to work. None of this reinventing or remixing business.
No Way Home even made it explicit that this version of Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider, something that wasn’t mentioned in his intro to Tony Stark. And the reason it wasn’t mentioned is because this character is sixty years old now. We get how Spider-Man works. We didn’t need to get his origin yet again, any more than we need to see Batman’s parents die with every single incarnation of that character.
So I don’t have very high hopes for the future of Spider-Man, whether or not Tom Holland plays him, and whether or not he keeps getting loaned out to Disney/Marvel. The people who control the character don’t trust audiences to be able to engage with movies beyond a few prescribed ways. It’s either playing to the super-fans by showing them their favorite characters faithfully translated to live action; or it’s introducing characters and stories to audiences that have never seen a comic book before, so the entire universe has to be built on-screen.
They also make the common mistake of believing the MCU’s success comes from gradually building up a library of beloved characters and pairing them up in big-budget, CGI-heavy, mass market action blockbusters. They forget that the built-in audiences of Iron Man and Captain America fans weren’t enough to make those movies successful on their own; most people didn’t care about Iron Man until Marvel started going interesting things with him. And they didn’t care about Captain America until the movies made him not just a Superman surrogate, but a hero displaced in time.
With Into the Spider-Verse, Sony released a visual masterpiece of a Spider-Man movie, with a hero that had been specifically designed to be a new, re-invented, more relatable version of a venerable character… and still ended up recounting an origin story that was already completely familiar to me, even having never read a Miles Morales comic. I haven’t cared that much about any version of Spider-Man until the MCU twisted up the formula, dropping the family tragedy in favor of making him a smart, happy teenager with a sexy aunt and more technology than he can handle. I don’t want poor, lonely Peter Parker working for the Daily Bugle while feeling like the whole world is against him. Not just because it’s a drag, but because I’ve already seen that story so many times before.
Or to put it another way: it’s been a long time, if ever, since the MCU has told an audience “Can you even believe we just introduced a live-action version of Blorko?!” It’s more like “Look, we get it. Most of you probably already know who Blorko is, even if you didn’t read the comics. But even if you don’t, we’re going to show you why he’s cool.”