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Posts Tagged ‘Jon Watts’

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s starting to look like one of the key mainstream films of the last few years was 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Perhaps simply because it was a cartoon, and thus to some extent operating under the critical radar, it felt like it had more freedom to embrace some of the more bizarre and imaginative elements of traditional superhero comic books – the result was a critical response verging on the adulatory and a very healthy box office take.

Normally I would suggest that everyone involved was taking notes and that Jon Watts’ Spider-Man: No Way Home is an attempt to replicate the success of Into the Spider-Verse in a live-action context, but the startling degree to which Marvel Studios plan their operations in advance – up to ten years, if one believes their publicity – does give me pause. Unless Into the Spider-Verse was intended as a kind of test-bed for the new movie all along, of course.

Superhero movies in general seem to have got a bit brighter and bolder since Into the Spider-Verse, anyway, and this does not appear to have affected their dominance even in the post-viral world. That said, I don’t think that any of this year’s first three Marvel Studios releases showcased the enterprise at its best, while Venom: Let There Be Carnage was possibly even more of an enjoyable mess than its predecessor. (Which would mean that The Suicide Squad was the best comic-book movie of the summer: a surprising thought.) Rather gratifyingly, No Way Home sees the Marvel machine finally slip back into high gear and produce a supremely entertaining, wildly imaginative, and surprisingly touching film.

Great Scott! Even the poster should carry a spoiler alert!

The film follows on more or less seamlessly from the end of 2019’s Far From Home (watch the quibbling between maintainers of MCU chronologies begin!), with Spider-Man (Tom Holland) alarmed to find himself in the frame for the death of Mysterio and his identity exposed, courtesy of a tabloid news service run by J Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons, reprising his role from the three Sam Raimi Spider-Man films).

This is obviously bad trouble for our lad, not least because it imperils not just him but also the lives of those nearest and dearest to him. Even after his immediate legal issues are resolved (the initiated should not be terribly surprised by the identity of Peter Parker’s attorney), it is clear that the scandal is impacting on the prospects and happiness of his best friend Ned (Jacob Balaton) and his girlfriend Michelle (Zendaya Coleman). It would, of course, be greatly preferable if the revelation of his identity had never been made, but of course that’s impossible. Or is it?

Cue a maximal Steve Ditko quotient as Peter trots off to beg a favour from Dr Strange (originally created by the same artist as Spider-Man, of course). Can Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, as usual) use his sorcery to fix the situation somehow? Unfortunately, Peter’s tendency to run off at the mouth manifests at exactly the worst moment, as usual, and the plan to ensure everyone forgets Spider-Man’s identity does not go entirely as planned…

And how am I supposed to write about the rest of the movie, I ask myself? I suspect there’s a kind of spectrum when it comes to people’s engagement with No Way Home – at one end there are presumably those who’ve only barely heard of Spider-Man and only go along to see the movie because they’re dragged there by friends or family. Then there are people who’ve seen all the trailers and thus have a pretty good idea of what the big conceit of this film is, even if some of the details may come as a surprise. And then there are people like me: I’ve been following the buzz around this film for months, and have been quietly amused by some of the ways it has impacted on other films (certain performers pre-emptively apologising for not being able to answer questions about No Way Home while they’re supposedly being interviewed about something completely different).

It’s almost impossible to write meaningfully about everything that makes No Way Home such a great piece of entertainment without spoiling things that really should come as a surprise, if at all possible. At least, it seems like a great piece of entertainment to me, as someone who has been watching Spider-Man movies on the big screen since the movies themselves were simply repurposed American TV episodes. The standard this last twenty years has been inestimably higher – it seems a little unfair to me that the reputation of the Sam Raimi films has taken a hit simply because Spider-Man 3 wasn’t quite up to the standard of the first two, while I don’t think that either of the films directed by Marc Webb were quite as disappointing as they are now held to be. One of the loveliest things about No Way Home is the way that it unreservedly celebrates the whole lineage of Spider-Man films leading up to this point: I think it will cause a lot of people to revisit those films and hopefully remember just how good some superhero movies were, even in pre-Marvel Studios days.

After a few films in which the links to the larger Marvel universe (or perhaps we should call it the multiverse now?) felt a bit laboured or tenuous, No Way Home feels like it’s back at the heart of the action without any real sense of contrivance. Chief guest star from the other Marvel Studio films this time is Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr Strange: more than just a cameo, this is a proper chunky supporting role (presumably setting up next year’s Multiverse of Madness). Cumberbatch finds his groove within the more comedic style of the current Spider-Man films very quickly, and manages to make an impression despite a lot of formidable opposition.

I’m aware that the movie-going world tends to fall into two camps: people who are on board with the Marvel project, recognising these films as the excellent entertainment they are, and people who aren’t (whether their response is indifference or outright animosity). The best review in the world isn’t going to persuade members of the latter camp – and it is true that No Way Home is convoluted and stuffed with in-jokes and references mostly aimed at the faithful. But it also has energy, humour, soul, and a real sense of joy and delight. Films like this are the reason why Marvel Studios have become the dominant force in mainstream global cinema.

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I will not inflict upon you the heavily-vowelled utterance a friend of mine could not contain when he learned that the fourth Marvel superhero movie in five months was about to come amongst us; use your imaginations. Normally he and I are in different camps when it comes to this sort of thing – he would quite happily see the whole genre consigned to the waste-basket of history, whereas I, on the other hand, cheerfully organised the schedule of a recent trip to New York City so we could see Captain Marvel there on opening night. Nevertheless, I was more sympathetic than usual on this occasion – Avengers: Endgame was such a monumental piece of work, carrying such a significant emotional charge, that a lengthy pause in Marvel Studios’ operations in its aftermath would have felt logical and entirely appropriate. Knocking out another Spider-Man sequel to meet a contractual obligation… well, it almost feels like it’s too soon, doesn’t it?

Certainly the opening sequences of Jon Watts’ Spider-Man: Far From Home give the impression this movie has been slipped an almighty hospital pass, for it is almost obliged to try and make sense of the rather confused state of the Marvel movie universe in the wake of Endgame. Half the world was dead for five years, before returning to existence not having aged a day – the film is obliged to acknowledge this, but also has sound dramatic reasons for wanting to handwave it away as quickly as possible and get on with telling a story set in a recognisable version of a world resembling our own. It’s a tricky conundrum the film never really manages to get to grips with, and the way it still seems to feel the need to stress its continuity with the non-Sony Marvel movies doesn’t help much – there are endless references to the other films, much more than you find in any of the ‘real’ Marvel Studios productions.

Still, once the plot gets properly going the film makes an impressive recovery from this dodgy opening section. Peter Parker (Tom Holland) and his peers are all off on a tour of photogenic European capitals; Peter is hoping for a break from being Spider-Man and a chance to get a bit closer to the girl he likes, MJ (Zendaya Coleman). However, the various antics of Peter and his peers take a bit of a back-seat when the Grand Canal in Venice unexpectedly takes on semi-human form and becomes rather aggressive to everyone around it. A mighty tussle ensues, with the belligerent landmark on one side, and Spider-Man and an enigmatic new superhero on the other. Everyone is impressed with the new guy – ‘He’s kicking that water’s ass!’ cries one onlooker – who is soon christened Mysterio and turns out to be played by Jake Gyllenhaal.

Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) turns up to make the formal introductions. It turns out Mysterio hails from another dimension where Earth has been devastated by hostile elemental beings. Now these creatures are coming to Earth, and Fury wants Spider-Man – anointed, it would seem, as the chosen successor to Iron Man as the world’s foremost protector – to partner up with Mysterio and stop the elementals from trashing this planet too. It’s a big responsibility for a young man feeling the loss of his mentor, to say nothing of the disruption this could cause to Peter’s school trip…

As mentioned, it seems like the Sony-funded MCU movies really do go out of their way to tie themselves into the wider continuity of the series, and on this occasion that proves to be a bit of a mixed blessing. Like I said, it does force the film to address the odd state of affairs pertaining after Endgame, which was always going to be tricky, and I imagine the film’s repeated use of Robert Downey Jr’s image will ultimately prove a bit exasperating for viewers who get the message quite early on, thank you. On the other hand, this is hardly happening frivolously: the events of Endgame are crucial to the plot, and the film builds intelligently on them to provide motivation for the various characters.

Nevertheless, this is still obviously a Spider-Man film rather than an addendum to the Avengers series, for all that the European setting is a bit unusual for this particular character. Now, you may well be thinking that Spider-Man teaming up with a new superhero to fight monsters from another dimension is a bit of a departure plot-wise too – well, all I can reasonably say on this topic is that you certainly have a point. That said, the plot of Spider-Man: Far From Home is quite a clever one, making some amusingly jaded observations on the ubiquity of superheroes these days and how silly the plots of some of these films have become. It also reinterprets material from the original comics in a convincing and imaginative way. The only problem is that it is very easy to guess which way the story is going, even if you’re only passingly familiar with the characters involved.

Still, there is a lot to enjoy here: this is as much of a quirky comedy film as Homecoming was, and Samuel L Jackson throws himself into the funny lines and comic situations whole-heartedly. The film’s star turn performance-wise, however, is Jake Gyllenhaal, who makes the most of a part which really allows him to show his range as an actor. About fifteen years ago, Gyllenhaal was in the frame to replace Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man himself when Maguire’s bad back threatened to force him to withdraw from Spider-Man 2 – he was also apparently on the list of people considered for the part of Venom in Spider-Man 3. It’s gratifying to see that his arrival in the series (finally) is such an impressive one.

(And if we’re talking about the Sam Raimi Spider-Man trilogy, how’s about this for a genuine visitor from another plane of the multiverse – Far From Home includes a cameo from JK Simmons, reprising his role as J Jonah Jameson from those films. Very nice to see him back, of course, and one wonders about the extent to which this opens the door for other stars of non-MCU Marvel movies to cross over into this series. Let’s have Alfred Molina back as Doctor Octopus, for a start, and Nicolas Cage as Ghost Rider, and how about Wesley Snipes as Blade? Apparently Snipes and Marvel have had meetings…)

Once the film gets going, it is pacey and consistently amusing, even if it is also knowingly absurd in a number of places. The special effects are as good as you’d expect, and the film concludes with the best set-piece sequence around Tower Bridge from any fantasy film since Gorgo. I’m pretty sure this isn’t the greatest Spider-Man film ever, and it would be foolish to try and deconstruct it in the hope of deciphering what Marvel will be up to next (for the first time in years, they’ve released a movie without revealing what the next one is going to be), but this is still a fun, clever, and solidly entertaining blockbuster.

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I think it was Oscar Wilde who said that to cast one actor as Spider-Man is a sound commercial decision, to cast a second might be seen as a little questionable, but to give three people the part in the space of only about fifteen years is arguably labouring the issue. And yet here we are, with another ingenue web-slinger in the form of Tom Holland, starring in Jon Watts’ Spider-Man: Homecoming. Yup, it’s yet another comic-book movie, but try to keep your fatigue at bay, for this one has a number of points of interest.

The Spider-Man rights are considered to be such a sure-fire guarantee to make money that the $709 million made by The Amazing Spider-Man 2 in 2014 was somehow decided to be a bit of a disappointment. Holder of said rights, Sony, decreed that better must be done, and – in a move that brought wild excitement to many people who should arguably be old enough to know better – re-opened negotiations with Marvel, publisher of the Spider-Man comics and producer of their own series of wildly popular movies. Basically, the deal they cooked up is as follows – Marvel Studios are now making Spider-Man films for Sony, which Sony is financing and distributing. In return for this, and of course various hefty fees, Marvel now get to insert Spider-Man into their own movies, which is indeed what happened with his extended cameo in Civil War last year.

The new movie recaps Spider-Man’s trip to Berlin and shenanigans with the quarrelling Avengers, before moving on to pastures new. Spidey’s alter-ego Peter Parker (Holland) is still very young and keen to impress his mentor in all things superheroic, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) – he chafes against Stark’s insistence that he take things easy and go slow and careful for a while. In short, he is in a big hurry to grow up.

However, staying low to the ground, as it were, brings Spider-Man into contact with someone else very keen to stay off the radar of Iron Man and the other Avengers – Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), a former salvage engineer put out of business by Stark and the government, who has taken to scavenging alien materials and other miracle technology and using it to build high-technology super-weapons which he sells on to anyone who has the cash. Toomes has also built himself a set of jet-powered antigravity wings, because, hey, you’ve got to have a gimmick, I guess.

So, if going to your typical American high school, complete with stressful social rituals and ceremonies, wasn’t demanding enough, and trying to meet the exacting standards of billionaire genius playboy philanthropist didn’t make life totally unbearable, Spider-Man now finds himself forced to contend with the winged menace of this high-tech vulture. What’s a boy to do?

I have to confess I was less than overwhelmed with joy when the news of the Sony-Marvel deal came through – all right, it’s nice to have a version of Spider-Man in the MCU (the shared continuity of the other Marvel Studios films since 2008), but we have had some very good Spider-Man films already in the not too distant past, while there’s still no sign of a decent take on the Fantastic Four or Doctor Doom. Or what about another solo Hulk movie? Or Devil Dinosaur: the Movie? That said, however, Spider-Man: Homecoming is a top piece of entertainment, certainly outclassing the Marc Webb movies, and perhaps rivalling the standards of the best of the Sam Raimi-Tobey Maguire films from a decade and more ago.

The at-a-slight-remove conditions under which the Marvel Studios people are working seem to have paid off, for while this film has a distinctly different look and feel to it, compared to the likes of Doctor Strange and the Avengers movies, this is by no means a bad thing – it has a lightness of touch and sweetness that is totally disarming. Much of it is written and played as pure comedy, and it is consistently very funny indeed, in a disarmingly oddball way.

I was a bit dubious about the fact the film is called Homecoming, mainly because it seemed like it was only there as a crashingly unsubtle way of emphasising the fact that Spider-Man is now back in the MCU along with all the other characters, which at times seemed like the movie’s sole raison d’etre. This shared continuity is rammed down your throat at very regular intervals in the course of proceedings: the very first shot is a picture of the Avengers. The first scene takes place in the shadow of Avengers Tower, and is set shortly after the climactic battle from the first Avengers movie. Scenes from Civil War are restaged, Downey Jr appears in both his Stark and Iron Man guises, Jon Favreau reprises his role as Happy Hogan from the Iron Man films, Chris Evans cameos as Captain America, and another star gets an outrageous fourth billing considering they’re only in the movie for about two minutes. Marvel’s own movies take much less of a broad-brush approach to this sort of thing, but in the end it does kind of work, because a lot of the in-jokes and mickey-taking of the other films is spot on (this extends to some witty choices of voice casting and a brutally funny joke at the expense of the Cult of the Post-Credits Sequence).

One slightly ironic thing about this film that no-one has much commented on is the fact that Michael Keaton’s status as a ‘hot’ actor is largely down to his role in Birdman. Birdman was a film which gave its own sardonic commentary on the phenomenon of serious actors spending all their time in superhero movies, and yet Keaton has used it to get himself to this position, as a serious actor in a superhero movie – and, what’s more, playing the Vulture: someone who is, of course, essentially a… oh, work it out for yourselves.

All that to one side, Keaton is the film’s star turn when it comes to acting performances (although this is a notably well-played film throughout). We are quite a long way down from the pick of Spider-Man’s rogues gallery, and the Vulture suit in this movie is a rather unwieldy piece of design, but Keaton manages to create that rarest of things – not just a great villain in an MCU movie, but a blue-collar supervillain is who both a plausible character and genuinely menacing. You really wish Keaton was in the movie much more – also that the MCU people start to create characters with this sort of presence and depth for their own movies.

I would say that the climax of the movie is arguably a little weak, but in every other respect Homecoming gets the mixture of comedy, pathos, and exhilarating action you’d expect from a Spider-Man film pretty much spot on, with the film’s insertion into the wider Marvel universe a real bonus too. How many movies in a row now, without a serious misstep from Marvel Studios? You would have to be a very brave person to bet on their hot streak ending any time soon.

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