With Great Cameos Come Great Nostalgia: My Unpopular Thoughts on “Spider-Man: No Way Home.”

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I finally had the opportunity to see Spiderman: No Way Home. The film hit theaters six months ago, but since I have a) small kids; b) a wife who actually likes these kinds of movies; and c) no time to get away for a movie date with her, I resigned myself to small-screen viewing. I even waited until I was able to get the film for free from my local library (support your local libraries, gang).

Finally, after months of anticipation and trying very hard to avoid major plot spoilers (I couldn’t avoid them all, so I knew about most of the cameos already), I sat down and watched the movie.

And it was…fine?

MCU Later

I remember seeing Iron Man in the theater back in 2008 with two good friends of mine. The three of us absolutely geeked out when Nick Fury stepped out of the shadows and said the words “Avengers Initiative,” and I was an MCU mark ever since. Even the Marvel films that weren’t quite as good (sorry, Thor: The Dark World and Iron Man 3) were still great because I was 100% bought into the epic plotline. Captain America was my guy (#TeamCapForLife), and every new film that filled out the sprawling Infinity Saga was an absolute joy, culminating in Avengers: Endgame and one of my favorite images in all of cinematic history.

“No. You move.”

Once Endgame closed the book on the main storyline I’d been following, I started to lose interest in what came next. I understand, times change and actors move on, so you rotate in new characters with new histories and plot lines. But when you couple the loss of iconic characters like Iron Man and Captain America with the introduction of new narrative threads that seem to be written to make ideological statements rather than tell good stories, my interest really starts to wane. I watched the direct-to-streaming Black Widow; it was decent. I enjoyed some of the Disney+ Marvel series like WandaVision, Loki, and Hawkeye. (The Falcon and the Winter Soldier should have been great, but it really left me cold. Plus Bucky should get the shield; I won’t budge on that fact.)

In other words, Marvel Phase Four doesn’t really do it for me. I almost watched Shang-Chi, and I heard it was pretty good, but I just never cared enough to commit for 2 hours. I passed on Eternals because I heard enough about the plot and content that I knew it would just tick me off. From what I gather, Doctor Strange 2 is weird and dark and could be fun, but making Wanda OP and focusing the whole plot on America Chavez is kind of a buzzkill. I’m not even going to bother with Love and Thunder, because Jane Foster as “The Mighty Thor” was a stupid idea when the comics rolled it out in 2015 and it’s stupid now. Thor is a name, not a title.

Okay, okay, enough blather. That’s a long way of saying, when it comes to the Spider-man films, I consider Tom Holland’s Peter Parker as the last of the old guard. I like his performances and thought they stood up to (if not exceeded) the best of the other two big-screen adaptations. Since I found myself ready to move on from pursuing any new Marvel entertainment, I figured No Way Home would be the last Marvel movie I’d actively seek out to watch. I’m not saying I’ll boycott future Marvel films; I just don’t expect I’ll care much either way. Plus, it sounded like NWH was universally adored, so I’d be going out with a bang.

Which is why No Way Home ended up falling short of my (overly-inflated) expectations.

[SPOILERS HENCEFORTH–YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.]

Your Friendly Neighborhood Teenaged Melodrama

The first half of No Way Home was okay but I found myself siding with Doctor Strange–I was getting increasingly exasperated with Peter. So much of the narrative’s first half falls into the trope of “complication caused by grown[ish] people not having a simple conversation”–in this case, Peter not realizing he could reach out to the MIT Admissions office and plead for his friends’ case. I know, I know: he’s just a teenager, he’s got big stuff going on, cut him some slack. But that’s just the thing: I found myself becoming frustrated with the character and realized it’s another case in which I’m shifting from sympathizing with a story’s young protagonist to siding with the mentor/adult. Middle-age comes at you fast, man.

I was also annoyed by Peter’s response to otherworldly supervillains being “I can fix them!” There’s so much about these people that Peter didn’t know, but his na├»ve assumption that they just needed rehabilitation or a helping hand was sweet but pretty stupid on the face of it.

And yes, I realize that the narrative beats of the movie essentially justified Peter’s idealism, but that made zero sense to me. Flint Marko? Stupidity and bad luck turned him into Sandman; he could be turned around, sure. I’ll even buy Doc Ock’s restoration, since it was established that he was being mind-controlled by the tentacles. But Norman Osbourne? No. Norman Osbourne became the Green Goblin because the goblin was always inside him, even before he injected himself with serum. His greed, his lust for power, his willingness to cut corners and succeed at all cost were part of his character. The serum only magnified it.

Peter’s (and May’s) apparent belief that there’s no such thing as an irredeemable bad guy is short-sighted and foolhardy. Hey Pete, remember a guy named Thanos? Big, purple, wrinkly chin, Malthusian maniac committing planetary genocide across the galaxy? That experience alone should have showed Peter Parker that some guys just can’t be reached. And as a result of Peter and Co.’s foolish idealism, they put the lives of everyone in their condo building (and the wider city) at risk, and May is killed by Green Goblin as a result.

Finally–FINALLY–things start getting interesting when the other Spider-men enter the narrative.

Web-Slinger, Perspective-Bringer

I finally started enjoying the movie in earnest when Ned opened some portals (never mind that this is a skill that took students of the Ancient One concerted effort and practice to learn and yet Ned pulls a “Rey” and derps his way into it) and pulls in Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker from the Sam Raimi trilogy and Andrew Garfield’s Peter from the Amazing Spiderman films. Having these two actors inhabit these characters and interact with each other and Tom Holland was an absolute breath of fresh air. Their comedic banter and brotherly teasing/encouragement made me wish the trio were onscreen for most of the film instead of the last 45 minutes or so.

The unexpected benefit of bringing in these two alternate versions of Spiderman (whom I’ll call TM and AG for simplicity’s sake) is that the narrative deepened from a simple story about rehabilitating multiversal miscreants to wrestling with the impact of loss, regret, and vengeance. TM’s Peter talks about carrying the weight of Uncle Ben’s death for years before making peace with it, while AG’s Peter admits that he let his anger at the loss of Gwen Stacy get the better of him, leading him down a darker path. They each warn Tom Holland’s (TH’s) Peter of the dangers he faces in the wake of Aunt May’s murder.

Each of the alternate Spider-men also got a particular moment to shine. For AG, it was the mid-air rescue of MJ, which provided a surprisingly poignant moment in which he lowers her to the ground and asks if she’s okay. Then MJ sees that AG-Peter’s eyes are filling with tears and she asks if *he’s* okay. That one got me, gang. Andrew Garfield brought more emotional weight in that moment than most of the movie had up to that point. For TM, it was the climax of the final fight, as the TH-Peter was about to bring the Green Goblin’s glider down on him (one-upping the Goblin’s previous onscreen death by turning mere inaction into murderous intention). At the last moment, TM’s Peter slides in between the two and grabs the glider to prevent the death-blow (perhaps intended to be in a visual echo/counterpoint to the shocking violence of John Walker in FATWS). TM-Peter talks the new Spider-man down, convincing him not to seek bloody vengeance and allowing for Norman Osbourne to get an antidote serum (again, lame) and be sent home.

In the end, I think what I loved most about having Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield reprise their incarnations of the web-slinger was that they brought the element that Tom Holland’s Peter Parker most clearly lacked: perspective and experience. They each portrayed Spider-man as an actual man. Those versions of Spider-man seemed to have something interesting to say.

Don’t Look Back–You Can Never Look Back

Look, I can almost hear you screaming at your screen right now, “That’s the whole point about Spider-man!!! He’s a teenager grappling with superpowers!!!” And I agree. That’s what I’m trying to say with this review: I enjoy Spider-man as a comics/film character just fine, but I just can’t relate to him in his current incarnation because I want him to grow up and he’s not doing that in the MCU films thusfar.

Perhaps, you could argue, the resolution of the film–current-era Peter tells Doctor Strange to cast the worldwide forgetting spell, everyone in the wrong universe is sent home, and Peter accepts total relational isolation as a sort of penance for his mistakes–that will force Peter to grow up as a character. It’s possible. That could be interesting, if written well. I just don’t know if it will be, with the current trend of heavy-handed messaging in MCU Phase Four. (Plus, we all know that even though Holland signed on for another trilogy, at least one of those films will be a vehicle for introducing Miles Morales as his eventual replacement.)

In the end, here’s my final analysis of Spider-man: No Way Home: it’s a decently-good Marvel movie that leans heavily on nostalgia, but I think I might just be aging out of the MCU fanbase…and that’s okay. If the film teaches us anything, it’s that you can’t live in the past; at some point, you need to find closure so you can move on to other adventures.

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But hey, I could be completely off-base, with this overly-wordy and possibly terrible take. Feel free to tell me all the ways I’m mistaken in the com-box below, as long as you 1) watch your language, and 2) be respectful. (My com-box, my rules.) I look forward to reading your roasts.

Grief, Perservering: Final Thoughts on “WandaVision”

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Hello again, friends! I’m back to give my quick retrospective thoughts on WandaVision. Yes, it’s been a few weeks since the finale (what can I say, new baby and all that), but I still wanted to revisit the show and its themes because they were so rich with ideas for discussion.

So, don’t touch that dial–let’s get into it!

Very Special Episodes

First off, I have nothing but HUGE praise for the director and the writing and production teams on maintaining the television tropes and framing throughout the series. It was an absolute delight to recognize subtle references in both the opening credits sequences and the way the “on-air” segments were shot. I especially enjoyed that Malcolm in the Middle got a some love as the framing style for the Halloween episode. That show doesn’t get nearly enough credit!

The other references were stellar, from the theme song changes reflecting the 80’s (Family Ties, Growing Pains, Full House) and the 2000’s (The Office, Modern Family) to the use of the commercials as glimpses into Wanda’s damaged subconscious (the Yo!Magic yogurt commercial still creeps me out). Even the titles of the episodes were a wink to classic sitcom tropes and traditions. The care and love that the showrunners have for past shows took this concept from a quirky oddity to a really heartwarming retrospective of television history, decked out in a superhero costume.

While not perfect, this series wildly exceeded my expectations in terms of production and style. It bodes well for the other Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) shows coming to Disney+, and how seriously Marvel Studios is taking its TV storytelling.

Recasting Pietro

With all that lavished praise in place, let’s go ahead and talk about my biggest disappointment in the series: the Pietro Fake-out.

As you may recall, Episode 5 ended with a HUGE reveal: an unexpected knock at the door revealed “Pietro” back from the dead–but it was the Fox X-Men Unverse’s Pietro, not the MCU version. The internet fandom collectively lost its mind (me included), because this seemed to imply that upcoming “multiverse” storylines were being introduced by crossing over another version of Quicksilver into the Marvel 199999 (MCU) “universe.”

If you don’t know why this is such a big deal, permit me a brief discursis.

The biggest challenge in creating the MCU had nothing to do with storytelling or characters and everything to do with lawyers. Over the decades, various corporations had acquired the rights to Marvel superheroes — Fox owned the film rights to the X-Men and Fantastic Four, Sony owned Spiderman, and so on. So while all of these characters lived together in the same world (more or less) in the comics, and interacted with each other, the ‘twain could never meet in the movies–or so we thought.

In 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, the MCU introduced the Maximoff siblings Wanda and Pietro as supers who were created by Hydra’s nefarious tinkering; however, in the comics, they were actually mutants, the children of Magneto from the X-Men stories. Since the idea of “mutants” was legally off-limits to the MCU, we all assumed that these would just be alternate versions of the characters (since they existed in both movie franchises with different actors/backstories) and that was that. Then Disney decided it would become the One Studio to Rule Them All and not only acquired Fox and its properties but negotiated to bring in Spiderman into the MCU, beginning in Captain America: Civil War.

Once Disney bought out Fox, the questions began circulating: When would we see some version of the X-Men in the MCU? Who would be the first “outside” character to cross over? The Fantastic Four? Wolverine? And surely this won’t happen until years into the future, right? Phase 5 or 6 of the MCU story?

So when Evan Peters, the Fox X-Men film version of Quicksilver, was revealed standing in the doorway asking for a hug from his “sister,” I was one of thousands who did this:

Pointing Rick Dalton | Know Your Meme

I literally paused the show for about 2 minutes and excitedly explained the above to my bemused wife. I just couldn’t believe it. They were really going to do it! The multiverse was happening NOW!!!

Except it wasn’t.

The showrunners later said that this was meant as a cheeky meta-reference and nothing more. I’m still not sure I buy that. If they could have pulled off this kind of major crossover, I think they would have, so I’m wondering if they got word from the executives that this kind of storyline move was coming too soon, and they had to quickly change course on “Fietro.” In the end, the character was just another townsperson (with a dumb joke name). What a let-down.

This was probably my biggest (maybe only?) beef with WandaVision. In a show full of bold strokes and daring narrative choices, this would have been the biggest bombshell move, steering the course of the TV shows and films for years. Maybe that was too much to ask. I was just so delighted with being legitimately surprised for once.

Aside from that issue, what else do I have to say about the show?

“It was Agony All Along…”

In the end, I was…surprisingly close, if not dead-on correct, with most of my predictions. How about that!

  • Wanda did it. While Agatha Harkness / Agnes was manipulating some elements of the Hex (and seriously, how fun was that character!), it was truly Wanda controlling the town, even if she didn’t realize fully how she was doing it.
  • Vision wasn’t *really* there. That is to say, his physical body from the end of Avengers: Endgame was still at SWORD’s lab until the end of Episode 8. The version of Vision in the “show” was created by Wanda and bound to the Hex.
  • Wanda had “friends” on the outside, trying to break in. Although Wanda didn’t know any of the people trying to break in, at least some of them were friendlies, including Monica, Darcy, and Jimmy. (All three brought such great energy and fun to the proceedings. What perfect choices for secondary characters to get a chance to shine when not bound to their usual superhero storylines!)
  • There wasn’t a “bad guy” in the typical sense. The SWORD director was definitely villainous (I mean, you don’t shoot at kids, not matter how you want to justify it), and Agatha was the main opponent in the climactic battle, but in terms of overarching villains for the show, the only real nemesis was Wanda’s all-consuming grief. That grief created the pastel prison that enwrapped Wanda and the other townspeople. Her memories filled the nightmares of her prisoners. Her pain drove her to do unheroic things. It was Wanda all along.
  • My only “miss” was on the mutant question. And I even guessed this (based on the speculation of others) before Evan Peters showed up, so I should get at least half-credit for anticipating the massive fan speculation. (No? Okay, fine, mark it as a miss.)

It could be argued that a lot of these elements were predictable. (For example, the fanbase identified Agnes as Agatha Harkness from almost the word “go.”) But rather than making it boring, the fact that so many of the references and Easter eggs were guessed by the fan community made it a game of figuring out how the story would eventually play out.

That said, I guess it’s not *that* impressive that my guesses were right–but I’m still claiming the W, y’all.

Saying Goodbye, and Hello

What made this show work in the end?

WandaVision wasn’t ultimately about superheroes and androids and witches and action sequences, though that’s what may have sold people on it at the outset. At its heart, the show was a meditation on love and grief. The strongest and most memorable moments were the quiet conversations, the honest arguments, and the tender exchanges between the titular characters.

The final two episodes were an emotional rollercoaster, as we are taken deep into Wanda’s past to relive with her the traumas that brought her to this point. Even the major (and presumably expensive) special effects sequences pale in comparison to the final moments of Wanda and Vision embracing as their “world” collapses around them. Wanda has to say goodbye to the children she has grown to love and the husband she could never truly have. She is forced to accept that some people never get “happily ever after.” And she does accept it…at least for now.

While there are some hints that Wanda may now be looking for a way to cheat death and pull her family from another plane of existence (possibly setting up an even darker storyline for her in the future), that doesn’t take away from the emotional punch of the resolution of WandaVision.

It’s easy to write off superhero movies as little more than apocalyptic sky-beams, mindless explosions, and popcorn entertainment. Many times, that’s really all they are and need to be. But when these elements are employed to create a story that dives into the deep waters of human experience in an honest and challenging way, the genre becomes something special.

WandaVision is that kind of special entry in the MCU, and I really hope that the folks at Marvel Studios take note and keep aiming for this level of storytelling in the future.

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What did you think of WandaVision? Share your raves and/or critiques in the comments!

“Quite An Unusual Couple”: Early Thoughts on “WandaVision” (Episodes 1-3)

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I love comic-book movies and have been a pretty big fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) thusfar, so I was cautiously intrigued when Disney first announced their upcoming Marvel streaming series’ that would premiere on Disney+. Of the shows that were announced, I figured The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and Hawkeye would be my favorites, but the one that didn’t make sense at all to me was WandaVision.

Early descriptions of the premise sounded pretty terrible, to be honest. “Wanda and Vision as a couple in a sitcom”? What a letdown from the heights of Infinity War and Endgame–and wait, isn’t Vision still dead? What’s going on here?

A few months back, when the first teasers and trailers for the show were released, my mind changed completely. From the visuals and editing to the music cues and special effects, it was clear that WandaVision was going to get weird–and that got my attention. Okay, MCU, let’s get weird.

Well, we’re now 3 episodes in, and I’m 100% on-board. Here are my early thoughts on the show so far (and yes, there will be spoilers, so if you are waiting to watch the show, click away now):

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Initial Disclaimer #1: I’ve only watched these episodes once so far (I may give them another go soon), so this is based on initial impressions and the things I’ve gleaned from the internet after each viewing.

Initial Disclaimer #2: I’m not as versed with the comics versions of these characters, so other than some broad-stroke information (e.g. The Scarlet Witch is the daughter of Magneto), my knowledge base is primarily the MCU version of the characters.

Nick (Fury) at Nite

What struck me from the outset was the outstanding visual direction, set and costume design, and use of sound cues. The production team has recreated the vibe of a classic TV sitcom with each episode, and the care and intentionality of the direction and design is apparent. The first episode all but perfectly recreates the living room from The Dick Van Dyke Show (including a cheeky “ottoman side-step” reference!), while the next 2 episodes change the house to reflect the design sensibility of Bewitched and The Brady Bunch. The use of the canned laugh-track, the writing, and the storylines seem to be ripped directly out of Sheldon Leonard’s old notebooks, and the show looks like it was shot on the DesiLu back-lot. Even the opening credits are created to evoke those era-specific TV shows, often directly referencing the animation or font design of the titles.

What’s more: the “classic” comedy plots and writing work for me. I’ve read critiques calling the storylines hokey or corny, but as someone who grew up on countless hours of sitcom reruns from that era, it hits the spot for me and makes me genuinely laugh throughout–to the point that I become a little self-conscious about it, while watching the show with my wife. The fact is, I absolutely love that era of television. It’s visual comfort food. And the showrunners get it.

Rather than try to mock or parody the genre, the WandaVision team has created a kind of love-letter to that time period in TV history, and the show feels like it would fit right in with the classic Nick-At-Nite lineup of my youth… at least until someone starts choking or cuts their hand, at which point the illusion begins to shatter.

It’s Creepy and It’s Kooky

What makes the show work as part of the MCU is what has (up to this point) been lingering at the edges: certain moments when the audience can see (and the characters themselves begin to acknowledge) that none of this is real. This creates a palpable dread that hovers just off-screen for most of each episode.

The ways this is done are varied and creative: Wanda’s ability to rewind or edit conversations; errant radio broadcasts that break through the musical background; splashes of color during the first 2 “black-and-white” episodes, a la Pleasantville. Even the commercials in the middle of each episode are full of Easter eggs and clues about this ongoing mystery. Then, in Episode 3, the facade falls away, as Vision’s neighbors seem to allude to their being held prisoner in this idyllic town, and Wanda’s friend Geraldine outright mentions Ultron when Wanda begins talking about the death of her brother.

So what’s going on? Here are my current theories, based partly on some things I’ve read about the visual references in the first 3 episodes (and I’m posting this today because I have a feeling the plot’s going to get blown wide open with Episode 4):

  • I’m fairly sure Wanda’s in control. The times that Wanda uses her powers to “clip” conversations or rewind time tell me that she’s the one in charge (at least, in charge of what’s happening inside Westview–though someone or something else might be controlling her?). The town of Westview is a simulation, a pocket universe, or some sort of reality-stone-style construct. She’s incorporated the classic TV she may have seen as a child in Eastern Europe and used it to create an idyllic “happy ending” for herself and Vision that she feels they deserve and were denied.
  • I’m not sure Vision is *really* there. At least, not the Vision that Wanda knew and loved in Infinity War. The Vision we see here is either a construct of Wanda’s fantasy, or perhaps an earlier “save file” of him that she was able to get hold of. Either way, he’s as much a prisoner as anyone else in this town.
  • Wanda’s friends are trying to break in. Geraldine is clearly an agent of SHIELD or is working on their behalf, but when she oversteps and pushes on Wanda too hard, she’s expelled from the fantasy world. It’s clear at the end of Episode 3 that SHIELD (or at least SWORD, which I learned is an office within SHIELD) is trying to protect (Contain? Control?) Wanda, perhaps because she’s more powerful than they can handle at this point.
  • There isn’t a “bad guy”–or at least, if there is, it’s Wanda. My guess is that once she realizes the illusion will not hold, she may become angry and/or vengeful and may lash out at those trying to bring her back to the real world, unless or until “Vision” talks her down and convinces her that it’s time to let go and move on. This ending will be heartbreaking, but ultimately satisfying.
  • This opens the door to “mutant” involvement in Phase IV. The background question in all this is how these Disney+ series’ interact with MCU Phase IV. I’m wondering if this show will be used as a way to lay the groundwork for introducing the X-Men into the MCU, since the character of Wanda now firmly has a foot planted in both “worlds.” (Note: I didn’t come up with this idea; one of the “easter egg” posts I read online connected the Episode 3 commercial language about the “goddess within” to the possibility of retconning Wanda’s powers so that they were innate to her as a mutant, rather than created by Strucker and Hydra.)

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So there you go: early reaction and theories about WandaVision, in advance of Episode 4’s release. I’m absolutely digging this show, and I can’t wait to see how it ends. If you want me to follow-up with some final thoughts once the series concludes, let me know in the comments and I’ll be happy to oblige you. (I may do it anyway.)

Your Turn: What do you think of WandaVision so far? Is it funny and intriguing? Hokey and slow? Mysterious and spooky and altogether ooky? Let me know in the comments below!