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

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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 naïve 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.

The4thDave Reviews: “Godzilla: King of the Monsters”

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(I couldn’t find any “official” social media promotion photos, Legendary Pictures, so please don’t sue me.)

“History shows again and again / How nature points out the folly of man…”

Godzilla: King of the Monsters stomped into theaters 2 weeks ago. (Goodness, how many reviews start with *that* cliche?) If you listen to the legacy media and “professional” movie critics, the film was a disappointment and deserving of reproach. To which I say:

…It’s a Godzilla movie. You want high art? The “Fathom Events” broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera is two screens over.

G:KOTM picks up 5 years after Legendary Pictures’ 2014 reboot of the franchise. The story begins with the Russell family, who were devastated when their son was killed during the events depicted in the previous film. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) is now working with the Monarch Corporation, tasked with locating and containing the “Titans” *cough*kaiju*cough* that are buried deep in the earth, all around the world. Her estranged husband, Mark (played by Coach Taylor–I mean, Kyle Chandler) is off studying the pack-behavior of wolves (conveniently!) and apparently staying in Tony Stark’s post-Snap cabin (?). Their tech-savvy teenaged daughter (Eleven from Stranger Things) is living with Emma but concerned about her.

But, blah blah blah, who cares because we FINALLY get to the monsters! And BOY HOWDY, do we get to the monsters.

AAAAAAAAAAND that’s where I’m going to stop and put up the spoiler warning. Because pretty much anything beyond this point is dipping into spoiler territory.

Unspoilery Review: Okay, I have to admit, I’m a mark for a good Godzilla movie–but I also know the difference between a good Godzilla movie (Godzilla: Final Wars or Shin Godzilla) and a bad one (the one from 1998 that we don’t speak of, EVER). That said: Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a really good Godzilla movie, y’all. The special effects are pretty good on the whole. The human cast is decent to good (some much more than others). The story is convoluted but why wouldn’t it be? And the studio has set itself for more monster-smashing action. (Not a spoiler, but Godzilla Vs. Kong is already in production, and I’m here for it.)

So yes, if you have any inclination to see a movie like this, go see it. You’ll have a good time. I’ll even say, go see it while it’s still in the theater. You need to experience it on the big screen.

Okay, spoilery observations commencing now…

godzillasilence

Onto the radioactive hail of bullets!!!

  • I love the Easter eggs and references to the Toho Pictures Gojira filmography–stuff like the “oxygen-destroying bomb” or the 4 generations of twins in Dr. Chen’s family. (Were her grandmother/great-aunt the actresses from the original Mothra movie? Because that would be money.)
  • The villain seemed right out of central casting (hailing from the Thanos school of Malthusian ecoterrorism). It’s interesting to me how many movies in the last 20+ years feature ecoterrorism–almost like it’s a reaction to the ecology movement of the nineties. Obviously, the idea of human ecological destruction is nothing new to the Godzilla franchise.
  • That said, I thought Vera Farmiga and Charles Dance (the human villain) gave the weakest performances of the main cast. Dance was a bit too mustache twirly without be fun to watch. Farmiga seemed to be sleep-walking through the role, to be honest. Her first turn, I could buy. The second turn and “redemption arc” was a much harder sell for me, though I figured out as soon as her daughter ran off that she would sacrifice herself to save her daughter.
  • The other actors were good. Chandler is always great, I don’t care what material you give him. Ken Watanabe was great as usual. Bradley Whitford’s comic relief character was fine; I would have dialed some of the humor back just a bit, because it was hit or miss there in the middle. Sally Hawkins and the rest of the main cast were serviceable but not notable. To the filmmaker’s credit, G:KOTM does a good job balancing the monster destruction with the human toll that such destruction is having. That’s something that was always missing from many of the old films (due to technological limitations, obviously). The 2014 film did it well, and I think this one did too.
  • One more critique: The visuals were pretty muddy throughout. Granted, I was on the second-row corner of an IMAX screening, so it wasn’t the greatest view, but others have confirmed this. Small quibble, but still.
  • The spiritual references throughout the film were intriguing, but having only seen it once, I couldn’t quite tell if there was a cohesive theme or if the director was just throwing in visual and dialogue references without more to it than that. Some interesting juxtapositions: the idea that dragons are considered divine in Eastern myth but that this one was feared; the shot of Ghidorah on the mountain with the church steeple/cross in the foreground (twice, I believe); the fact that the dragon was not of this world but fell to earth and then tried to rule before being thrown down; the dragon’s head being struck, crushed, and eventually removed. I don’t know, y’all; there seems to be a lot of Christian imagery that doesn’t seem accidental.
  • So, is Monarch an evil corporation, or just ridiculously naive? Are we talking Umbrella Corporation here, or just a really clumsy version of SHIELD?
  • I liked the contrasting themes of self-sacrifice for the greater good vs. faceless murder of millions for the greater good. (Would it be inappropriate to make a joke about communism here? Yeah? Okay, I’ll leave it alone.)
  • Hooray for leaving the ending open, and setting up the potential for many films. Let’s keep supporting them, y’all. I want to see more of these!
  • Does Godzilla live in Atlantis, y’all? That looked like Atlantis.
  • Something else to ponder regarding both the plot of the film and the actual making of it: Man’s natural tendency to worship, and our inherent desire to feel awe at something greater than ourselves. If I were writing a thinkpiece for C&PC or TGC, that would probably be my theme. “Searching for God in Godzilla.” “King of the Monsters, or King of Kings?” Something like that.

Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

The4thDaveReviews: “Old Fashioned”

This weekend, I went to the movies with my wife and some friends, and we spent about 2 hours watching “Old Fashioned,” an indie romantic comedy that can only be described as a culturally-aberrant love story—a love story in which no sexual behavior was employed and no physical boundaries were crossed. It was an old-fashioned kind of love story, but one that acknowledges and addresses the difficulties of being old-fashioned in the 21st century.

The Story

Amber rolls into a small town, with all her worldly possessions packed in the back of her car. She finds a job at a florist’s shop and a room to rent above an antiques store. The store and apartment are owned by Clay, a friendly but somewhat unusual man who lives by his own moral code—a code that prevents him from even walking into the apartment with Amber when she comes to check it out. Of course, the meet-cute sets up the rest of the film, which explores their relationship’s ups and downs, addresses the effect of their past experiences on their current worldview, and hits home on the idea that a life of virtue must be a life of grace and mercy.

That’s all I’m going to give you of the plot. Here’s the trailer, if you want to get a little more of the flavor of the film.

What Worked

I really enjoyed the relationship between the two leads, played by Rick Swartzwelder and Elizabeth Roberts. Their interactions and “outings” were fun to watch, and it really felt like they had a connection. Their scenes together were by far my favorite moments of the film.

Second to those were the scenes that one or both of the leads shared with Dorothy Silver (“Aunt Zella”). Aunt Zella worked in this film as both sage counselor and occasional comic relief.

I also appreciated how this film didn’t shy away from the idea of dealing with past sins. Both of the main characters, as well as several of the supporting characters, had past sins and foolish choices with lingering consequences, and it’s nice to see a “family-friendly” (I’m not going to call this Christian) film that addresses those realities.

Ultimately, the film just charmed me. I was invested enough in the happiness of the two leads that I wanted them to make it work. While some of the scenes and characters were kind of clunky, overall the story kept me engaged.

What Didn’t Work

From a technical perspective, this was very clearly an independent film, and as such it suffered some of the technical issues that indie films do. For example, the pacing was a bit uneven, and the film itself felt overly long. The official run-time is 1 hour, 55 minutes, and it felt about twenty-five minutes longer.  Furthermore, the editing was distracting at points, when attempts at style or mood-setting felt a little too forced, as if the editor was using them to say “Look at me, I’m artistic!” instead of serving the story.

Another minor criticism was that some of the performances were a bit uneven, including Clay, the lead male character. Swartzwelder was wearing four hats in this production, as the writer, director, producer, and star, and it might have served the film better to have let someone else direct or star. That being said, I did enjoy his character. There were just some moments when it was unclear what he was going for, or his particular reading of a line or conversation didn’t hit the right notes.
What Was Missing

Minor technical issues are expected in an independent film; you could even say they’re part of the charm. What bothered me more after watching this movie were the spiritual missteps. This movie was marketed as a Christian film, the anti-“Fifty Shades” alternative. And while it is certainly heartwarming and moral and “old-fashioned,” there weren’t any marks of this being a particularly Christian story. While Clay has conversations with other characters about how “Jesus found” him and that he read the Bible and realized he was accountable for it, his life’s goal was to be a good man, a morally upright man. This is understandable, given his background, but there’s nothing in his story that explicitly ties to the Gospel. He avoids church because he’s “tired of the hypocrite show,” but this is only somewhat contradicted by Aunt Zella who challenges him to get outside of himself and warns him about moral pride. In the end, Clay holds to a moral code that’s religious but driven by rule-keeping. The resolution of the flim has to do with the need to show mercy for people’s weakness, including your own, but there’s not clear reason why that mercy is given.  II Corinthians 5:17 is quoted (“the old things have passed away—behold, all things have become new”) but no mention is to the reason WHY they’re new—the fact that “He who knew no sin became sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (II Cor. 5:21).

Ultimately, there’s nothing in Clay’s moral code that couldn’t be held by a Mormon or a Jehovah’s Witness or a moderate Muslim. The character may be respectful, honorable, even chivalrous; but being a Christian is something different. A Christian man who understands the Gospel doesn’t just forgive and show mercy because not doing so will keep him isolated from others; rather, he understands that the grace of God that saved him from his sins will compel him to love as Jesus loves and proclaim the mercy of God that’s been purchased through the sacrifice of Christ.

Maybe I’ve gotten all this wrong; maybe it was really there and I missed it. But I was looking for it, and if I missed it when I was looking for it, how will people find it who aren’t?

Another spiritual wrinkle, related to the main one: Amber tells Clay plainly that she is spiritual, but not religious, and that she doesn’t believe everything that’s in the Bible.  While there is a point later on in the story in which Amber begins to read the Bible and it seems to affect her, Clay has no spiritual reservations about pursuing her. While I know this happens all the time, it was a warning flag for me.  Perhaps this fits the profile of a man who says he loves God but hates the church; it’s through our connection to the community of believers that we often receive accountability about our choices, including the important choice of whom we should date/marry.

My Recommendation

I enjoyed watching Old Fashioned.  I really did; I liked it. It’s corny but sweet, and while it may not be appropriate for younger kids (due to some of the thematic elements), it might be a good pick for families with older teens.

However, the underlying spiritual message of Old Fashioned is missing something really important.  Without a right understanding of the Gospel of Jesus, old-fashioned values quickly become moralism and judgmentalism.  My concern is that audience members, both Christians and non-Christians, will come away from this film inspired to be moral without worrying about being like Jesus.

Maybe I’m expecting too much. It just seems to me like this old-fashioned love story could have used a bit more explicit discussion of the Old, Old Story.