Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is in a Manhattan coffee shop with the woman he’s loved since fourth grade, the endearing Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). He looks at her longingly. She leans forward, eyes closed, for a kiss. But just as he moves to and fro, he freezes and senses danger. The camera shoots forward, in an extreme close-up of Peter’s eye, the pupil dilated. Suddenly a car crashes through the window and at the last possible moment Peter tackles Mary Jane out of danger.
They get up, unharmed. In the distance they hear a deep, constant banging. As the sound gets louder, the director, Sam Raimi, cuts back and forth between the couple and the empty street from which the sound appears to be coming; after each cut, the camera shoots forward dramatically, thrusting closer and closer until we appear to be millimeters from Peter’s terror-stricken face. Finally, we see the source of the screams: the evil Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina), revealed with a ceremony as delayed as the shark from “Jaws”.
Compare this scene, from “Spider-Man 2” (2004), with a scene from last year’s “Spider-Man: No Way Home”. Peter Parker (now played by Tom Holland) stands in a dark, nondescript clearing on the outskirts of New York. A glowing spectral figure begins to materialize in the sky behind him, and Peter’s girlfriend, MJ (Zendaya), anxiously checks in via walkie-talkie: “Is the tingling thing happening? Is your tingling tingling?”
Peter turns to the figure, the villain Electro (Jamie Foxx). “Um, you’re not from another universe are you?” exclaims Peter. Electro opens his glowing yellow eyes and, as a loud dubstep beat hits the soundtrack, Peter attacks Peter by firing large computer-generated beams of electricity with his fingertips.
The difference between these scenes is instructive. The Doctor Octopus series has a playful and extravagant feel to it, with colourful, larger-than-life graphics that evoke the stylized look of a comic book. The Electro Encounter is dark and murky, with a flat, everyday style familiar from television. The “Spider-Man 2” scene is dazzlingly inventive and fun. The only interesting thing about the “No Way Home” movie is that Jamie Foxx is reprising his role from another “Spider-Man” movie.
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This is typical of a broader distinction. “Spider-Man 2” bears an artist’s fingerprints; it has a point of view and a coherent aesthetic, one that is distinctive and recognizable. “No Way Home,” meanwhile, is just another assembly line production in the well-known Marvel mold. It has no recognizable voice or personality; if the director, Jon Watts, had a single visual idea that could differentiate his film from “Captain Marvel,” “Black Widow,” or “Avengers: Infinity War,” it’s not clear. Though it was a studio blockbuster on a budget of a staggering $200 million, Raimi’s “Spider-Man 2” is undeniably the work of an author. “No Way Home” feels like the $200 million product of a focus group.
The three “Spider-Man” films Raimi made between 2002 and 2007 could easily be dismissed at the time as expensive, effects-based comics made for teenage boys. But the release this month of another Raimi-directed superhero film, “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” shows just how special they really were. While modern Marvel movies have become increasingly repetitive, sterile, and dull, Raimi’s efforts stand out as some of the last gasps of serious cinematic art in the genre.
Raimi’s ‘Spider-Man’ films are exuberant feats of visual imagination on a big budget. In fact, they look and feel like Sam Raimi movies, only on a larger scale. When Peter Parker designs his superhero suit in the first “Spider-Man”, Raimi places sketchbook drawings over images of Peter brainstorming, in an effect reminiscent of the cutouts and rear projection in his superhero noir “Darkman”. When Doctor Octopus smears a team of surgeons during surgery in “Spider-Man 2”, the over-the-top carnage recalls the gleeful ultra-violence of his early horror films “Army of Darkness” (1992) or “The Evil Dead” ( 1981), who were miraculously elevated by their gritty, gruesome formal elan. Raimi’s trademarks and quirks – the wandering POV shots, the jarring zooms, even his penchant for casting Bruce Campbell – are everywhere in these films, and the resulting fusion of author style with tentpole spectacle is extremely delightful.
That merger is also history, when it comes to superhero movies. Ever since Marvel Studios kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe with “Iron Man” in 2008, the multibillion-dollar blockbuster comic book brand has tended to rely on a formula that’s both reliable and monotonous. Since they share characters, settings, and complex, interlocking stories, they must essentially share the same basic imagery and formal characteristics.
This means that, with a few exceptions, modern Marvel movies all look the same. The prevailing house style – a combination of characters hanging out with explanatory monologues, characters running around laser beaming at each other, and characters reacting to things by making irreverent jokes – was established early and is consistent from picture to picture, from “Ant-Man” to “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” to “Avengers: Age of Ultron”. At times the style gets so bland that even the locations look completely anonymous. The climactic battle at the end of “Captain America: Civil War” takes place on a huge stretch of airport tarmac that might as well be a blue screen.
This kind of consistency can be comforting — it’s why people read novels or tune in to “NCIS.” Watch a Marvel movie and you know what you’re getting. But its determined format and secure, track-based aesthetic drives home the soullessness of the venture crafted by a massive studio machine primarily concerned with the kind of quality control that avoids risk and fixes it on the bottom line. If the focus is on Easter egg-hunting and star-studded cameos rather than more basic cinematic pleasures like immersive visuals or provocative ideas, it’s because the priority is never to make you think about the movie after it’s over. It’s to get you excited for the next one.
Every once in a while, a director with a more outspoken style will manage to wear a little bit of it on a Marvel movie. But this one blooms — a pop of color from Taika Waititi in “Thor: Ragnarok,” a wistful sunset in Chloé Zhao’s “Eternals” — amounts to little more than scribbling in the margins. The template is set and there’s no getting around it. No matter who the director is, there will still be CGI monsters shooting CGI lightning bolts, and there will still be heroes standing by, grinning and saying something like, “Well… That just happened.”
This is even true of Raimi, as evidenced by his work on “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.” A sequel to 2016’s “Doctor Strange” directed by Scott Derrickson and starring Benedict Cumberbatch, “Multiverse of Madness” is at its best when Raimi’s presence is apparent, even if the evidence is only marginal.
For the first hour or so, the film follows the Marvel formula so faithfully that it could have been directed by anyone; heroes reiterate plot details at length, make snappy jokes and pop culture references, and engage in generic battles with giant squid monsters. But in the multiverse-jumping second half, there are a few brief glimpses of Raimi, the cult horror author: For example, when Doctor Strange inhabits the body of his own corpse from another universe, the zombie doppelganger has the charmingly macabre glow of one of Raimi’s “Evil Dead” creations. Such moments are as precious as they are rare. And it’s depressing to think that as recently as “Spider-Man 3” in 2007, we had Marvel movies that whole composed of such moments.
Raimi has been candid about his limited ability to meaningfully influence the “Multiverse of Madness” style. It “was less of an entirely original work of mine than it is a continuation in the Marvel pantheon of ongoing storytelling”, he said in an interview† “So it wasn’t my job to make something outrageous.” He added, “It was really more about adapting, as a filmmaker, as a storyteller, to the Marvel sensibility.”
The problem, of course, is that this relationship is retarded. The style of a great director should not be subordinate to the sensitivity of a studio: it is the studio, not the filmmaker, that should adapt. It is through creative freedom and a degree of faith in the artist’s vision that genius and originality can thrive. The formula clearly works for Marvel, judging by the standard of receipts. But only in the hands of a capable director can “Spider-Man” be truly amazing.