It has long become clear that Marvel Studios’ specific brand of shared universe feature films really work under their own rules. Fans of the comic book-inspired franchise may have bristled when Martin Scorsese famously noted ‘that’s not cinema’, but to an extent Scorsese – who clearly knows more about the 20th century form that I ever will – was correct. Look at it this way: you can line a television drama up alongside a theatrically-released feature, and see obvious similarities in technique, visual language, and storytelling, but The Sopranos is not Goodfellas and Bridgerton is not The Age of Innocence. Audiences expect and receive different things from different media. The same is true of the now-14-year-old Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Scorsese is correct when he identifies Avengers: Endgame as something different to the discrete writer-and-director-driven films of classic Hollywood. The step in the process he has failed to make is that the differences don’t make the MCU inferior in general terms, only in specific comparisons to the films that he likes. Avengers: Endgame is, it could be argued, a terrible film by conventional standards, but at this stage that feels rather like arguing a sock makes a terrible hat. Both are articles of clothing, but they are intended for different purposes.
The problem is that we do not currently have an agreed vocabulary for what Marvel Studios are making. We do not even have a broadly designated term for what they are, but if we are to continue critically discussing the MCU it is clear we at least need to establish some rules. The home video release of 2021’s massively successful Spider-Man: No Way Home seems as appropriate a time as any; indeed, it seems precisely the sort of feature for which some solid MCU rules of quality need to apply.
No Way Home picks up precisely where its predecessor Far From Home left off: following his climactic battle with Mysterio, Spider-Man (Tom Holland) is not only framed for his murder but outed to the world as Peter Parker.
Facing terrible repercussions not only for him but girlfriend M.J. (Zendaya) and best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), Peter goes to powerful sorcerer Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) with a proposal: cast a spell that makes the entire world forget that Peter Parker and Spider-Man are the same person. The spell goes awry, shenanigans ensue, and New York is left facing the arrival of several super-powered criminals – all from alternative universes and all very much aware of Spider-Man’s true identity.
That all reads as something terribly busy and overcrowded, so here is my first proposed rule for the shared universe feature (SUF): interconnectedness is a strength. The MCU is predicated on an assumption that if a viewer is going to watch one Marvel film, they are going to watch all Marvel films. As a result, characters can freely jump from one character-focused franchise to another without concern that audiences will become confused or frustrated. With Spider-Man: No Way Home, there is a tacit assumption that viewers will have not simply seen the previous two Tom Holland Spider-Man but all eight live-action Spider-Man features since 2002, Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame, and Doctor Strange. There is additional value in having seen the Disney+ serial Loki, which first introduced the multiverse concept to the MCU, and even Netflix’s Daredevil.
In the past I and other critics have criticised this level of crossover, but on reflection we all need to accept that, like the old software development joke, the staggering scale of continuity is not a bug but a feature. The interconnectedness is a deliberate strategy for the MCU to more accurately resemble the serialised narratives of Marvel Comics. When reading a Spider-Man comic as a child, there was no surprise in the Incredible Hulk turning up, or Captain America arriving to lend a hand. The rich variety of associated characters is a major selling point of superhero comics. There has always been a seductive sort of ‘knowledge economy’, where the more characters readers know the more satisfying their experience – and the more readily they can identify within a select ‘special’ community of fans. At its most toxic level this creates a sense of exclusion – the entire phenomena of ‘real fans’ and ‘fake geek girls’ are a symptom of this ‘us-vs-them’ dynamic. In benign-yet-irritating forms it emerges as a perverse sense of fan ownership – the idea that a franchise’s corporate creator ‘owes it to the fans’ in how they develop and produce their work. At its best this creates a sense of community, and the text becomes more enjoyable via sharing that sense of enjoyment.
It worked for children’s toys in the 1980s – how many Transformers can you still name? – and it hit an apex in the 1990s with the multi-media Pokemon franchise. It is a strategy that now works remarkably well in the modern streaming-based environment. Jump back a few decades and a studio could only make a sequel within a limited number of years because the original film would get forgotten by the market. No Way Home finds no problem in bringing back characters from Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (19 years old at the time of No Way Home’s release), because for a contemporary audience that film simply never went away – it is widely available on home video and in Australia at least can be digitally rented or streamed at at least seven different providers.
Director Jon Watts juggles the variety of characters exceptionally well. To be fair the film wobbles rather worryingly in its first act, as the story strains to set up such a wide set of villains and supporting characters, but once that set-up is complete it actively uses that wide set to push the Spider-Man saga in really interesting directions. Underneath the action and mayhem this is, first and foremost, a film about what it means to be Spider-Man. After the first two MCU films muddied that meaning – Spider-Man really needs his “Uncle Ben” moment, and should not be receiving technical support from a tech genius billionaire – this third film effectively wraps up a trilogy with Peter Parker in the perfect place to launch further adventures.
The prospect of that future leads neatly into my second proposed rule of SUFs: there is a bigger picture. There is a deliberate chain of set-up and foreshadowing for future films, followed by the release of those films – which, in turn, include further set-up and foreshadowing. It is, structurally speaking, identical to soap opera. I touched on this back in 2019, when reviewing Spider-Man: Far From Home, and quoting myself seems easier than explaining a second time: ‘There is a method to soap opera plotting: every episode needs to begin a story to appeal to new viewers and hook them into the narrative, and every episode needs to provide a story conclusion to satisfy the long-term audience, and in between all of the continuing storylines fill up the middle. It is a proven and addictive formula, and one that Marvel Studios has become very adept at presenting.’
There are good ways to achieve this foreshadowing chain, and very bad ways. Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron is a solid example of the latter, and feels like a chain of film trailers without a core story left to support it. No Way Home showcases the technique at its best. As a viewer I have seen a satisfying action film, and have finished it keen to see 2022’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, and whatever future shape the Spider-Man films take, and whether the threads teased by the Spider-Man and Amazing Spider-Man content get picked up in future films for those franchises (which, quite frankly, is not a possibility I’d have considered a year ago).
Proposed rule three: there is a tonal and aesthetic consistency. Much has been made of how Marvel films have gradually come to visually resemble one another. It is kind of necessary: the original set of features were able to find their own look and feel, and Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America all managed to pretty much do their own thing. Over time the aesthetics have moved closer together, so that broadly speaking Doctor Strange, Black Widow, The Avengers, Ant-Man – take your pick – all feel part of the same homogeneous, comfortable universe of characters. It is essentially the price of doing business. Run a series of interconnected films, and you will need them to actually look and sound as if they belong together.
The achievement of No Way Home, then, is the manner in which it takes material dating back 19 years from three different filmmakers and two different production studios and successfully makes them fit together as well as they do. It feels natural, and is wonderfully entertaining to watch, and it all feels like the MCU – even the bits that never used to be in it.
I do not really have a fourth rule yet, but I do have an observation: juggling multiple film and streaming projects with an overall ongoing story can become a real headache if events force shifts and swaps in running order. No Way Home was developed as a follow-up to Doctor Strange 2 before the films swapped places. Marvel Studios have in part made accommodations for this by shooting most of their films in a studio against a green screen. It allows the studio to adjust backgrounds, settings, and even mix and match individual actors into scenes that were never actually shot that way. In a science fiction vehicle like Guardians of the Galaxy or Avengers: Infinity War this is perhaps no big thing, but when “Happy” Hogan (Jon Favreau) and Peter (Holland) share a conversation against a visibly artificial park background it does tend to stick out like a sore thumb. That pretty much all of the MCU now does this helps with the uniform style of rule #3, but it is still there. If audiences want a franchise this busy, it is once again ‘the price of doing business’. Put simply: I am not sure it is worth criticising a Marvel production for doing this any more.
The carefully manufactured MCU productions are, in effect, the proper realisation of a dream George Lucas had back when directing his Star Wars prequels (1999-2005). With actors giving multiple readings of each scene – even multiple chains of dialogue – a film does not even need to be fully written during the shoot. Reshoots in a studio are comparatively inexpensive. It is possibly to finalise a movie’s plot after it has been largely completed. It is a terrible way to make a narrative feature, but seems a perfectly appropriate way to make the Marvel Cinematic Universe. They are not films; they are the MCU. No Way Home is a busy, overly complicated, artificial movie, but it is also a superb new instalment of the Spider-Man saga.