Where Avengers: Endgame was the result of a decade of carefully curated MCU crossovers, No Way Home uses a freak multiverse fracture to draw ad hoc from the past twenty years of Sony’s Spider-Man movies, delivering perhaps the ultimate in cinematic fan service for those who grew up during that period. Its strength is the resulting character interaction between characters who would never normally have met, drawing on the parallels and differences between the lives of the various Peter Parkers we have seen. The script uses this for emotional payoff and even to provide some unexpected closure years later. In-jokes abound based on the earlier films and even Internet memes that grew out of them. In all of this, the film can be joyfully playful in a similar way to Into The Spider-verse. No Way Home does place certain expectations on its audience’s knowledge, which leaves it unburdened by the need to explain its position in the MCU or to provide fresh introductions for its rogues’ gallery of villains, whose backstories instead become throwaway gags. The weak link is the action which continues the franchise’s trend for CG-heavy fights and wanton property destruction; even J. Jonah Jameson seems incredulous as he criticises the damage to yet another landmark. The most interesting choreography is a sequence combining Spider-Man’s acrobatics with Doctor Strange’s portals, which shows more creativity in a few minutes than the entire climactic battle.
“Dreams make good stories, but everything important happens when we’re awake.”
Creating an epic space opera without “Star Wars” in the title is a financially risky proposition, and the chief criticism of Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is that it tells only half a story if its A-list cast fails to attract a wide enough audience for the second film to be made. I approach the film as a fan of the director rather than Frank Herbert’s novels but the script maintains the rich political intrigue between the familial houses laying claim to desert-planet Arrakis. The scenes of violence and war are always in service to that story. Timothée Chalamet is an excellent choice for Paul Atreides, making him seem vulnerable despite his lineage and skills. This is a man driven by dreams and visions, a storytelling device that I always find less compelling on screen than in writing, an indulgence detrimental to pacing. Nevertheless, Villeneuve’s own uncompromising vision is evident in almost every frame, from the ruggedly realistic clothing and stark geometric sets to the insect-inspired vehicle designs and a desaturated colour palette so tightly controlled that merely seeing green on Arrakis comes as a shock. Indeed the inhospitable world of Arrakis is utterly absorbing (even as the plot slows) in a way I have not felt since Avatar‘s Pandora, but the rest of the galaxy feels strangely empty — we may see large armies on different planets, but there is no sense that these are living, populated places. Dune is beautiful in its detailed grandeur which excels on the big screen but it can also be sluggish and bleak, held back from greatness by an ultimately unsatisfying ending, even if there are thematic justifications for where the line was drawn.
“Fictional characters get more empathy and respect from you than I do.”
Zendaya and John David Washington are immediately arresting as a glamorous couple returning home after a movie premiere in this pandemic production with no other actors. Malcolm is a director flying high on his film’s success, but we swiftly see cracks in the relationship, with tension bubbling up from unresolved frustrations. Scripted and acted like a stage play, including rants that become extended monologues, the camera draws in close during dialogue, showing us every emotion on faces of both the speaker and listener in alternating shots (there is some wonderful blocking on the rare occasions that they both share the screen). Full body shots tend be reserved for monologues, where the expressiveness shifts to body language. Appreciation for theatrical performance is likely to determine how enjoyable one finds Malcolm & Marie. There is something slightly strange about white writer-director Sam Levinson using the character of a black director as a mouthpiece to vent frustrations about film critics politicising minority creators. At first the comments seemed to reveal Malcolm’s lack of self-awareness and Marie’s intelligence, but returning to the subject again suggests Levinson wanted these points to be taken seriously. Fittingly, the single setting becomes increasingly claustrophibic even as the pair drift between rooms of the house, whilst the enveloping darkness is threatening in the brief sequences outside. The couple’s argument is not a single direction of travel: this is a tug of war between two people intimately familiar with how to hurt each other, reminiscent of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? but without guests to toy with as proxies. Unfortunately, Malcolm & Marie runs too long and does not close with any cathartic revelation, having essentially played its cards within the first forty minutes and then retreading the same ground to pad out its running time unnecessarily. As a result, due to no fault of the actors, both characters steadily switch from engaging to tedious.
“I think Nick Fury just hijacked our summer vacation.”
With Avengers: Endgame the obvious culmination of Marvel’s epic decade-spanning story arc, it seemed a little odd that Phase 3 would actually conclude with a Spider-Man film, but it actually makes a lot of sense to address the aftermath of those momentous events in a smaller interstitial that shows life in the MCU goes on. The breezy globe-trotting harkens back to the lighter entertainment of the early MCU, at its strongest in the more personal stories of Peter’s pursuit of MJ and his struggle with the loss of his mentor. This is not to detract from Jake Gyllenhaal’s wonderfully charismatic Mysterio, who makes it believable that Peter would latch onto him as a surrogate for Stark. The early fights benefit from a smaller scale, particularly in Venice where we stick with Spider-man as he works damage control while a battle rages between Mysterio and an elemental in the background; by the time we reach London, the drone-filled conclusion is CGI bombast over careful choreography. All of which goes to show that there is plenty of space for purely entertaining outings with characters old and new in the MCU. From where its future depth will come remains to be seen.