Not all big-screen superheroes get a satisfying multi-film story arc like Tony Stark’s in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: from bumptious arms dealer to dangerous overreacher, to self-sacrificing leader of men. Christopher Reeve’s Superman was last seen dispensing with the ridiculous villain Nuclear Man in Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, now widely considered one of the worst superhero movies of all time. And until recently, fans thought they would never see Michael Keaton’s Batman again, after he banished Danny DeVito’s Penguin and failed miserably to hook up with Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman in Batman Returns. (Keaton will be back as the caped crusader in Andy Muschietti’s The Flash.) And on the other side of the DC/Marvel divide, there’s the potential for two wallcrawlers to finally get the send-off they deserve in the forthcoming Spider-Man: No Way Home.
This week Andrew Garfield, star of The Amazing Spider-Man and its sequel, struggled to convince Jimmy Fallon that a purported photograph of him and Tobey Maguire (star of three earlier Spider-Man movies) on the set of No Way Home was a fake.
Given that we already know two of the main villains from those earlier films, Jamie Foxx’s Electro and Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock, are definitely returning, it’s plausible that we will see at least three Spider-Men from separate universes swinging through the skyscrapers of Manhattan this time around – perhaps as a result of Doctor Strange’s meddlings.
Prior to the creation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (or should it be Multiverse?), with its web of interlinked tales, this would never have seemed possible. If studios thought much about the connective tissues between movies, the result was rarely much more than a tease for the next instalment in the movie’s final frame. The producers of the first three Superman movies, Alexander and Ilya Salkind, reportedly agreed to consider financing part four only if Superman III grossed at least $40m; these days Marvel already has another seven movies on its slate after No Way Home, and that’s only the ones we know about.
Facile as it might seem, there is a simple joy for comic-book movie fans in witnessing a saga with a neat beginning, middle and end. The Marvel model is not the only one that works – Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy is another successful example that was constructed in a completely different manner. But the MCU has become so all-conquering that it throws previous failures of planning into sharp relief.
It is the difference between Ralph Bakshi’s never-completed Lord of the Rings series, and the Oscar-winning trilogy made by Peter Jackson. Industry insiders might note the travails Bakshi faced; film fans, though, mostly care about the sinking feeling experienced when watching a saga that doesn’t tell the full story.
No Way Home, and Marvel, have a chance to fix this, at least when it comes to the Garfield and Maguire versions of Spider-Man. If they get it right, we might even walk away from the cinema thinking we can finally watch Spider-Man 3 and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 again – the subpar instalments that did for each actor – without getting the heebee jeebees.
Garfield’s take is perhaps the one that needs the biggest reset. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was unfairly pilloried at the time for containing too many confusing subplots, with director Marc Webb getting little praise for trying to move the story on from the shallow retread of the previous film.
He probably shouldn’t have killed off Gwen Stacy, given Emma Stone’s wonderful chemistry with Garfield. But Webb did give us an intriguing, soulful, sexy wallcrawler that contrasted nicely with Sam Raimi’s goofy-geek version. Garfield was an excellent Spider-Man in a pair of middling films, and Stacy’s death at the hands of Electro surely gives his version ample reason to seek revenge.
Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 was much worse, leaving us to question why we liked Maguire’s Spidey in the first place. Peter Parker’s weird emo-Travolta walk through Manhattan still ranks as one of the weirdest moments in comic-book movie history.
It would be a special thing indeed if No Way Home could wipe those memories from our collective consciousnesses, or at least make us see them through a more palatable prism. If that’s not possible, perhaps both past Spideys should sacrifice themselves for the greater good. As Stark discovered in Avengers: Endgame, there’s nothing like a selfless death to make everyone forget your past blunders.