How Far Can Marvel Keep Pushing Its Own Success?

“There are moments that had me tearing up, and yet, I understand if people want to say this is the end of cinema.”

Tom Holland's Spider-Man expresses shock
Sony / Marvel / Charlie Le Maignan / The Atlantic

In its opening weekend alone, Spider-Man: No Way Home became the highest-grossing movie of the year. On pace to be the only billion-dollar film of 2021 and already setting the record for biggest December opening ever, Spidey does impressive numbers.

And as No Way Home is the third Tom Holland entry, the ninth overall Spider-Man movie, and the 27th release in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, its numbers are also testament to the enduring popularity of superhero movies. But while it’s given theaters hope for post-pandemic breakout hits, can the MCU print money forever? After the crescendo of 2019’s Avengers: Endgame, where does the comic franchise go from here? (And what does it mean for all films if audiences continue to follow?)

Staff writers David Sims, Shirley Li, and Spencer Kornhaber discuss No Way Home, its unique lens on movie stardom, and what it means for the state of films. As Sims wrote in his review, it’s an undeniably watchable good time, but also perhaps a new nadir for Hollywood. Listen to their conversation here:

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity. It contains spoilers for Spiderman: No Way Home.

David Sims: Hello, everybody. We’re here to discuss Spider-Man: No Way Home—the 27th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And, oh boy, how many Spider-Man movies alone have there been?

Shirley Li: This is the eighth, not including Spider-Verse.

Sims: And I guess you should, given that this film is Verse-interested, so that’s nine movies branded explicitly as Spider-Man movies in the last 20-odd years. And we are here to talk about the third Tom Holland–starring Spider-Man, on top of the other various Marvel movies he’s been in. It’s an explicit sequel in the “Home” saga, following up on Far From Home in 2019 and the initial Spider-Man: Homecoming in 2017—a reference to Spider-Man “coming home” to the Marvel Universe.

Shirley, you and I see Marvel movies as part of our job, and we enjoy a lot of them. Spencer, you had not seen any of the recent Spider-Man films. You’re a more casual Marvel viewer in general, right? Have you not really seen many at all?

Spencer Kornhaber: Well, I’m a human being in the 21st century, so I’ve seen a lot of Marvel without wanting to or trying to—or really enjoying a lot of it. I think it’s pernicious as a force in culture. A lot of the movies are terrible, but some of them are good, and some moments are hilarious. And it turns out that the Tom Holland Spider-Man is the best Spider-Man! The Tobey Maguire Spider-Man was my Spider-Man growing up, and I enjoy those movies. But watching Homecoming, and then Far From Home, and then No Way Home, I’m just like: “Tom is Spider-Man.”

Sims: The movie was advertised on the back of Spider-Man fighting villains from all the different Spidey-verses: He’ll fight Alfred Molina’s Doctor Octopus. He’ll fight Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin. He’ll fight Jamie Foxx’s Electro. And it had teased, but would not confirm, that in this film, Tom Holland meets up with the other Spider-Mans from other universes: Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield, also as Peter Parker. And it’s ludicrous, obviously. But it’s also a pretty impressive magic trick for the movie to pull off at all, to have you in the audience even accepting that this makes sense.

Kornhaber: This is a new way that Marvel’s doing its character meet-ups. Previously, it’s been everyone in the same universe bumping into each other because they’re on the same earth. Now it’s something even trippier—and completely unbelievable—where you have different film franchises not even owned by the same people smashing up against each other. You’re two Marvel people. Is that working or not?

Li: As a fan, it was fun. At my screening I did my typical thing, taking some notes. And then the scene came in where Spider-Man just sees a string of Halloween lights in wizard shapes, and he thinks of going to Doctor Strange. And that was when I was like: Okay, so I’m not going to take too many notes on this. This is a movie that’s not going to go too deep into thinking about its character’s motivations. It’s just going to have things happen to him. I’m going to go into my fan side and just take it as it comes.

And as a fan, I enjoyed seeing these characters come together, right? As David wrote in his review, it did feel like playing with your toys by tossing them all together and making it up as it goes. And that’s a lot of fun. But I also think the reason people bristle at a lot of these Marvel movies is that they have become a monoculture that is largely critic-proof. And I don’t want to rain on that parade. So, as a fan, I was having a great time.

Sims: I also had a very good time watching it. These movies go down pretty smooth no matter how silly they are. To a movie dork like me, there’s something about the properties of movie stardom that are being explored here. You get to watch three takes on movie stardom.

Kornhaber: Yes!

Sims: It’s all I really wanted to think about with this movie. I was not really that fired up about the actual plot of Spider-Man: No Way Home, in which he must redeem supervillains and send them back to their own dimension. His friends have to get into MIT. And will he figure it out with MJ... Obviously, all this is crucial to Spider-Man. That’s part of his gestalt. He wants to be a regular guy and have a girlfriend. And he’s pulled in a million directions by the responsibilities of his powers.

And the prior Spider-Man movies have explored that plenty. I don’t think this is some definitive text for the character. And then there’s the broader meta-implications of Marvel straining to get audiences used to other universes so they can start launching new characters. This is all part of a long-range scheme to eventually introduce X-Men characters and the like.

Li: They’ve been spinning this web, and entangling more properties in.

Sims: Right, and this movie is part of this staggering co-production by Sony and Disney, this sort of Treaty of Versailles–level thing where Sony kind of gets the money and Disney kind of gets to creatively play around with Spider-Man. It’s all so complicated. But Sony has this long record with Spider-Man where they have a couple of hits and then they’re like: 80 villains in the next one! Eight spinoffs! They’ve done this every time. They get a little too worked up and overplay their hand.

That famously happened with the third Sam Raimi movie, where Spider-Man has three villains and not enough time for any of them, and it’s a bit of a creative mess. And then even more so in the Andrew Garfield series, where The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is like the apotheosis of dumb superhero movies. It cannot support its own weight. It’s trying to set up a million things that never come to fruition. It’s barely a movie. It’s really more of a concept pitch to executives.

Li: It’s a great showcase for Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone’s chemistry, but they don’t even get enough time.

Sims: Right, there were things in those movies that were intriguing, and they had these stars, but the Holland movies have worked better. And I think they’ve worked better because Kevin Feige, the Marvel honcho, is very smart about how to smooth this stuff out creatively, how to give fans what they want without overloading, how to present these clean narrative packages. I’ve always enjoyed them—but I have always also been a little wanting for the crazy heights of the Raimi movies, like Doctor Octopus’s arms murdering a whole hospital of people. The more Grand Guignol stuff, that’s been lacking for me.

Li: It’s a gift and a curse being in this Marvel package for Spidey. I think it has really helped tell you exactly who this character is without rehashing Uncle Ben. But it’s also a bit of a curse, because these movies are still Marvel movies. They’re going to clash against these constraints that come with each one needing to build this universe and have a certain tone.

Kornhaber: Yeah—Tony Stark is calling him on the cellphone every few minutes in the first couple of movies. I completely hear all of the cynical money-grubbing rationale behind it.

Li: But also: Take my money.

Kornhaber: And I think you’re right, Shirley. For those first two movies of the “Home” franchise, it was sort of a strange match between Spider-Man being the “low to the ground” hero with this familiar arc, and then this chaotic, technologically obsessed zeitgeist of the MCU. There was a ping-pong there that I didn’t think fully worked, even if the Spider-Man stuff was very good.

But for this one, they did something really unbelievable, which was to do the most cynical turn you could wish for in bringing all these other characters from other movies. And yet it makes it feel like a Charlie Kaufman film! It reminds me of Being John Malkovich or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. They lean into the trippiness of it as well as the emotion.

Li: It’s so funny that you bring up Eternal Sunshine, because I saw the Michel Gondry–ness in the second Holland film where Mysterio casts his holograms. For this one, bringing in Doctor Strange gets you the mirror dimension, and that’s always a lot of fun.

Kornhaber: Well, and it brings in two other Spider-Men. And the whole deal with Spider-Man is that he feels kind of lonely. He’s this heroic outcast in the world who can’t really have other friends, who’s always being misunderstood (or persecuted by journalists played by J.K. Simmons, no matter what universe they’re in). And when Tobey Maguire, Tom Holland, and Andrew Garfield meet, they love each other. It’s so beautiful. They see themselves in each other. It’s like meeting the long-lost twin you never had. And it completely works. Andrew Garfield has this lump in his throat the whole time. Tom Holland seems like he’s on the verge of an emotional breakdown, and he’s being pulled back from the edge by these other guys. And then Tobey is there as this wise, older youth pastor whose calm energy helps them save the day. And it’s beautiful! What the hell!?

Sims: There is a sort of weird magic to this movie. The classic Spider-Man is perpetually unlucky, kind of unloved by his city, even though the common man kind of likes Spider-Man. He’s always struggling. Any time he makes a personal advancement, he gets pulled back. And there’s this weird movie alchemy watching these three actors who have all talked about how much this role sort of chews you up and spits you out. Tobey Maguire hasn’t been in a movie since Pawn Sacrifice in 2014. And to see him basically turn on the performance we remember from 20 years ago—the kind of muted awkwardness, the sweet youth-pastor thing Spencer mentioned...

Kornhaber: The two Spider-Mans after him are so extroverted and charming. I watched a little bit of the first Raimi film, and Tobey’s truly weird. He is a dork. Yeah. That was the character for so long. And I had forgotten that Spider-Man was, deep in his bones, an outcast. And Tobey brings that.

Sims: Those movies were obviously very canonized, the Raimi movies—but I do remember at the time feeling that Spider-Man is supposed to be more of a live wire. He’s this wisecracking, mile-a-minute mouth while he’s fighting people. And Maguire gave the kind of performance he can give, this more muted kind of emo persona that was Tobey Maguire’s thing in The Ice Storm and Pleasantville. You know what you’re going to get. And then Garfield comes in, and he’s more the kind of energetic teenager Spider-Man that I guess people wanted, but those movies really struggle to have a point beyond the chemistry he and Emma Stone have, which is obviously genuine.

Li: This was when I had a Tumblr and was really into Andrew Garfield. And what I remember of his performance wasn’t just him skateboarding—or whatever Sony thought all young people were doing at the time. It was this looseness to him. He kind of spins around a lot when he’s walking. He’s constantly vibrating, moving in a lot of directions at once.

Sims: Garfield’s been very open about how being at the center of that very corporate process of making a Spider-Man movie was kind of soul-crushing. And since then, he’s pretty much entirely avoided doing any movie that you could really call commercial. He’s made big movies like Hacksaw Ridge and Silence. And this year he was in Tick, Tick... Boom! and The Eyes of Tammy Faye. But these are not Spider-Man–type movies. And so when he came out in this movie, I wondered if he’d have the sort of energy and effort for this. And to watch him, it is like clicking on the movie-star charisma. He obviously loves to play weirdos and alienating characters on-screen. But he has this in a box that he could just kind of open, this overflowing, bubbling charm. It was sort of a testament to movie stardom just to watch someone unleash that as needed.

Li: Yeah, he comes in with this inherent vulnerability, which is why I think he popped when he was becoming a breakout star back in The Social Network and Never Let Me Go. He has this almost hangdog expression, where you want to protect him. He’s charming and vulnerable at the same time. And his Spidey, especially in this film, just wears his heart on his sleeve. There’s a meta element to it, like: Oh, right, this franchise crushed you. And this was your favorite character growing up. You never got a third movie. You didn’t even get the best villains in your movies. All of that plays a role in him working so well.

Kornhaber: You’re right; there’s this meta element to this movie. But the Marvel movies are all extremely meta and self-referential. They constantly riff on who the actors are, what the lineage of the comics books are, what the situation of the corporate ownership of these characters are. That’s all winked to in these movies, and I have become very tired of that and don’t really find it charming at all. But in this movie—it is charming because I think Spider-Man sort of transcends the MCU. He’s really the best superhero in our popular culture, the one that I think the most people can agree on. Batman and Superman are around, but I think people love Spider-Man more than they love anyone else.

Sims: Superheroes are so insanely dominant in cinema now that it’s hard to even say who the No. 1 is, or who’s the most liked. Batman, much like Spider-Man, is this insanely enduring character that audiences are willing to be like: “There’s a new Spider-Man? Sure. Yeah, I’ll go see it. Different guy’s doing it? Makes sense to me!” And then Sony releases this animated film Into the Spider-Verse—which was their way of doing this Afro-Latinx character, Miles Morales—and I remember wondering when they announced it: Are people really going to like the idea of different dimensions with different types of Spider-Man? And the audience reaction was: “Yes, we love it. We accept this wholeheartedly.” That sale has been made. People are fine with it. And the absolute ridiculousness of three grown men—thespians! Tony-winning actor Andrew Garfield!

Li: Best Kiss–winning actor Tobey Maguire!

Sims: The ridiculousness of them standing alongside each other in red-and-blue spandex suits debating the meaning of spider-heroism...

Li: (Laughs.)

Sims: And I watched it with a full crowd. I’m feeling emotional. There are moments in this movie that had me tearing up. It totally works on me, and yet, I understand if people want to say this is the end of cinema. (Laughs.)

Kornhaber: Well, you kind of can’t do this with any other character. It will never work this well again. And my understanding is that Marvel is probably trying to do more things like this, right?

Sims: I would imagine so. Maybe nothing quite this ambitious. Certainly they’ll use the multiverse concept, right, Shirley?

Li: Well—for one thing, they can’t approach this with Doctor Strange, because there aren’t other actors who have played Doctor Strange. But there are certainly different iterations of Doctor Strange who are going to be appearing in the next one.

Sims: Right; there will be a bad Doctor Strange and a frog Doctor Strange, and, I don’t know, a dust-mite Doctor Strange!

Li: This fourth phase in the MCU is bigger, and it’s fulfilling the promise of exploding the universe—even the shows have ventured into this idea of alternate realities. But what I worry about is that it’s just going to feel like connecting the dots instead of solving a fun puzzle. All you’re doing is connecting the dots and not actually shading it in.

With something like Shang-Chi—which exploded realities and brought mystical creatures to a new level—what helped it from remaining only in dot-connecting territory for me was a really well-defined villain and, of course, a great performance from Tony Leung. But with films like Black Widow, you only get the dot-connecting. It’s only about resolving what happened to this character. And even though it tries to shoehorn in a message to try to shade in whatever shape you’ve created with those connected dots, you’re not working with enough. And I think what saves this film from feeling too overwhelming is these performances.

Kornhaber: I’m a casual viewer of recent Marvel. I’ve seen WandaVision and a bit of the Loki show, and they all feel like a Star Trek episode: Something weird happens that breaks the universe, and characters confront an abstract question on-screen. And that’s sort of fun to see, and I prefer it to just: The gang’s all together Avengers-style; let’s see which superpower trumps the other superpower! It recognizes what has always been the problem with any sort of superhero movie, which is that once you start introducing magic to our real world, real life would fall apart. Nothing would make sense anymore. Society would start to break down. People would start going insane.

And I think this movie is getting at how the fabric of reality is frayed. At the end, Doctor Strange is trying to close the dimensional doors from all the other realities where all the other Peter Parkers are, and you’re like: That is very silly. But it’s also the logical conclusion of where this all has to go, which is nonsense and the end of the universe.

Sims: Sure. (Laughs.)

Kornhaber: And I think we as a culture are kind of hungry for stories about not just the end of the world, but reality-fraying stories. But I can’t imagine that you build another 20 years of movies on that.

Li: Yeah; there is something dissonant about how people disappeared for five years in this universe. I’ve been watching Hawkeye, and part of what I really like about it is that it deals with small-scale stuff. It’s just everyday issues with super-heroism. But it does sometimes feel dissonant, because I want to say: “Why isn’t everyone still freaking out? You disappeared for years!”

Sims: I mean, this is the comic-book thing. Why would anyone live in New York City in this world? It is constantly besieged by aliens. Why do people go about their merry days in a world where, say, Mr. Fantastic just shows up on television: “Yeah, the current issue is that a planet-sized villain is thinking of eating us, but me and my team are going to try and sort this out.” And you’re just like: Okay, maybe I’ll watch TV today. You know? You just have to accept the madness layered on top of the ordinary.

Li: And I’m happy to sit there and just accept what we see. I’m happy to just accept that Jonathan Majors appears as a character that you’ve never met before in the season finale of Loki and just go along for the ride.

Sims: Look, I like these movies. I’m a comic-book nerd. And, to me, it’s kind of a careful-what-you-wish-for thing. I’d always wanted these stories to exist as this big fungible universe, and now they do. But now, it’s maybe a little too much of this, you know? I wish they’d matter a little less, but it also makes sense to me that these movies go over so well. They’re very well put together, and I’m not going to begrudge their success.

And I should mention at this point that this movie, in three days, became the most successful film of 2021 in America. Domestically, it opened to about $260 million. It’s basically at $300 million after four days, which is just well beyond anything else that was made this year. Obviously, all the top movies of the year are Marvel movies: Shang-Chi, Venom, Black Widow, Eternals. You’ve got F9 and No Time to Die up there. Those are the big hits: all these familiar franchises.

But this movie has demonstrated that, even as a new variant pops its head up, people are like: “Well, yeah, but I’m seeing Spider-Man! I’m going to the theater for that!” And there’s some level of despair with critics like me who think that’s all well and good that people are going back to the theaters, but it’s too bad that not every movie gets a spillover of that. It seems to be focused on movies that appeal to young people, so far. But young people are the people who feel safe doing this, I guess.

Li: Yeah, I mean—it’s a Spider-Man movie. It would hit. And not to make everything about the pandemic, but there is an element of, like, seeing old friends in this movie, you know?

Sims: Yeah; all of the stuff that really hit for me in this movie was the weird, heady nostalgia of: God, I’ve been watching these movies since I was a teenager. It’s sort of funny, and sort of nice, to reflect on that.