Almost a New Year’s miracle: Spider Man helps film culture in a sticky spot.
Now that she’s been doing gymnastics in theaters for two weeks, most of the spider’s secrets are in the world. And yet: Those who watch “Spider Man: No Way Home” in a regular cinema show these days experience a really rare intensity of enthusiasm. There is collective “wows”, there is applause, and if Peter Parker and girlfriend MJ were to end up marrying, it would probably rain grains of rice from the audience like the “Rocky Horror Picture Show”. The perhaps not entirely unheard-of comeback of the former Spider-Man actors Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield from alternative universes also provokes surprise sounds in the hall like the ones I only made on Christmas Eve: when my girlfriend gave me just such an orange one I had given a sweater as I had hoped and had wished for in a hint. How does Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige know exactly what fans want? Could someone have hinted at that?
Probably some are already in the cinema for the second time, otherwise the rapid success could hardly be explained: 14 days were enough to get the Marvel blockbuster past two Chinese blockbusters and “James Bond: No Time to Die” with a billion dollar grossing to make the world’s most successful film of the year. On Tuesday, the US alone exceeded the 500 million mark, more than Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” and more than any other film in Sony Pictures history.
Of course there is also a loser: Warner Bros. ‘ competing blockbuster “Matrix – Resurrections”, filmed in Cologne and Babelsberg, brought it to just 23 million dollars in the same period. It doesn’t help that some critics mistook the self-referential journey into virtuality for the more intelligent sequel. “Spider Man” fulfills its intentions so lightly and accurately that even a sensational success – at least from the security of retrospect – seems quite explainable.
Seldom has a film played so skilfully with the expectations of its audience and obviously exceeded them. “Fan service” is the new word for something that Hollywood has been perfecting for more than a hundred years – the anticipatory communication between the makers and what marketing calls a target group. Happy who overshoots the target, because this is the only way to expand the audience.
At the beginning of the American studio system, producer Jesse Lasky and his in-house director Cecil B. DeMille began to systematically evaluate mail from viewers. Then they produced exactly what they wanted: When there was interest in the provinces in divorce in the 1910s, they invented the “Comedy of Remarriage”. In 1925 the wish for an epic about the life of Jesus was granted.
The new “Spider Man” combines several mass phenomena: As part of a franchise that has been established for decades, it draws from a rich ensemble of heroes and villains that have become loved, but others do the same. Important supporting roles are embodied by greats from art house cinema such as Willem Dafoe and Benedict Cumberbatch, which is already expanding the audience. In addition, with the magical powers of Doctor Strange played by the latter, there is a kind of Harry Potter quality. Finally, a metaphysical love story opens a door to “Twilight” or better still: a version of “Titanic”, where both lovers stay alive in the end.
At the same time, director Jon Watts picks up a thread that Sam Rami masterfully spun with his first “Spider Man” trilogy – the positioning of a comic blockbuster in the genre conventions of modern teenage films. The filmmaker John Hughes took this form of film to unprecedented heights in the 1980s with works such as “The Breakfast Club” and “Ferris macht blau”. His often tragic comedies understood the eternal dilemma of adolescents in the desire for self-improvement in the face of inevitable failure. In the character of Spider Man, the height of the fall of this conflict is extended into literally epic dimensions. Everyday problems such as joint college applications with friends are negotiated on the same level as the death of the aunt, saving the world and access to meta-universes. How well Watts studied the comedies of Hughes, the author of “Kevin – Alone at Home”, is evident not only from his anarchic lust for chaos, but also from the clever positioning in the Christmas season of the cinema release.
The fan press doesn’t say a word more often about the interplay between the stars Tom Holland and Zendaya than “chemistry”: a feat when you know that both young stars are also privately linked.
Yes, cinema is back, right where Hollywood started. Even in the silent film era, fans celebrated authentic crackling between screen couples like Greta Garbo and John Gilbert. Or, later, the crash between Liz Taylor and Richard Burton. All these phenomena can now be transported and commented on via social media, just as they used to fill the letters to the editor of fan magazines. But without the cinema these magical days would be after the cinema release, such a phenomenon would be inconceivable.
While the Netflix series “Squid Game” was the street sweeper of the pandemic year, this film stages the cinema as an indispensable place of action (“Matrix”, on the other hand, was offered in the USA at the same time via Warner’s streaming portal HBO-Max). Even those who are not a “Spider Man” fan these days, but a cinema fan, have to be enthusiastic about the irony of the title: “No Way Home”: Almost written off in the second Corona year, the cinema has come home again.
The anxious question, of course, is what will happen next. Once before, during the big box office deaths of the early 1960s, it was young audiences that saved the industry. While the older ones sat in front of the TVs, the young ones were drawn to Karl May films, spaghetti westerns, but also to the “jungle book”. And finally to a “New Hollywood”, risen from the ashes of the old studio system.