Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is sitting in a Manhattan coffee shop with the woman he’s loved since the fourth grade, the winsome Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). He gazes at her longingly. She leans in, eyes closed, for a kiss. But just as he moves to reciprocate, he freezes, sensing danger. The camera rushes forward, into an extreme close-up of Peter’s eye, the pupil dilated. Suddenly, a car crashes through the window, and at the last possible moment, Peter tackles Mary Jane out of harm’s way.
They get up, unscathed. In the distance, they hear a deep, steady pounding. As the noise becomes louder, the director, Sam Raimi, cuts back and forth between the couple and the empty street where the sound seems to be coming from; after each cut, the camera lurches forward dramatically, punching closer and closer until we seem to be millimeters from Peter’s terror-struck face. Finally, we see the source of the clamor: the evil Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina), revealed with as much deferred ceremony as the shark from “Jaws.”
Compare this scene, from“Spider-Man 2” (2004), with a scene from last year’s “Spider-Man: No Way Home.” Peter Parker (now played by Tom Holland) is standing in a dark, nondescript clearing somewhere on the outskirts of New York. A glowing spectral figure begins to materialize in the sky behind him, and Peter’s girlfriend, MJ (Zendaya), anxiously checks in via walkie-talkie: “Is the tingle thing happening? Is your tingle tingling?”
Peter turns to face the figure, the villain Electro (Jamie Foxx). “Uh, you wouldn’t happen to be from another universe, would you?” Peter calls out. Electro opens his glowing yellow eyes and, as a loud dubstep beat drops on the soundtrack, attacks Peter by shooting big computer-generated beams of electricity from his fingertips.
The difference between these scenes is instructive. The Doctor Octopus sequence feels playful and extravagant, with colorful, larger-than-life images that evoke the stylized look of a comic book. The Electro encounter is dark and murky, with a flat, mundane style familiar from television. The “Spider-Man 2” scene is dazzlingly inventive and fun. The only thing interesting about the “No Way Home” one is that Jamie Foxx is reprising his role from another “Spider-Man” film.
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This is typical of a broader distinction. “Spider-Man 2” bears the fingerprints of an artist; it has a point of view and a coherent aesthetic, one that is distinctive and recognizable. “No Way Home,” meanwhile, is just another assembly-line production in the familiar Marvel mold. It has no identifiable voice or personality; if the director, Jon Watts, had a single visual idea that might differentiate his movie from “Captain Marvel,” “Black Widow” or “Avengers: Infinity War,” it isn’t apparent. Although a studio blockbuster made on a whopping $200 million budget, Raimi’s “Spider-Man 2” is unmistakably the work of an auteur. “No Way Home” feels like the $200 million product of a focus group.
The three “Spider-Man” films Raimi made between 2002 and 2007 were easy to dismiss at the time as expensive, effects-driven comic book pictures made for teenage boys. But the release this month of another Raimi-directed superhero film, “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” makes clear how special they really were. As modern Marvel movies have become increasingly repetitive, sterile and bland, Raimi’s efforts stand out as some of the last gasps of serious cinematic artistry in the genre.
Raimi’s “Spider-Man” films are exuberant feats of big-budget visual imagination. More to the point, they look and feel like Sam Raimi movies, just on a larger scale. When Peter Parker designs his superhero suit in the first “Spider-Man,” Raimi superimposes sketchbook drawings over images of Peter brainstorming, in an effect reminiscent of the cutouts and rear projection in his superhero noir “Darkman.” When Doctor Octopus smears a team of surgeons during an operation in “Spider-Man 2,” the over-the-top carnage recalls the gleeful ultraviolence of his early horror flicks “Army of Darkness” (1992) or “The Evil Dead” (1981), which were wonderfully elevated by their gritty, gruesome formal elan. Raimi trademarks and idiosyncrasies — the roving P.O.V. shots, the jerking zooms, even his penchant for casting Bruce Campbell — are all over these movies, and the resulting fusion of auteur style with tentpole spectacle is singularly delightful.
That fusion is also history, as superhero movies are concerned. Ever since Marvel Studios kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe with “Iron Man” in 2008, its billion-dollar brand of comic book blockbusters has tended to rely on a formula at once dependable and monotonous. Because they share characters, settings, and complex, interlocking stories, they’re essentially required to share the same basic visual language and formal characteristics.
This means that, with very few exceptions, modern Marvel movies all look the same. The prevailing house style — some combination of characters standing around delivering expository monologues, characters running around shooting laser beams at one another and characters reacting to things by cracking irreverent jokes — was established early and is consistent from picture to picture, from “Ant-Man” to “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” to “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” Occasionally, the style gets so bland that even the locations look utterly anonymous. The climactic battle at the end of “Captain America: Civil War” takes place on a huge stretch of airport tarmac that might as well be a blue screen.
This kind of consistency can be comforting — it’s why people read romance novels or tune in to “NCIS.” See a Marvel movie, and you know what you’re going to get. But the staid format and safe, paint-by-numbers aesthetic drive home the soullessness of the enterprise, manufactured by an enormous studio machine concerned primarily with the kind of quality control that avoids risks and fixates on the bottom line. If there’s an emphasis on fan-baiting Easter eggs and star-studded cameos rather than more fundamental cinematic pleasures like compelling images or provocative ideas, it’s because the priority is never to make you think about the movie after it’s over. It’s to make you excited for the next one.
Occasionally, a director with a more pronounced style will manage to bring a little of it to bear on a Marvel movie. But these flourishes — a pop of color from Taika Waititi in “Thor: Ragnarok,” a wistful sunset in “Eternals” from Chloé Zhao — amount to little more than doodling in the margins. The template is set, and there’s no way around it. No matter who the director is, there are still going to be C.G.I. monsters shooting C.G.I. lightning bolts, and there are still going to be heroes to stand around, smirk and say something like, “Well … that just happened.”
This holds true even for Raimi, as evidenced by his work on “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.” A sequel to 2016’s “Doctor Strange,” directed by Scott Derrickson and starring Benedict Cumberbatch, “Multiverse of Madness” is at its best when Raimi’s presence is evident, even if the evidence is only marginal.
For the first hour or so, the film follows the Marvel formula so faithfully that it could have been directed by anybody; heroes rehash plot details at length, make pithy quips and pop culture references and wage generic-looking battles with giant squid monsters. But in the multiverse-leaping second half, there are a few brief glimpses of Raimi, the cult-horror auteur: When Doctor Strange inhabits the body of his own corpse from another universe, for instance, the zombified double has the charmingly macabre luster of one of Raimi’s “Evil Dead” creations. Such moments are as precious as they are rare. And it’s depressing to consider that as recently as “Spider-Man 3” in 2007, we had Marvel movies that were entirely composed of such moments.
Raimi has been candid about his limited capacity to influence the style of “Multiverse of Madness” in a meaningful way. It “was less a full-on original work of mine than it is a continuation in the Marvel pantheon of continuing stories,” he said in an interview. “So my job really was not to make something outrageous.” He added, “It was really more about adapting, as a filmmaker, a storyteller, to the Marvel sensibility.”
The problem, of course, is that this relationship is backward. The style of a great director should not be subordinate to the sensibility of a studio: It’s the studio, not the filmmaker, who should have to adapt. It’s through creative freedom and a certain degree of trust in the vision of the artist that brilliance and originality are permitted to thrive. The formula is obviously working for Marvel, to judge by the standard of box office receipts. But only in the hands of a capable director can “Spider-Man” truly be amazing.