Yes, I hated “Spider-Man: No Way Home.” It’s a movie that I’m a total annoying curmudgeonly naysayer about. So even though my antipathy isn’t the topic of this column, why hide it? Go ahead, throw tomatoes at me. But understand that I’m actually on your side.
I hated the film for two reasons. The way the multiverse concept plays out is, in my opinion, a half-baked and unsatisfying mess. “No Way Home” has none of the head-spinning flair and three-dimensional-chess logic that was so hypnotic in “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” the bedazzling 2018 animated landmark that is one of the all-time highlights of the superhero genre. That movie was no small influence on this one, but it’s like seeing filet mignon turned into processed, additive-filled hamburger. That said, the only reason “No Way Home” even bothered with the multiverse concept is that it’s the only way the filmmakers could figure out to shoehorn all three of the actors who’ve played Spider-Man — Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield, and Tom Holland — into one movie.
As a storytelling premise, this one makes close to no sense. It’s as if the new “Batman” film had found a way for Michael Keaton, Christian Bale, and Ben Affleck to all show up as Bruce Wayne. (I can hear some of you going, “Awesome!”) But as a marketing hook it’s off the hook. “No Way Home” is basically a sideshow attraction (“Step right up! See all the Spider-Men in one movie!”) staged as a bloated “Saturday Night Live” sketch. Sure, the three performers are having a party (and Andrew Garfield is a more ebullient actor now than he was when he glummed his way through his original two “Spider-Man” films), but the picture is “meta” in the way that a clever advertisement is meta. It turns the audience into part of the selling.
Yet the whole reason I’m going on about this is precisely to say: Who cares what I think? Audiences adore “Spider-Man: No Way Home.” Critics, with a few exceptions, adore “Spider-Man: No Way Home.” The whole world adores “Spider-Man: No Way Home.” So if you really think I’m wrong (and just about everyone does), what on earth is stopping everyone from demanding that “Spider-Man: No Way Home” becomes one of this year’s Oscar nominees for best picture? On what planet would anyone argue that it shouldn’t be?
Ah yes, the ancient logic of middlebrow Oscar snobbery. In the past, the members of the Motion Picture Academy have considered superhero movies to be entertainment, not art, and the Oscars are supposed to be about art. We’ve been through this debate several tedious times, most spectacularly in 2008, when “The Dark Knight,” the greatest superhero movie ever made, couldn’t finagle a best picture nomination.
For the record, here are a few of the timeless masterpieces that were nominated in its stead: “The Reader,” “Frost/Nixon,” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” “The Dark Knight” is 10 times the work of art that any of those movies are, and the idea that it wasn’t nominated because Academy voters look down their noses at comic-book films should, by now, be a relic of last-century thinking. Besides, it’s not as if the line of honoring fantasy blockbusters hasn’t been crossed. The original “Star Wars” was nominated. All three of the “Lord of the Rings” films were nominated (and “The Return of the King” won). “Black Panther” was nominated.
Now, though, there’s a larger reason to nominate “Spider-Man: No Way Home.” The Oscars are on life support, or at least they’re heading there. They need mainstream cred; going forward, it’s nothing less than the oxygen that’s going to allow them to survive.
Whenever this argument gets made, it’s presented in strictly utilitarian, box-office-begets-ratings terms. If you want an Academy Awards telecast that wins more eyeballs than it loses, you’re going to have to nominate some of the movies that win eyeballs. I don’t disagree with that argument, and in a sense it’s the one I’m making. But this isn’t simply about numbers. It’s about a perception that drives the numbers. Sure, if “No Way Home” gets nominated, a swath of its vast fan base might tune into the Oscars that wouldn’t have otherwise. But what I’m really talking about is the essential idea that movies are, and always have been, a populist art form. If that dimension of cinema isn’t respected, something has gone wrong.
Awards shows are struggling because they don’t serve the same function in the culture they once did. You used to watch the Oscars to get a heady shot of glamour — to see what the stars were wearing, and how they presented themselves as personalities. Now you can see that anytime (the red carpet is a media installation that never ends), and the distinction between “star” and “up-and-coming star” and “who’s that?” gets fuzzier every day.
But, of course, the biggest hurdle the Oscars face, especially in the time of a pandemic accompanied by a streaming revolution, is that the films that tend to be nominated are winning a smaller and smaller slice of the audience. This year, let’s imagine that the nominees include “Belfast,” “The Power of the Dog,” “Licorice Pizza,” “The Lost Daughter,” and “The Tragedy of Macbeth.” I’m sorry, and this reflects no judgment on the quality of any of those films, but that reads as a roster straight out of the too-smart-for-school megaplex. It’s doubtful that any of those films will ever qualify as a crossover hit. I know, I know: Netflix is doing its usual metrics magic to create the aura of buzzy success. But “The Power of the Dog” and the other big-ticket Netflix contender, “Don’t Look Up,” exist in a streaming gray zone somewhere between “Look how many people watched at least part of it at home!” and “Does that mean it’s the same as a theatrical hit?”
Let’s be clear: I’m not saying don’t nominate those films. I’m saying that if those are the only films nominated, it’s going to be another year of the Oscars’ slow-motion implosion. I led this column talking about my dislike of “Spider-Man: No Way Home” because that’s my honest feeling about the film, but also to make the point that the Oscars can, and should, reflect something larger than the critical ego. When I look back over decades of Oscar ceremonies, I will often recall, quite fondly, the competition between this and that movie, neither one of which came within miles of making my own 10 Best list. And that’s okay. It’s the Oscars! It’s not the Nobel Peace Prize. This year, would it really be such an unspeakable vulgarity for the Oscar slate to include “Spider-Man: No Way Home”? Not as a token mainstream gesture but because it’s a film that honestly meant something to the larger public. Why has this become such an insane idea? What’s actually insane is leaving a movie like that one out of the mix. If the Oscars want a future, it would be a shrewd strategy for them to not inflict the death of a thousand cuts on themselves by using the dagger of elitism.