Spider-Man vs. Matrix: Warning Stories in the Pitfalls of Nostalgia

It is strange that last month, in December, two films from separate studios born from separate intellectual properties were lined up for their major releases, just as we were hitting the holiday season. However, these two separate films were so much alike in concept; both revive icons from their gigantic franchise’s glorious past to take advantage of the sweet nostalgia money. Yet both took very different directions with their subjects. Thus, one became one of the biggest box office successes in recent times and the other has been crucified. So what did “Spider-Man: No Way Home” do right, and how did “The Matrix Resurrections” fail so miserably?

So here’s to Hollywood’s naughty nostalgia problem, and to the homecoming of “Spider-Man: No Way Home” and the death of “The Matrix Resurrections.”

Keanu Reeves (L) and Carrie-Anne Moss, in a scene from the movie

Zendaya (L) and Tom Holland in a scene from the movie

Deja vu, deja vu, deja vu

Nostalgia has been prevalent in the film industry for years now, but it had not developed into such a pandemic until the latter half of the 2010s, I think. Recording, rebooting, relaunching, rebooting, retreading, retreading, retreading … The vast majority of them have ranged from critically panned and paralyzed by the audience, to barely average movies.

This is how the state of Hollywood has become, that it is more reminiscent of video games than art today. They feel like “Assassin’s Creed” and “Far Cry”, hey, let’s just call it Ubisoft’s sandbox verse – or worse, any annual sports series by Electronic Arts and the irony of EA’s name will never grow old – repetitions of the same ideas, again and again over and over and over again … you understand the idea.

Even when they try to spice things up, they fail deeply. Look at the “Terminator” series – or do not, if you value your time – one or two clever ideas buried under all the nostalgia-lure elements brought back from other items in the franchise, “Genisys” or “Dark Fate “, you can choose either for this review.

Look at Disney, they’ve only been making their timeless animated classics in live-action format for a few years now. “The Lion King”, “Aladdin”, “Mulan”, “Beauty and the Beast”, all just inferior replacements for their once glorious animated ancestors, and for what? Nothing but money. Watch “Men in Black”, “Jurassic World”, “Ghostbusters”, “Robocop”, “Space Jam” and so on and so forth.

Tom Holland (L) and Benedict Cumberbatch in a scene from the movie

Tom Holland (L) and Benedict Cumberbatch in a scene from the movie “Spider-Man: No Way Home.” (Sony Pictures via AP)

If this policy had taken root before in film production, we would then have the first “Matrix” or “Gladiator”, “Back to the Future”, “John Wick”, “Top Gun”, “Indiana Jones” and so many more originals – or close enough – and magnificent pieces of work to enjoy?

Smaller studios and dramas will always be kings and queens of originality, unique ideas and concepts, but we also used to have bigger studios, bigger budget blockbuster tastes of new movies, not just mechanical reconstructions of everything that has come before.

Today, there is nothing that entices a large Hollywood studio to bet on originality. Just as big video game studios are only interested in releasing the same game again, just with a bigger number at the end – and like movies, the originality lies in games mostly in Indie projects.

So now that my venting of the state of the entertainment industry is over, can there be no enjoyment in nostalgia? Of course, there may be the latest “Spider-Man” movie.

Keanu Reeves, in a scene from the movie

Keanu Reeves, in a scene from the movie “The Matrix Resurrections.” (Warner Bros. via AP)

Complementary originality

Why does nostalgia work in this “Spider-Man” movie? Is it because people have literally sunk into tens of thousands of hours in this – and most likely the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe – saga? Is it because the actors are amazing or the characters are amazing? Is it because the visual is generally exciting?

Well, yes, and more. Much, much more and much simpler if you will: This is because nostalgia is not the only driving force behind the whole expedition.

Even if you have not seen any of the previous “Spider-Man” movies, or Marvel movies in general, “Spider-Man: No Way Home” is able to stand on its own two feet and entertain you. If you have seen the previous items in the franchise, it is even better and it will satisfy you even more.

In its purest, simplest form, this is how nostalgia can work in film: it works, it clicks, it entertains when not used as the core, the basis of ideas, but rather as a supplement, as a guiding, helping hand.

Alfred Molina as Doc Ock in a scene from the movie

Tom Holland in a scene from the movie

How can we tell that the nostalgia in “Spider-Man” complements the story instead of driving it? First, characters returning from previous films – the element of nostalgia in this story – are not just re-creations of their former selves. They are not caricatures of what a nostalgia-driven mind would evoke them as when they reinstated them in a franchise that has long since passed them by.

Any and all of the recurring characters are simply characters. They are new, interesting interpretations of their identities, not just retreads of their highlights. They feel alive, they change, they grow, they influence history. They are characters in this new world, new history, not just the iconic ideology and characterization that they had become over the years, they are not stereotypes of their previous incarnations.

“Spider-Man” works wonderfully with these concepts in its history. At the end of the day, it’s still the story of Tom Holland’s Peter Parker, but that does not mean that the others who have now been put into this world can not shine in their own right and become even more interesting than in their previous films, while complementing Holland’s arc – not making the film their story, but helping him complete his story, either by standing with him or against him.

Jonathan Groff, in a scene from the movie

A scene from the movie

“The Matrix Resurrections”, on the other hand, has nothing but nostalgia. It is the core, the foundation, the essence of the film. Whatever the film has to do, other than nostalgia, everything new found in its history is peripheral to nostalgia. How to not make nostalgia right, as I said before, it should be the other way around. It’s a new film, it’s time for new ideas to shine, not to creep in front of the power of the colossal shadow of nostalgia.

All new characters just fall by the wayside, any new interpretation of old characters simply transforms the character traits of their previous repetitions, new story beats drown in the volume of the repetitions of old melodies, any new visuals or action scenes do not match. the original series let alone surpass them.

It feels like a checklist made from previous “Matrix” movies, and that’s exactly how one fails in Nostalgia 101. For stories, one of the most important factors, one of the cornerstones, is that it should feel organic and natural. The story has to evolve organically, the characters have to feel real, the actions and reactions have to occur naturally, and it has to make sense in the world of history, even if they are not in the reality we are recording. Checklists are not organic things, and audiences can feel it when someone pushes something to happen inorganically just because the checklist says so. Just because the checklist says the film needs this to get into the audience’s nostalgic hearts – money pools.

How can I put this into phrases that even the closest study leader can understand? Here is an equation that everyone in primary school can understand:

“Art is not a checklist” + “Film is art” = “Film is not a checklist.”

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