Spider-Man: No Way Home (12A) ****
Titane (18) ***
Don’t Look Up (15) **
The King’s Man (15) **
You could burn through the word-count of a review trying to describe even a smidgen of the plot of Spider-Man: No Way Home. The third solo outing for Tom Holland’s Peter Parker expands the Marvel Cinematic Universe into an inter-dimensional multiverse courtesy of a dazzling bit of a narrative jujitsu that ties together various bits of Spider-Man lore in a way that manages to be entertaining without feeling like craven fan service (at least, not entirely). Though the big spoilers are but a Google-click away, in picking up where the lacklustre Spider-Man: Far From Home left-off, returning director Jon Watts and returning screenwriters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers manage to recapture the endearing spirit of Holland’s first outing by having the newly unmasked Spider-Man let his teen-angst-fuelled sense of personal injustice lead him on a half-baked quest to help his girlfriend MJ (Zendaya) and his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) get into college after screwing up their chances.
No good deed goes unpunished in Peter Parker’s world, though, and after recruiting the MCU’s resident wizard Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to help fix his mistakes, it’s not long before his adolescent meddling with the fabric of the universe sees him forced to contend with some Spider-Man villains from some very different eras. Nods to Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films (still the best of the bunch) duly follow, ditto the distinctly more average pre-MCU reboots that fizzled out after just two instalments. But the film does something interesting with all these returning characters by rooting them in a movie universe more sensitive to the power of redemption. What it lacks is the sort visual inventiveness that Raimi brought to this world. Watts does well to keep all the plot-points spinning as fluidly as he does, but the set pieces are done in the homogenous Marvel house-style and there’s still no moment to rival the Kirsten Dunst/Tobey Maguire upside-down kiss from the first Spider-Man film. Still, it’s pretty good fun, with some joyfully handled final act twists.
There’s something a little try-hard about Titane, Julia Ducournau’s Palme d’Or-winning body horror film about an exotic dancer turned mass murderer who has sex with a car and soon finds herself impregnated and on the run. It has some striking imagery, but its transgressive desire to shock and amuse feels a little derivative, like a chop-shopped version of cult-classics Crash, Eraserhead and Tetsuo, with a bit of Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Under the Skin thrown in for good measure.
The film’s protagonist is Alexia, whom we first meet as the tween survivor of a car crash that she’s caused in a bid to get some attention from her indifferent father. Left with a titanium plate in her head, she grows up to take the androgynous form of newcomer Agathe Rousselle, who fully commits to the role of the adult Alexia, a scar-headed punk outsider who makes a living dancing at motor shows for pervy car enthusiasts. Alexia has a metal fetish and animalistic instincts and seems to exist in a permanent fight-or-flight mode consistent with survivors of neglect and abuse. When that starts to manifest itself in gruesome, murderous violence, she’s forced to leave her old life behind.
It’s here that the film suddenly gets a little more interesting as Ducournau shifts gears with a plot turn broadly reminiscent of Bart Layton’s 2011 documentary The Imposter. With her face all over the news, Alexia passes herself off as the grown-up son of Vincent (Vincent Lindon), a fireman whose child, Adrien, famously disappeared a decade earlier. What motivates this emotionally damaged man to accept Alexia without a DNA test is of less interest to Ducournau than exploring the ways her gender non-conforming protagonist tests the boundaries of male desire and paternal love – though once you get beyond all the autopart-erotica the suspicion remains that Ducournau is taking you for a ride rather than on one.
Leonardo Di Caprio and Jennifer Lawrence come a cropper in more ways than one in Don’t Look Up, Adam McKay’s painfully unfunny comedy satirising governmental incompetence in the face of impending calamity. The calamity in this case is a comet on a collision course with Earth – a plot device recycled from 1990s blockbusters Deep Impact and Armageddon, though the supposed joke of this film is that world leaders now are so inept and self-serving they won’t do the right thing, even when facing certain annihilation. The plot takes shape around DiCaprio’s nerdy astronomer and Lawrence’s PhD student as they try to alert the world to its imminent end while Meryl Streep’s Trumpian president prevaricates and pivots in order to make a deal with an eccentric tech billionaire (Mark Rylance) to tackle the problem in a more profit-friendly way. It’s all very smug and obvious, with none of the bite of McKay’s financial crisis opus The Big Short.
Having run his gentleman-spy comic-book franchise The Kingsmen into the ground after only two instalments, director Matthew Vaughn reboots it as a prequel in The King’s Man, a cartoonish spin on world history starring Ralph Fiennes as a reluctant war hero forced to renounce his pacifist beliefs in a last-ditch effort to save England from annihilation in the First World War. Though Vaughn has form in the prequel department – he revived the flagging X-Men franchise with X-Men: First Class – he loses the plot here by re-imagining the Great War as the brainchild of a chippy Scottish nationalist intent on bringing England to its knees by forcing King George into a catastrophic war with his German cousin Kaiser Wilhelm II and his Russian cousin Nicholas II (all three roles are played by Tom Hollander). There are some truly bizarre set pieces, but a sudden shift into serious melodrama with a Gallipoli-style depiction of the horrors of trench warfare serves only to highlight the film’s utter tastelessness.
Spider-Man: No Way Home is in cinemas now; Titane is in cinemas from 26 December; Don’t Look Up is on selected release now and on Netflix from 24 December; The King’s Man is in cinemas from 26 December
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