Even without that famous twist ending, The Sixth Sense would still be a great film. Of all the controversial opinions that a film fan could have, this is probably the least likely to get you cancelled on Letterboxd. It is generally accepted that if, in an alternate universe, director M Night Shyamalan‘s movie had ended with the car confessional scene—the one in which Cole’s mother finally understands his secret—it would have effectively resolved the plot’s central conflict, and made for an emotionally satisfying conclusion. The he-was-dead-all-along ending is ultimately unnecessary, because Shyamalan had already succeeded in drawing us in with a moving story about a strained parent-child relationship. The twist doesn’t complete the film; it merely complements it.
But in the pre-internet age, it achieved something quite unique. Without the twist, audiences would have applauded the film’s emotionally resonant storytelling and it would probably still have been quite successful at the Oscars. But with it, The Sixth Sense became a blockbuster. As stunned crowds returned for repeat viewings and combed through the carefully concealed clues that Shyamalan had strewn throughout his script, a sombre drama about a disturbed child became the year’s second highest grossing film with nearly $700 million in the bank. It also gave Shyamalan—he was hailed as the new Spielberg back then—a lifelong blank cheque to do whatever he wants.
A similar luxury has been given to director Jon Watts, who was plucked from relative obscurity to helm Sony and Marvel’s newest Spider-Man reboot. He was given a star that he hadn’t cast and a screenplay he hadn’t written. And yet, Watts’ Spider-Man: Homecoming was a refreshing enough update of the fan-favourite character to convince Marvel to bring him back for the sequel, Spider-Man: Far From Home—which was just as enthusiastically received and became an even bigger hit. With two back-to-back blockbusters to his credit—both of which were, crucially, also critically well-received—Watts was offered the gig to direct a third film, this week’s Spider-Man: No Way Home.
Marvel was apparently so pleased with his work that even before the film released, Watts was announced as the director of the upcoming Fantastic Four reboot that the studio is putting together. In the span of half-a-decade, he has become one of the most commercially successful filmmakers in the world. But could you name one directorial trademark? A single moment across three massive movies that only he could have directed? Or, here’s a bigger challenge: does your casual moviegoer friend even know who Jon Watts is?
Like The Sixth Sense, No Way Home also relies heavily on twists. But when an entire movie is built on a rickety foundation of scenes designed to deliver shock and awe, there’s a chance that it can all come tumbling down. To be clear, No Way Home, by no stretch of the imagination, is a bad film —Marvel has made plenty of those already—but neither is it a particularly good one. It is, in a nutshell, as disappointingly bland as its two predecessors—a film that lives and dies by its single-minded dedication to providing for its audience the most overwhelming fan service ever put on screen.
Many other franchises have attempted this recently, to mostly disappointing results. It is almost as if filmmakers—or more likely, the corporations to whom they are answerable—are deliberately making movies that resemble a collection of social media-friendly scenes as opposed to a satisfying experience as a whole. Look at how badly Lucasfilm’s flailing attempts at tapping into the past ended with Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Or, more egregiously, what the combined powers of Warner Bros and JK Rowling have done to the beloved Harry Potter franchise.
Sometimes, having knowledge of a twist is almost as bad as knowing everything about it. The off-chance of both Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire appearing in No Way Home—speculation that gradually became irrefutable as the film’s release date neared—dominated the discourse, and potentially clouded the viewing experience of millions of people. And Marvel perhaps guessed this when, in a deliberate move to deflect attention, it made the returning villains—Dock Ock, Green Goblin, Lizard, Sandman, Electro—a part of the publicity, which only made things worse. And then, to mitigate the disaster, it got its stars to lie through their teeth for a solid three months. Basically, if you weren’t prepared to see three Spider-Men team up on screen, you were prepared to not see them. Either way, going into the movie, only one thing was on your mind.
And this hurts the story. Because you’re so distracted by what could potentially happen an hour later, you forget that the plot of Spider-Man: No Way Home hinges on Peter Parker and his best friends not getting into MIT, after, for some reason, convincing themselves that they absolutely will. You also forget that No Way Home is, effectively, an act of self-plagiarism on Sony’s part—the studio literally did this a few years ago with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. But most distressingly, it undermines a truly excellent central performance by Tom Holland.
Instead of starting from the ground-up, like any good movie, No Way Home relies on decades of goodwill to keep you invested. For instance, the scene in which Aunt May dies is deliberately designed to mirror the deaths of two different Uncle Bens in previous Spider-Man movies. This is thematically relevant in a movie that has alternate versions of the same person swap war stories and offer moral support to each other. But by drawing from the past, the movie lets itself off the hook for not really giving Aunt May much to do besides die in order for Peter to grow as a person. There’s a reason why Fridging, as a plot device, is frowned upon these days.
Like The Sixth Sense, audiences will line up for several repeat viewings of No Way Home—not to unearth new discoveries, but to relive a particularly potent hit of adrenaline. And they will continue lining up until some enterprising fan (probably an Indian) decides to bootleg the series of moments upon which No Way Home’s plot is precariously perched, and upload them on YouTube. There, these scenes will live for an eternity, providing inspiration for the Russo brothers and fodder for memelords.
So ask yourself this, while The Sixth Sense works without the big reveal, does Spider-Man: No Way Home still hold up without the Garfield-Maguire scenes?