It can be hard to read the room when you go to the cinema. Unless people start walking out in protest, the cinema auditorium sometimes has all the loaded discretion of a polling booth, and you don’t find out who the next government’s going to be until the credits start rolling. I remember going to see a preview of Moonlight at a suburban multiplex and being blown away; only when the lights came up did everyone around me start saying how much they hated it. (Idiots!) Of course, sometimes there are giveaways. Uniform screams at a jump scare. Rapt, pin-drop silences during a moment of terse drama. In the case of Spider-Man: No Way Home, the tell was slightly more obvious: every 10 minutes or so, the audience would break out in applause.
It’s a trend that has increasingly taken hold in the modern franchise blockbuster, one that is particularly prevalent among Marvel audiences. When Avengers: Endgame was released, videos went viral of crowds hooting and hollering when Captain America picked up Thor’s hammer, cheering like he’d just scored the winner in the FA Cup final. In Spider-Man, the audience applauded when certain characters appeared. They applauded when certain poses were struck. When certain jokes were made – even if they weren’t funny enough to provoke much actual laughter. The whole thing was a circus of eager, pliant celebration. Now, far be it from me to rain on anybody’s parade… but who the hell wants a parade in the middle of a cinema anyway?
Ostensibly, a cinema full of people whooping and clapping is exactly what going to the cinema is all about. It’s the communal experience, after all, that is becoming one of cinema’s sole selling points, as big-screen TVs and direct-to-streaming blockbusters chip away at the rest. Of course, at its best, going to the cinema is a wonderful collective experience. Sudden, shocking moments like the ending of The Sixth Sense or Brad Pitt’s death in Burn After Reading are met with visceral gasps. The sweeping strings at the climax of No Time to Die were underscored, for many, by the quiet sobs of people around them. There is no understating the power of a communal viewing experience: the best films make you feel as if you and your fellow cinema-goers have gone through something together. Horror films and comedies are often particularly fruitful in this regard, with laughs and screams en masse. But that’s not what’s going on in films like Spider-Man: No Way Home.
Applauding a smug nod to some other franchise entry isn’t some natural, spontaneous or even particularly human reaction – it’s performance. It’s often just a way of saying I got the reference. It’s one thing for an audience to get rowdy in the days of boozy midnight B-movies, or even for cheesy pop fare like Mamma Mia! or Bohemian Rhapsody (which share a little more DNA with the jukebox musicals of the West End, where recurrent applause is not only expected but encouraged). It’s another thing entirely when you’re stone-cold sober consuming the most mainstream corporatised entertainment on Earth, something which is treated with deathly seriousness by millions of its fans. It’s not like Tom Holland or Zendaya is waiting in the wings, ears pricked for the sound of adoration. This applause is just paying tribute to a brand. Isn’t that what the ticket price is for? That’s not necessarily a dig at Marvel films themselves. The way in which they are able to plunder a mass audience’s appetite for continuity and referential teasing is, on some level, ingenious. Marvel is playing its audience like fiddles, and everyone’s all too happy to start dancing.
What’s more, clapping throughout a film is detrimental to everyone’s ability to actually focus on, escape into and – therefore – enjoy the film itself. There was a point four seasons into Seinfeld’s run, when the character of Kramer became so popular that the studio audience would clap and whoop with appreciation whenever he entered an episode (a habit that had also featured on several lesser sitcoms, dating back to Happy Days’ Fonzie). The actor hated it, the creators hated it, and it’s extremely annoying to watch as an at-home viewer; it was eventually forbidden on set because it threw off the scene’s dialogical rhythm. Now, when it comes to Spider-Man, there’s no real person to throw off their rhythm, but you run the risk of missing the next line of dialogue.
Auteur filmmakers like Martin Scorsese have incurred the wrath of Marvel fans by likening the films to rollercoasters, questioning their value as art. But isn’t a round of ebullient cheers more fitting for Thorpe Park than La Grande Illusion? There’s no having it both ways. Of course, more classically “highbrow” film audiences have their own foibles; is there anything more nauseating than the idea of a 20-minute standing ovation for a screening at the Cannes Film Festival? This is no less performative than cheering through Spider-Man, and it adds a somewhat distasteful sheen of elitism.
Maybe I’m just being a curmudgeon here; I should just let people enjoy things. But that’s the problem with the clappers, with their insistent displays of loud appreciation. It seldom sounds much like enjoyment at all.
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