Near the beginning of Joel Coen’s latest film, “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” we see a witch drawing in the ground with a stick. Spellbinding stuff, to be sure, though the gesture is lifted from the start of another “Macbeth,” which appeared half a century ago. That movie was adapted by Roman Polanski and Kenneth Tynan from a play by a guy named Shakespeare, who pinched a fair dose of his foul tale from a guy named Holinshed, who presumably got it straight from the witch’s mouth. It’s the old story: nothing but remakes and sequels. Can’t these bozos come up with something new?
“The Tragedy of Macbeth” comes out on Christmas Day, which suggests a dark sense of humor on the part of the distributors. Where better to release the most miasmic of Shakespeare’s tragedies than into auditoriums from which many people have fled, for fear of an airborne plague? At one point, Macbeth (Denzel Washington) strides toward the camera, out of a fog so unbreathably thick that you can’t help wondering whether or not he’s had his booster shot. Hence, perhaps, the haste with which Washington scampers through many of his speeches; there are moments at which the underlying pulse of the verse is so irregular that you can hardly hear its beat. If you admire the film, such rapidity will suggest a man who is trying, without success, to outrun his accelerating fate. To my ears, he sounded more like somebody who couldn’t wait to hack his way through the wordage and get offstage, fast.
Not that I would blame him. The world that has been constructed for this new “Macbeth” is not the kind of place in which to dawdle for long. It looks unashamedly like a theatre set—or, rather, the set for a frighteningly Marxist production of the “Ring” cycle. Hard edges, crazy angles, long shadows, lofty walls. The envisioned dagger turns out to be a door handle. The movie is in black-and-white, the décor is as sprightly as cement, and, despite the near-ceaseless drip of blood throughout the text, everything we see appears to have been leached dry before the action begins. As a result, almost none of the maleficence comes as a shock, and the play’s one brief interlude of kindliness and grace, at the entrance of King Duncan (Brendan Gleeson) into Macbeth’s stronghold, is reduced to nonsense. “This castle hath a pleasant seat,” Duncan says. Like hell it doth. He’d be more welcome inside a walk-in fridge. And, as for somewhere comfortable to park the royal ass, forget it.
What this movie lacks is hurly-burly: mess, dirt, desperation, and the rasp of recklessness. There is something not just predetermined in the conduct of its hero (that is a familiar dread, known to every viewer of the play) but prepackaged in its mood. Yet there are sights here, nevertheless, that you may not have witnessed before. In “Throne of Blood,” Akira Kurosawa’s 1957 transplantation of “Macbeth” to medieval Japan, there was a single prophesying spirit, rather than three separate witches, but Coen goes further and provides an unholy trinity—three witches in one, all played by Kathryn Hunter, with three distinct voices and a range of bodily contortions that verge on the uncanny. To add to the fun, she also plays the old man whom we meet later, complete with a crinkled stare and a salty beard. I’d like to see a theatrical morphing of the play, in which Hunter takes every role, up to and including Birnam Wood. I bet she could sprout leaves.
Thank goodness, above all, for the badness of Lady Macbeth, as brought to coruscating life by Frances McDormand. She, unlike most of the cast, does take us by surprise; she even surprises herself. Watch carefully as she enters the scene after Duncan’s body is discovered, and hears her husband confess to having killed the grooms in his wrath, the better to pass them off as the assassins. The look she casts at him is quick and blazing, like a flare, and you can read its intent: this twist, her eyes inform him, was not in the plan.
Every festive season needs its villains, if only to offset the warmth of its blessings. (Dickens, who understood Christmas as well as anyone ever has, arranged for his villain to evolve into the hero; Scrooge, in “A Christmas Carol,” bests himself.) So, at the climax of 2021, does McDormand rule the wicked roost? She is not without competition. Ben Mendelsohn, in Joe Wright’s “Cyrano,” plays a nasty nobleman with rouged cheeks and a powdered wig, while Cate Blanchett brings a languorous guile to Guillermo del Toro’s “Nightmare Alley,” as a shrink so void of moral nicety that she feeds details of her own patients to a hustling mind reader. I doubt if she sleepwalks with guilt.
The tally of miscreants is highest, however, in “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” which trawls the back catalogue of the franchise and comes up with the many-tentacled Doc Ock (Alfred Molina), Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), Electro (Jamie Foxx), Sandman (Thomas Haden Church), and the Lizard (Rhys Ifans), whom I’m afraid I had forgotten entirely. Most of these fine actors look a mite embarrassed to be dragged back into this high-concept, low-rent palaver, and there’s a telling moment in which Dafoe, despite being punched repeatedly in the head, preserves that wonderful fanged grin of his, as if to show us how little he is dented or fazed by such indignity.
There are two reasons for the presence of these multiple offenders. The first is that they have been accidentally summoned by Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), who is casting a wizardish spell as a favor for Peter Parker (Tom Holland). Peter wants the past rearranged for his benefit, and why? Because, thanks to being unveiled as Spider-Man, he has—wait for it—failed to get into M.I.T. That’s right: universal chaos is unleashed for the sake of college admissions. Nothing in the movie, which is directed by Jon Watts, suggests that we are to treat this narrative development as a joke.
The second reason is cannier and more cynical. The film, which is aimed exclusively at its existing fan base and would be grimly incomprehensible to anyone from outside the fold, is rigged to produce occasional spikes of gratification in the audience. Every returning super-baddie, however meaningless his motive, is greeted with a thrill of recognition; I felt as if the armrests in the movie theatre should be fitted with a row of buttons, labelled “OMG,” “No shit,” “!!!,” and so on, and that we should be hitting these in response to every thrill. The collective result of the hits could then be patched through to Marvel, and the next sequel would be tweaked accordingly.
The spiking peaks in the latter stages of the film, and, if you haven’t yet had the pleasure of watching it, you might want to stop reading now. Traversing a portal of fire, of the sort through which moth-eaten circus tigers used to leap, two other golden oldies join the fray: to wit, two former Spider-Men—Tobey Maguire, who was Peter Parker in 2002, 2004, and 2007, and Andrew Garfield, who was “The Amazing Spider-Man” in 2012 and 2014. (Does that make the other guys officially unamazing, and should they be pissed about it?) For a while, all three Peters team up like witches, in their matching scarlet outfits, the assumption being that we will faint at the existential awesomeness of their cahoots. Please. No offense to the performers, especially Maguire, who has an air of the wistfully lost, like a middle-aged Peter Pan, but all this is pure marketing bullshit: reboots dressed up as revelation.
And why stop here? Since the portal’s open for business, why not use it to introduce other characters once played by Maguire? How about Paul, the child of a wretched marriage, in “The Ice Storm” (1997)? Or the jockey in “Seabiscuit” (2003), together with his trusty nag? As for Garfield, one of his most enjoyable roles was that of the televangelist Jim Bakker, earlier this year, in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.” I’d love to see Jim march proudly into “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” clutching his Bible, and ask Green Goblin and Dr. Strange for their generous donations, to sponsor the work of the Lord.
Most alarming of all is the prospect that movie studios besides Marvel might be inspired by the portal gimmick to turn their own franchises into regeneration engines for the retired. Until now, new actors shouldering old roles have contented themselves with queasy in-jokes: “This never happened to the other fellow,” George Lazenby says in the opening scene of “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” (1969), as a nod to the departure of Sean Connery. But imagine if the other fellows were able to muscle in at will, with or without digital assistance. Imagine, for example, if the dour and unsatisfying finale of “No Time to Die,” the recent James Bond adventure, had been rounded off not by the explosive dismissal of Daniel Craig but by the placid arrival of Roger Moore, wearing a gentleman’s smirk and a snowy tuxedo, and by the excitable voice of Q, saying, “I think he’s attempting reëntry, sir!”
This mania for repetition is nothing new. One person who foresaw it was Samuel Johnson, who was scrupulously wise even about matters of which he could never have dreamed:
The regard of the public is not to be kept but by tribute, and the remembrance of past service will quickly languish unless successive performances frequently revive it. Yet in every new attempt there is new hazard, and there are few who do not, at some unlucky time, injure their own characters by attempting to enlarge them.