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The Science of Nostalgia In Film: Spider-Man: No Way Home

By Abigail Shumway

As a child, movies served a central role in developing my imagination and creativity as well as being a way that my family could spend time together. Every Friday night (almost) we would make homemade pizza and snuggle down on the couch, with excessive blankets and pillows, to watch a movie together. While there was always some conflict in the movie selection part of the evening, a favorite of everyone was the first Sam Raimi Spider-Man film. Since the first time we watched the movie, Silly String could be found all over the yard and “with great power comes great responsibility” was ingrained in our vocabulary. Whenever I watch that movie, joyous memories of my childhood, and a time when my younger brother and I actually got along, come flooding back into my brain adding an immensely intimate feeling to the movie watching experience. This is why when the new Spider-Man: No Way Home came out I was not only blown away as a Marvel fan but my inner child also got to come out to play.

When talking about nostalgia in film, especially in recent years, Spider-Man: No Way Home is an incredible example. Not only did this movie attract dedicated fans of Marvel Comics and the MCU but it also drew in the slightly older crowd who were more intrigued by the choice to bring back characters and actors that they were more familiar with from the original films. When moviegoers saw this film they were greeted by a familiar phrase of “with great power comes great responsibility,” as an explicit callback to the first Spider-Man film eliciting cheers from the audience (including myself). Not only was Tobey Maguire featured in this film but the familiar amazing face of The Amazing Spider-Man, Andrew Garfield, greeted viewers with his friendly smile. Not only did the mere presence of his character bring about immense nostalgia but also we see that this Peter Parker is able to save the MCU’s Peter Parker’s love interest thus bringing closure for this character over the loss of his own love, Gwen. The feeling of joy and nostalgia over the closure for this character in an all too familiar setting moved myself, and many other viewers around me (and probably elsewhere as well), to tears. Along with our favorite web slinging heroes being brought back to the big screen, some of the best Spider-Man villains from the previous franchises also graced the screen. Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock and Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin were welcomed to the theater with excited cheers and gasps (even though they were attacking our friendly neighborhood hero), hitting the audience with wave upon wave of reminiscent emotions. Seeing the characters that are known and loved by so many come back, from beyond the grave, to grace the silver screen once again in a different universe created a surreal viewing experience that I, and many others, would give anything to see for the first time again.

Now, why? May you ask. Why are so many people driven to immense amounts of joy or even tears over these fictional characters who they have no tangible connection to? Well, scientists have found that there are actually immense psychological benefits to viewing this nostalgia in film and there could even be influence from our fast moving world to be driven back into the past. Krystine Batcho, a professor of psychology at LeMoyne College, says that “the desire for nostalgia tends to spike during and proceeding transformative life events…because it offers stability and a peaceful remembrance of a time when life was not so stressful” (Rossen), so this Spider-Man film could not have come at a more strategic time. Still being amongst the pandemic and continued political turmoil, the producers not only needed to appeal to a wide audience to bring people out of hiding and back into the theaters but they also aimed to give people a happy escape from the stress of day to day life, and in most cases, once they see it once they have to see it again (that is definitely how it was for me). Other psychological experts say that watching your favorite reruns or rewatching a childhood film can actually be used as “an instant — and for the most part healthy — regression in the service of the ego” (Vivinetto), thus potentially decreasing the effects of anxiety and mild depression. Others also say that these past favorites, even if they do not trigger positive memories, can remind us of where we were in our lives when we were first watching the film and help to “make us appreciate how much we’ve evolved” (Vivinetto). This appreciation of personal growth can also immensely benefit the ego and help to keep oneself grounded in the present while being able to acknowledge their past journey in a healthy way.

In a scientific research study, using fMRI technology to perform brain scans, scientists monitored participants' brain activity when they were cued to recall positive and neutral memories. In this study, it was found that there was “enhanced activity in the striatum and medial prefrontal cortex [that] was associated with increases in positive emotion during recall” (Speer) of events that had a positive connotation with the participant. In the brain, the striatum is made up of “the caudate, putamen, and nucleus accumbens” (Purves), which are together generally responsible for “facilitating voluntary movement” (Purves). The medial prefrontal cortex on the other hand “plays an important regulatory role in numerous cognitive functions, including attention, inhibitory control, habit formation and working, spatial or long term memory” (Jobson). Meaning that when you watch a movie that you enjoyed as a child, or even just a couple of years ago, the medial prefrontal cortex is triggered in response to this movie now being a part of your long term memory and thus bringing about the same, positive, emotions that you felt when you first watched the movie. Further into the study, participants were even offered monetary rewards in exchange for choosing to recall a more neutral memory but it was found that they would sacrifice “28% of potential monetary earnings to recall positive rather than neutral memories” (Speer). Ultimately the researchers concluded that their “findings suggest that recalling positive experiences from the past increases one’s positive emotion and engages reward-related neural circuitry, such as the striatum and mPFC” (Speer). Meaning that “reminiscing about positive experiences is intrinsically valuable to an individual” (Speer), proving that there are tangible neurological benefits in viewing these movies and TV shows that use tactics of nostalgia.

All of this is why Spider-Man: No Way Home worked so well. Reviewer after reviewer references the older, original, Spider-Man movies and how they associate with the new film in a positive light with almost a childlike wonder. One says that Tobey “Maguire was the awkward Parker we know from his franchise, but with the wisdom that comes with age” (Ross), and another states that “Garfield…didn’t receive a conclusion to his trilogy” (Velasques), showing that not only are these movies still very present in viewers minds but that this film not only brought this past nostalgia but also a kind of closure that does not seem to be present in our real life day and age. With a pandemic, the failing or our criminal justice system with the rise in police brutality, and now a war overseas, closure, conclusion, and progress is not something that is being seen in the news so many viewers, like myself, let out a sigh of relief and released some sort of the felt heartache by having this closure and reminiscence seen on the big screen. Another experience that a reviewer shared that was felt by so many viewers was “A tender moment that made many people in the audience hold back tears was the scene of MJ falling off a building and Andrew Garfield’s spider-man rushing in to catch her. Something he could not do for his own love interest back in The Amazing Spider-Man 2” (Stoutenborough). Seeing this stark juxtaposition of the same scene from The Amazing Spider-Man 2 in Spider-Man: No Way Home played out but in a different way where this character, who has suffered from so much hurt, gets the redemption and closure that fans have wanted for so long proves what scientists were testing in the aforementioned study. In this instance, nostalgia was used to bring up this memory, long term, which had immensely negative emotions attached to it just for the producers to be able to reframe it as a hopeful instance thus replacing the feelings of the viewers with happiness and solidifying the emotionality of the scene.

Long story short, these big film companies are immensely profiting off of people’s desire to not only feel but be reminded of happier times that are less complicated than the world we are living in now. Human beings have an innate desire to feel something and are immensely satisfied when there is clean cut closure to a situation which never happens in day to day life giving even more importance to the movies that we choose to watch. Whether it is a live action version of one of the animated films we watched as children or a sequel of a film that is decades old, the feelings and memories that they bring up are immensely beneficial to a person's neurological wellbeing. Even though the movies mentioned throughout this piece are not realistic to what we are living today in any way shape or form, the emotions that they elicit makes the money spent worth it to the consumer and draws them back in for more. Viewers such as myself saw Spider-Man: No Way Home three plus times with no regrets (except when I looked at my bank statement) but I hope what can be taken away from this is that science says it is not your fault. While we all consciously know that the closure for the characters that we see on screen will not improve our day to day lives, we all still jump at any chance to see these nostalgic moments making it so opening night alone at AMC theaters across the country 1.1 million people came out to see Spider-Man: No Way Home (Datta). As long as the world is complicated and does not make sense, movies will be here to comfort us. Like Academy Award Director Joseph Mankiewicz said, “the difference between life and the movies is that a script has to make sense, and life doesn't” (“Joseph”).

Works Cited

  • Datta, Tiyashi. “AMC says over a million people watched new ‘Spider-Man’ movie at its U.S. theaters.” Reuters. 17 December 2021. /amc-says-over-million-people-watch-new-spider-man-movie-its-us-theaters-2021-12-17.

  • Purves D, Augustine GJ, Fitzpatrick D, Hall WC, Lamantia AS, McNamara JO, White LE. “Neuroscience.” 4th ed. Sunderland, MA. Sinauer Associates; 2008. 20striatum%20refers%20to%20a,%2C%20putamen%2C%20and%20nucleus%20accumb ens.

  • Jobson, Dan D, Hase, Yoshiki, Clarkson, Andrew N, Kalaria, Rajesh N. “The role of the medial prefrontal cortex in cognition, aging and dementia.” Brain Communications. Volume 3, Issue 3. 2021.

  • "Joseph L. Mankiewicz Quotes." BrainyMedia Inc, 2022.

  • Rossen, Jake. “Retro Analysis: The Science of Nostalgia.” Mental Floss. 30 September 2019.

  • Ross, Braden. “When nostalgia bait succeeds: ‘Spider-Man No Way Home’ Review.” The Badger Herald. 2 January 2022. nostalgia-bait-succeeds-spider-man-no-way-home-review-sk/.

  • Speer, Megan E., Bhanji, Jamil P., Delgado, Mauricio R. “Savoring the Past: Positive Memories Evoke Value Representations in the Striatum.” Neuron, Volume 84, Issue 4, 2014.

  • Spider-Man: No Way Home. Directed by Jon Watts, performances by Tom Holland, Zendaya, Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield, Willem Dafoe, etc., Columbia Pictures in association with Marvel Studios, 2021.

  • Spider-Man. Directed by Sam Raimi, performances by Tobey Maguire, Willem Dafoe, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, J.K. Simmons, Joe Manganiello, etc., Columbia Pictures in association with Marvel Enterprises, 2002.

  • Stoutenborough, Amber. “‘Spider-Man’ found a home in nostalgic Marvel fans.” The DePaula. 25 December 2021. home-in-nostalgic-marvel-fans/.

  • The Amazing-Spider-Man 2. Directed by Marc Webb, performances by Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Jamie Foxx, etc., Columbia Pictures in association with Marvel Enterprises, 2014. Velasques, Diana. “‘Spider-Man: No Way Home’ is nostalgia at its best.” The Pitt News. 9 January 2022. -spider-man-no-way-home-is-nostalgia-at-its-best/.

  • Vivinetto, Gina. “Watching nostalgia TV has psychological benefits, experts say.” Today. 29 June 2019. -experts-say-t157090.

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