At this point in time Spider-Man has existed on Earth longer than most people alive today. While there is undoubtedly millions, likely billions, of people who have no idea or little concern about the web-crawler, those who care are guaranteed to have witnessed more than one incarnation during their life, be it through the dozens of different comic book Spideys, the various cartoons, the three different live-action film adaptations, or the one animated movie centered on the notion of multiple Spider-People. More so than popularity alone, the true measure of ol’ Webhead’s strength is that despite how different these variations are, the character’s most basic traits remain intact. Through 2000’s Tobey Maguire, early 2010’s Andrew Garfield, or later 2010’s Tom Holland, Peter Parker has been an idealistic, at times too naïve kid with the best of intentions, if not the best of follow-through, who often proves that heroes would rather suffer than let others suffer. Like so many other superheroes, Parker has always been propelled by tragedy, and yet, unlike so many other superheroes, he has never been defined by tragedy. Rather, in all his forms, Parker’s endurance shows in overcoming, continuing, and swinging on. It’s likely this exact element that has made Spider-Man one of the most relatable and emotionally resonant superheroes dating back to his very first appearance. And never, through any of his myriad cinematic forms, has this resilience been more obvious than in the emotional gauntlet of Holland’s current run as MCU Spider-Man. A gauntlet continued, and in some ways culminating, in Spider-Man: No Way Home.
Before we truly begin, this review will focus on material that is widely available online, including cast members and characters shown in pre-release promotion. Those who have managed to avoid the trailers, the posters, social media in general, or even the previous films should turn away now. However, there will be one section of spoilers. This section will be clearly marked and separated from the rest of this review. Please don’t read this section if you haven’t seen the film.
No Way Home‘s biggest problem is clear from the start. Following a battle with Thanos which saw Parker himself blip (I’ve never liked that term) out of existence for five years, the loss of his mentor, the betrayal of a potential friend, and the outing of his secret identity, No Way Home finds Spider-Man in his worst situation yet: as the most famous person in the world. Like any famous figure in the age of social media and misinformation, Parker quickly amasses as many fans as protestors tracking his life and those of his friends and family. Although through this set up No Way Home does a good job introducing its themes and relationships, the majority of first act feels like thin, frayed strings leading the characters where they need to be for the story to progress, strings that would immediately fall apart with even the slightest bit of resistance. Superhero movies in particular are prone to crumbling to logic, yet No Way Home is noticeably light, with a first hour that plays as blah blah, blah blah, Dr. Strange, Peter does something stupid, and villains! Villains everywhere! The only lingering effect of the previous film after forty minutes is Peter being cut off from the technological resources left to him by Tony Stark. Even the last film’s supporting characters, like Tony Revolori’s Flash Thompson, are all but dropped from the rest of the film, with JB Smoove, Martin Starr, and Hannibal Buress given a single scene (although Buress’s conspiracy theorist turn is inspired). This separation both allows the film to focus on Peter’s core relationships with MJ, Ned, and Aunt May, while also re-establishing him as the low-tech friendly neighborhood Spider-Man of Homecoming, but it also makes nearly half of the entire movie feel perfunctory, arranging and even remaking the characters where they need to be for an admittedly spectacular final hour.
The real shame in the weakness of No Way Home‘s plot is that most of the scenes that happen after characters are rushed into place are excellent. The bond within the core cast is palpable, especially between Holland and Zendaya (continuing the tradition of Spider-Man dating his co-star), whose wide-eyed optimism and side-eyed cynicism are continued delights. Even as the focus lands on the film’s villains, with their meandering ties to the film’s theme of fate and loss, the connections between the characters are the real plot of the film. Pity that plot that is sidelined for far too long. After watching these characters grow up together we understand how much they mean to each other, and the added focus on the effect Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) has on Peter only adds to the emotional momentum, making it believable that Peter would turn to magical means to keep them safe. What’s not believable is that Dr. Strange, the same guy who yelled at Tony Stark for leaning against the Cauldron of the Cosmos, would so immediately agree to Parker’s extreme measure. Sure, Cumberbatch’s Strange is yet another Marvel quipster, but thus far he’s been more prone to using slapdash magic for disorientation than for rewriting history. But hey, that’s what has to happen so the film can have villains! Villains everywhere! Especially since those villains are the standouts of the film’s second act.
I’ve always viewed JK Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson to be the most perfect piece of casting ever. No one else can, should, or will be able to play that role. The character’s update from bloviating newspaper man to bloviating online propagandist (even hawking Alex Jones style brain pills) is equally brilliant. Yet even the filmmakers clearly understand that the second greatest casting in any Spider-Man movie is Alfred Molina as Dr. Otto Octavius, making him the first and meatiest of the returning villains. Seventeen years later (wow, I’m old!), Molina brings the same level of tragic pathos that he did in Spider-Man 2, showcasing his skill as the character fluctuates through different influences. It’s telling then that the second villain re-introduced is Willem Dafoe’s Norman Osborne, whose manic, broken performance provides the first of many possible tearjerker moments. Later additions of Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx), Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) and Flint Marko (Thomas Hayden Church) are given their own emotional arcs, but don’t carry the same heft as the antagonists from Sam Raimi’s first two Spider-Man films. What’s more, Ifans and Church barely appear on screen, highlighting the weakness of their original films, and Foxx’s portrayal makes his previous over-the-top stereotypical nerd from Amazing Spider-Man 2 look even worse. Like Dr. Strange, Dillon is given an unexplained attitude adjustment. This could easily have been explained by simply saying there is more than one reality in which Electro clashed with Spider-Man but instead his sudden hair growth, straightened teeth and confidence are waved away in a single comment, an example of another of No Way Home‘s chief problems.
It’s hard not to feel as though No Way Home could have been more. Between the flimsy plotting, questionable motivation, boring fight locations, and occasional effects that look like actors couldn’t be bothered to appear on set together, No Way Home feels like a rush toward the third act, when everything finally gets good. As stuffed with content as the film is, when separated from the preceding movies, it’s actually very small. Even the best scenes, with all the banter and humor that have made Spider-Man movies so fun, could have used another rewrite to go from good to great. Instead, No Way Home has a first half of Peter rushing from one location to another just in time for the next guest star to pop up, even when that location is a literal detour on his way somewhere else. One truly spectacular sequence aside, the middle of the film is a cobbled together excuse for fan service and nostalgia only maintained by strong performances and the promise of better things to come. Given the premise of the film, the cast, and the legacy of everything that’s come before it, No Way Home should have been Spider-Man’s personal Endgame. Fortunately the film eventually gets much better, but the low stakes and occasionally baffling first half diminish the overall experience.
If everything mentioned so far seems makes it sound lik No Way Home is a bad film it’s only because the best material comes in the final third, any details of which would make for massive spoilers. Allow me to say that it’s in this last third that Peter Parker as a character truly shines, along with Holland’s performance of him, and the thin threads tying the plot finally weave together. (See spoiler section at the end of this review. But only if you’ve seen the movie.)
It’s in this film’s final act that we see the greatness of Peter Parker, in all his naïve, foolish idealism, his endurance, and his will to swing on. Spider-Man, in all his forms, has endured more tragedy than almost any other fictional figure, the seeming whipping boy of fate itself (try reading The Clone Saga or One More Day. Tragic.) Yet, in all his forms, Spider-Man holds back suffering with a harrowed yet sincere smile and the strength of a superhero. More than any other hero, Spider-Man is as likely to leave the audience laughing as he is to leave the audience crying, before leaping into the next adventure. If there is one thing that No Way Home gets absolutely right it is Peter Parker. Whether people know about him, care about him, or have no idea he even exists, he never stops trying to help. He is and always has been the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man no matter who played him then, now, or into the future.
***Spoilers section below! STOP if you haven’t seen the movie!!!***
Seriously. Big spoilers ahead.
Still here? Okay. Hope you’ve already seen the movie.
Of course Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield are in this film! There was no chance they weren’t going to be included. Given all the hype and expectation, Marvel and Sony had to know that not having the previous two Spider-Men would immediately tank the film’s word-of-mouth and likely kill its box office. In fact, the entire film spins its wheels until this inevitable yet still enjoyable revelation, basically admitting that the movie had one prevailing idea and needed to bring itself to a point where adding them made the tiniest amount of sense.
Still, seeing the three Peter Parkers together is wonderful, and the way they quickly distinguish their individual portrayals further illustrates Parker’s enduring appeal. Their parallel stories, always propelled by tragedy, push the idea of fixed points in time (or whatever it was in the What If series) while also fitting within the principles of chaos theory as a sort of multidimensional, intrapersonal debate of nurture vs. nature. Similarly, the actual strength of the different Spider-Man series comes through in the performance of the actors, as Maguire has the air of a classic, wizened veteran, with the quiet confidence that comes from an established legacy, Holland as the eager but knowledgeable newcomer more than capable of proving himself, and Garfield as the awkward transitional figure who admits his adventures were lame. Fun and lively as their scenes are together, a little extra polish, perhaps a few of the MCU’s patented sarcastic asides, would’ve gone a long way in pushing passed warm-fuzzy memories and into iconic even without our previous attachment. As a longtime critic of nostalgia, I appreciated that the scenes were less about just seeing these actors again than in hinting at how their lives have progressed, from Maguire’s back issues to Garfield’s dark period. It would have been nice if the film hadn’t locked its best material behind 90 minutes of weak plotting, with the Spider-fest as a fun precursor to the emotional wallop that is the real climax, compounded by the fact that everything in the film, everything, could’ve been prevented had Parker not interfered in the beginning. Poor Peter, best of intentions, not always the best of follow through. But hey, we finally got to see what we all knew was going to happen: a lesser live-action version of Into the Spider Verse!