Spider-Man: No Way Home and all the images you see in this review are owned by Sony Pictures Releasing
Directed by Jon Watts
It’s been a rather underwhelming year for the superhero genre which once towered over the world. The Pandemic has pushed the release schedule around several times which means we’re waiting longer for these movies, and to me, the MCU is having trouble finding their voice after Endgame put a pretty definitive end to the original story arc. Frankly, the best we’ve gotten from the MCU in the last two years have been the Disney+ shows that may not always hit their marks but definitely have a lot of interesting ideas that probably wouldn’t work as a movie; even with these things being overly long for the most part. Still, it’s hard not to get excited about another Spider-Man film; especially one as specifically targeted to my generation as this one is. Does it manage to pull us out of the MCU funk and deliver on all the ludicrous promises the trailers have made, or is this going to be as convoluted and pointless as the Clone Saga; or even worse, One More Day? Let’s find out!!
Following the events of Spider-Man: Far From Home, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) has been revealed to the world as their friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, and this newfound celebrity (and infamy) has thrown his life into chaos. Investigations from the government, a bunch of weirdos throwing bricks through his windows, and a very awkward school environment where half of them want to see him become their mascot and the other are hurling conspiracy-laden insults at him. See, this is why you need to be rich or a soldier to do the Superhero thing; either commit to it full time or pay people to go outside for you! It gets to be such a burden that Peter begs the MCU’s cool uncle Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to use his wizard magic to erase his identity from the mind of everyone in the universe. Let’s just say that it had mixed results as the world doesn’t forget his identity, but there are now a bunch of villains running around who seem to know him; including Doctor Otto Octavius who has four robot arms (Alfred Molina), Max Dillon who has electricity powers (Jamie Foxx), Dr. Curt Connors who’s a lizard man (Rhys Ifans) Flint Marko who spends most of the movie as a human-shaped sandcastle for whatever reason (Thomas Haden Church), and of course Norman Osborne who still suffers from pretty severe mood swings (Willem Dafoe). Now if you’ve kept up with the Spider-Man films for the last twenty years, those names should seem pretty familiar. Sadly the Spider-Man of this universe didn’t get to see those movies, so he has to discover who all these people are, why they became villains in the first place, and if this confluence of inter-dimensional fan service can actually turn into a good thing for all involved. Will Peter Parker, with the help of his friends, his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), and his sorta-bodyguard Happy (Jon Favreau), be able to stop these guys from tearing apart this universe and perhaps even get past their overwhelming hatred of wall-crawling superheroes? Who else may have found their way into this universe, and what can they do to either help or hamper Peter’s attempts to fix everything? So is J Jonah Jameson (JK Simmons) also an inter-dimensional buzzkill, or is there no universe that can escape his ludicrous conspiracy theories and get-rich-quick schemes?
A movie that strives to be perfect but doesn’t quite make it there can be frustrating for me to talk about, because while this is unequivocally a good movie and one that I enjoyed immensely, I find myself fixating on the flaws and what they could have done to make it better more than everything else they got right. Without a doubt, this is a great movie for anyone who is a fan of this character, and especially for those who were disappointed that the Raimi films fizzled out the way that they did. It continues to explore the MCU version of Spider-Man in this Post-Endgame world, and while the crossover stuff ends up taking center stage, it never truly overshadows Tom Holland’s Peter Parker which is quite an achievement for something so steeped in nostalgic callbacks, and it’s frankly a movie that other similar nostalgia bait flicks should study if they want to come off as anything more than hollow marketing exercises. I’m looking at you, Ghostbusters Afterlife!
Say what you will about Marvel, you can rarely find fault with the nuts and bolts construction of their movies. They have the ridiculous resources necessary to make any special effect look convincing, they can hire great actors to deliver lines and imbue characters with genuine humanity, and while plots can sometimes be a bit fiddly or stale, you’re not going to find one that is outright incomprehensible. I think that the Post-Blip MCU does have a problem with aimlessness as the world seems to be flailing about to find a purpose to rally around. This could be read as an interesting meta-commentary on what life is like after such a terrifying crisis, but the first act feels less like a medication on that and more of a pick-and-mix of Spider-Man tropes that feel undercooked until they settle on what is ultimately a very minor crisis to kick off the main plot. That said, everything about this movie functions as it should with Tom Holland, Zendaya, and Jacob Batalon continuing to be the heart of the Spider-Man corner of this universe, and the characters from the greater MUC like Dr. Strange and Wong are in it just enough to make the story feel as big as it needs to without overwhelming the presence of the kids. The action scenes are still impressive, especially the one that takes place in a Mirror Universe thingy, and while I can argue about how inconsistent some of the power levels are (some characters really shouldn’t be so hard to take down and other’s shouldn’t be so easy to deal with), they keep the pacing in check and the tension high throughout. You knew all this going into it though, right? There was no doubt that this movie was going to have a baseline competence that all Marvel movies have, and you’re either on board with it at this point or you’re not. What you want to know about is the stuff they teased in the trailers; how the multiverse Spider-Man stuff works into the story and if they can pull it off!
Well, we might as well get into it, and while I will do my best to not spoil anything significant in the movie, we are heading into some choppy waters here so continue at your own risk.
We good? Alright, so when looking at nostalgia bait in the movie, we have to first decide what it means to do it well. How do you pander without showing contempt for the audience, and how do you give the audience what it wants without hijacking the plot to do so? For me, the movie succeeds in making the crossovers feel meaningful for the characters and for the audience who stuck with these movies since the early 2000s, but the path to getting there feels more than a little contrived. I don’t mind that we’re dealing with multiverse and wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff, but it seems like they don’t have much of an idea what to do with everyone once they’re in the same place. Spider-Man has a very Spider-Man arc in this movie, but the villains are forced to contort themselves in awkward ways to fit the machinations of the plot and to fairly distribute the screen time allotted to them. Still, if you look past the hand waiving and how some of the characters are just kind of aimlessly bumming around, there are some amazing moments throughout and some genuine catharsis for those who always wondered what would have happened if things had worked out differently for the previous iterations of this series. Seeing Alfred Molina and Willem Dafoe return to their iconic roles is an absolute treat as neither actor has lost an ounce of the gravitas in the intervening years, and it’s impressive just how much they manage to get out of the heavily flawed Amazing Spider-Man characters; especially Jamie Foxx who I’m sure wasn’t happy with the way they handled his character back in 2014. Some feel a bit lost in the shuffle with Sandman and The Lizard doing the most bumming around, but even they have some strong moments here and I found it all to work so much better than in Ghostbusters Afterlife. I will concede that there’s probably about the same density of callbacks between this and Ghostbusters, so perhaps it does ultimately come down to personal taste, but where Ghostbusters felt like a shallow remix, this feels like a genuine new chapter in the story of these characters who we left behind long ago. It’s not healthy to fixate on the past so they probably don’t need to do another one of these anytime soon, but for what it sets out to do, it comes across as very genuine and more than satisfying for the fans in the audience who have been keeping up with this character for two decades now.
As much as I enjoyed myself in most of this movie, the film is not without its flaws (more so than just the clunky plotting), and I was not a big fan of the ending. One of the things about Tom Holland’s run that has made it interesting is how much it deviated from other versions of the character. There’s no Uncle Ben, there’s barely anything Spider-Man related in his orbit like the Osborne family, and while he does have to suffer quite a bit of physical and mental anguish, they don’t stem from him being underappreciated by his peers or constantly struggling to make ends meet. Without wishing to spoil anything, the movie seems intent on “making up for that” if you will, and for the most part it does work. There’s some pretty heartbreaking stuff throughout the story that definitely feels poignant given the self-referential nature of this movie, and seeing how the various Spider-Man universes share some core truths is a really interesting idea and is one of the reasons that the multi-verse mashup works as well as it does. That is until the end of the third act where the contrivances stack up and the self-flagellation for not being a traditional Spider-Man series reaches its zenith. Absolutely, there were things about this Spider-Man that could have been improved, but the way they go about it at the end feels like throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and I just didn’t care for it.
Perhaps the biggest condemnation against this movie is that it ultimately ends up reminding us of better movies. The first two Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies have yet to be topped by any other Spider-Man movies (at least the live-action ones), and as much fun as it is to see these characters return for one last ride, they can’t help but feel a bit crowded having to share screen time with everyone else. All that said, it works better than it probably has any right to work when the characters really start to interact and it gets to the heart of Spider-Man in a way that the MCU hasn’t really managed to so far. An ending that took those lessons from the other films and used them to build something new rather than retread ground we’ve seen before might have put this in that top tier of Spider-Man movies, but even if it falls a bit short, it’s still a well-executed and extremely fun way to spend an afternoon; assuming, of course, that it’s safe for you to go to the theaters. Now the next one should definitely get back on track with just the one Spider-Man universe as they need to figure out what they’re gonna do after that ending… but if they wanted to throw in Nicolas Cage’s Spider-Noir, I wouldn’t throw much of a fuss over it!