While not exactly a gift and a curse the way Peter Parker sometimes sees his powers, the inclusion of Spider-Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has repeatedly fallen into a realm of mixed reactions for me. Now, from my perspective, I have yet to see a bad Spider-Man film, and Spider-Man: No Way Home is no different. In fact, it’s the strongest of these Tom Holland-focused entries yet. However, for all the geeky comic book-style fun that arrives with having the web-head interact with other Marvel characters, processing it within this universe still makes me feel like a singular identity is missing within these co-Marvel Studios productions. But perhaps this holiday season, I should be more willing to celebrate that there’s not only Spidey but plenty of ghosts of Marvel’s past that he’s brought with him.
The film picks up seconds after the end of Spider-Man: Far From Home. Mysterio has leaked a video revealing that Spider-Man is actually high schooler Peter Parker. Naturally, The Daily Bugle’s J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons) has made this front-page news around the globe. Peter’s whole world has now been turned upside down. It’s affecting everyone he’s closest with – his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), and his girlfriend MJ (Zendaya). What’s our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man going to do? Well, his initial thought is to seek help from Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch). Will a spell be able to restore Peter’s biggest secret? Even if it does, suffice to say, there are some side effects.
Alongside Batman, Spider-Man has the best rogue’s gallery of villains. Eight Sony-produced films in, and there have been plenty of opportunities to see them realized on the big screen. For No Way Home, the choice was made to bring back several of Spider-Man’s greatest enemies. But to what avail? With a plan is to avoid developing entirely new villains for Peter to go up against, what is ideally achieved by replaying old battles in new arenas?
As No Way Home somewhat gives up on really dealing with a Spider-Man whose identity has been revealed early on, the attempts to explore his relationships with these past villains are surprising and affecting. They are also handled in a manner that those who have kept up with all of Spider-Man’s cinematic adventures will appreciate.
Part of the appeal of the threats that come Spider-Man’s way is how they relate to his normal life. While not always a teenager, Peter is continually growing as a person. At its best, No Way Home utilizes characters such as Willem Dafoe’s Norman Osborn (aka Green Goblin) and Alfred Molina’s Otto Octavius (aka Doctor Octopus) to serve as interesting figures for Peter to respond to, whether in action or conversation. The same can be said for Peter’s relationships with Dr. Strange, MJ, and, of course, his dear Aunt May.
The tricky thing about matching Spider-Man with this whole set of characters is understanding what’s supposed to matter to Peter and what’s supposed to matter to the audience. We live in an age of blockbusters and cinematic universes that sometimes require more external knowledge when considering the current film at hand. Does No Way Home need everyone to remember the finer details of 2007’s Spider-Man 3 and 2014’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 in order to be watchable? No, but this film does base a lot of humor and emotional beats around the idea of audiences connecting with what’s happening based on previous films.
With that in mind, going back to the same point, we’re 25+ films in with the MCU. At least 5 of those entries serve as big team-up adventures that are all about paying off what was established in other movies while still understanding that they need to work as standalone features. With this Spider-Man film leaning more on that sort of logic, clearly, I should just accept that’s how movies are, yes? Well, that’s the struggle I’m having.
On the surface, No Way Home is a very entertaining film. Tom Holland is at his best, with the movie pushing his character to certain limits to really challenge the “gee-whiz” nature of his take on Spider-Man. The supporting cast all feel properly utilized, as the notion of fun and terrific chemistry has been an essential staple of the MCU. Tomei and Cumberbatch, in particular, deliver a lot with roles they could easily walk through but don’t. Similarly, Molina and Dafoe were highlights in their respective films, and both bring plenty of exciting menace and other angles with their returns (Dafoe, in particular, really sinks in with playing his extremes).
Beneath that surface, however, I did find myself considering how much of No Way Home is truly a movie unfolding, as opposed to a (well-assembled) series of events constructed to make fans applaud based on their acknowledgment of references to the past. Looking at this line of thinking, is it all that different from 2018’s Oscar-winning Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse? The difference I see comes through in the filmmaking.
Where Spider-Verse threw in a ton of Spider-Man comics into what has to be the best animated movie blender possible and came out with something fresh, exciting, alive, and full of personality, returning director Jon Watts only seems to have so much wiggle room with delivering a movie such as this. Now, trust me when I say that no expense was spared. While a certain kind of feel is missing from all of the MCU Spider-Man movies that keep them from competing with what Sam Raimi* was cooking up in the past, the teams that have designed the various action sequences (web-swinging and whatnot) have found ways to deliver excellent spectacle. Spider-Man vs. Dr. Strange, for example, provides the sort of mind-trip anyone would hope for.
Still, I can’t help but feel like Spider-Man still ends up coming across as a smaller force than he should while situated within the MCU. I may be glad we’re past his reliance on Tony Stark as a mentor, and while Peter doesn’t get boxed out of his own movie, there’s this feeling that more could be done were the character released from the confines of a cinematic universe that requires a level of control limiting the opportunities afforded from opening a potentially game-changing multiverse.
Gripes aside, which only have more emphasis because of the amount of admittedly cool stuff that should be seen instead of explained, this is still Spider-Man. He’s the fun character that I and the rest of the world generally enjoy because he’s not too caught up with brooding all of the time. I may not really understand how magic works in this film (I have some serious questions), but the addition of Dr. Strange adds wrinkles that are awesome to see playout. It all amounts to a film packed with superhero wonder akin to some of the most exciting moments audiences have taken away from this series of films. Not bad for a kid from Queens.
*Sam Raimi is returning to the world of superheroes with Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, arriving May 2022, and I’m very curious about how much freedom he’ll have to bring his style to the MCU.
(Note: As always, stay through all of the credits to see two bonus sequences)