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Spider-Man No Way Home 3.png

'Spider-Man: No Way Home' Review: Fan Service with Soul

By Tori Preston | Film | December 18, 2021 |

By Tori Preston | Film | December 18, 2021 |

Spider-Man No Way Home 3.png

“With great power comes great responsibility” is the motto baked into all things Spider-Man, but as far as the film franchise goes, maybe “big shoes to fill” would be more fitting. Sure, Tom Holland — the MCU/Sony Spidey — is the third actor to take on the role in live-action, but I’d argue that Spider-Man: No Way Home has even bigger shoes to fill. Making a Spider-Man movie about confronting a rift in the Multiverse when Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, not only one of the best superhero movies ever made but also one of the best movie-movies, is literally right there? Bold move, Sony. Or… Marvel. Or whatever. Bold move.

And guess what? The move actually works — but not in the way you might think. I know I’m supposed to try to duck and weave my way through this review without giving away those oh-so-precious spoilers, but frankly there is only so much I can say about the movie that isn’t spelled out in the trailer or already trending on Twitter. So I’m going to use Into The Spider-Verse as my touchstone here, because the one thing the trailer can’t capture and that isn’t a spoiler is that No Way Home learned the best lessons from Miles Morales’s animated adventure. What makes both movies tick isn’t the sheer volume of toys jumbled in the sandbox (although there are plenty) but the surprising ways those toys are positioned to challenge and illuminate our hero. Into The Spider-Verse offered up a version of Spider-Man who struggled to decide what kind of hero — and human — he wanted to be, but he’s also the rare Spidey who wasn’t figuring it out alone. He had allies who understood his struggles. Holland’s version of Peter Parker is already ahead of the game in that regard. He’s had two movies plus cross-over events to rack up mentors like Tony Stark, fight alongside the Avengers, and the most important people in his life already know about his web-slinging secret identity. He isn’t exactly isolated, but he also hasn’t really done the work to figure out what being a Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man means to him. That’s what this third movie tries to answer: What does it really mean for a hero to “help” people?

After Mysterio outed him publicly at the end of Far From Home, Peter Parker finds himself in the public eye as conspiracy theories spearheaded by J. Jonah Jameson try to brand him a murder. Jameson is once again played by J.K. Simmons, returning to the role he defined back in the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films, though he doesn’t appear to be a symptom of reality falling to shreds. Nope, J. Jonah Jameson is just some kind of Multiversal constant pain in the a$$. Anyway, when the legal scrutiny and the public harassment surrounding him tanks his college admissions, as well as those of MJ (Zendaya) and Ned (Jacob Batalon), Peter heads to Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) for a little magical help. Despite Wong (Benedict Wong) being VERY FERVENTLY AGAINST MASS MEMORY TAMPERING, Strange decides it’ll be a neat little project to see if he can just make everyone in the entire world forget that Peter is the real Spider-Man, and it would have worked if Peter hadn’t kept altering the spell to fit around the people in his life he wanted to remember his secret. I’ll be honest, the mystical logic of it all is a bit hand-flappy, but basically the spell goes wonky and instead of making people forget, it attracts people who KNOW Spider-Man is Peter Parker. From across other realities!

Enter Doc Ock (Alfred Molina), Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), Electro (Jamie Foxx), The Sandman (Thomas Haden Church), and The Lizard (Rhys Ifans) — all villains from the previous eras of Spider-Man films, all shocked to discover that this Peter Parker is not, in fact, Tobey Maguire or Andrew Garfield. Strange tells Peter to capture them so he can undo the spell and send them all back from whence they came, but then a funny thing happens: Peter gets to know them. Good villains should be a reflection of their hero, and the thing about Spider-Man’s rogues gallery is that they all represent warped versions of that “with great power comes great responsibility” ethos. Like Peter, they were just people who gained their unique powers through some sort of accident. They aren’t like Thanos, who was born with immense power, or Red Skull, who actively sought even more power. They sort of stumbled onto it, and it changed them. From the previous films we even know these villains aren’t completely lost, from Doc Ock sacrificing himself to take his own machine into the river to Norman Osborn’s fractured psyche. Peter starts to realize there might be some good in them still — and that he might just be the perfect Spider-Man to help them heal. Because villains are people too!

Evildoer Group Therapy wasn’t the direction I expected Spider-Man: No Way Home to take, and that’s exactly why it works. It pits Peter against Doctor Strange for a mind-bending fight sequence (turns out, math beats magic) as he takes a stand for what he believes, and then it forces him to continue re-evaluating his beliefs as the villains prove more dangerous than he imagined. Holland’s Peter Parker has come the closest to having it all go his way, optimism intact, compared to the other iterations we’ve seen on screen, which means he hasn’t confronted the challenges — the loses, the failures, the sacrifices — that typically define our cinematic Spideys. As No Way Home closes out this trilogy, it proves that it’s never too late for our hero to face a powerful reckoning.

The fact that the movie works as well as it does is all the more impressive considering just how many cameos, easter eggs, and general fan servicey stuff it has to serve up in the midst of having, you know, a plot. Most of it — the really big things — do enhance the story in meaningful ways, but other moments feel sweaty with effort, especially when the camera holds just a beat too long on a close-up after an actor delivers a reference and tries not to wink directly at the audience. Alfred Molina and Willem Dafoe remind us just how much fun it is to let a brilliant actor sharpen their teeth on all the scenery, but Thomas Haden Church and Rhys Ifans are given next to nothing to work with. Don’t get me wrong — as a fan, I still got the warm fuzzies from it all, but I’d be lying if I said that everything was necessary. I don’t envy screenwriters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers trying to tap-dance their way through three eras of Spider-Man movies AND the whole of the MCU, but they did manage to thread the needle — and with some real heart. Director Jon Watts also deserves a hat tip for finding a visual language that stays true to the current chapter of the franchise while also paying respect to the eras that produced those villains, because let’s face it — ain’t nobody gonna shoot Doc Ock better than Raimi! Let those metal tentacles LIVE!

It’s all a delicate balancing act, because Spider-Man: No Way Home also had some big shoes to fill in terms of expectations. It had to tee up the next phase of Marvel’s Multiversapaloosa in a way that also paid off what all the fans were clamoring to see from a Spidey multiversal caper. Perhaps the Doctor Strange/magic of it all doesn’t make sense because it’s just not that important. Spell breaks things, spell fixes things, there are other worlds than these. The movie offers just enough for you to get the gist, but then it uses that premise as an excuse to deliver an unexpected love letter to all things Spider-Man — particularly the convoluted, oft messy ups downs of Sony’s stewardship of the character. Maybe that’s what I appreciate about Sony’s little corner of Marvel, that messiness we don’t get from the Disney MCU. It’s refreshing when the cracks are allowed to show because in those cracks even an IP behemoth might find something new to say.

Phew! Did I get through this without spoiling the movie? Well, don’t worry — I’ll have a full SPOILER piece coming soon to discuss the best cameos (not the ones you’re expecting!), the impact this may have on the MCU, and those two End Credit sequences!

Spider-Man: No Way Home is in theaters December 17, 2021.

Header Image Source: Sony Pictures (via YouTube)