Note: This review contains spoilers.
What a world, what a world. Not so long ago, a movie like John Watts’ Spider-Man: No Way Home would definitely have prompted me to open my review by dubbing it, if not the best Spider-Man movie ever, at any rate the most Spider-Man movie ever. Not much longer, that is, than three years ago, before the matchless brilliance of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse set the highest of bars for both best and most — a bar that none of Tom Holland’s outings, not even this multiversiferous one, can clear.
And yet No Way Home is a landmark achievement in its own right, an audacious act of cinematic retconning almost without parallel. (The nearest precedent is X-Men: Days of Future Past, which brought together its old and new ensemble casts in a time-bending story centered on Wolverine. There are also distant echoes in the Star Trek franchise, notably Leonard Nimoy’s lingering presence in J.J. Abrams’ rebooted Trek films.) Almost 20 years of Spider-Man movie history spanning three separate film series (along with elements from a number of different comic-book arcs) are woven into a single movie almost as big and messy in its way as the Infinity War/Endgame saga, but considerably more fun and moving.
That’s partly because the Infinity War/Endgame saga had the burden of paying off the first two phases of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, while No Way Home gets to tap into the Sam Raimi/Tobey Maguire Spider-Man trilogy and the Marc Webb/Andrew Garfield films, with no narrative expectations about what it will do with them. It’s both a proper sequel to the first two MCU Spider-Man “Home movies” and a shaggy, belated follow-up to the two non-Disney series.
I’ve often noted that sequels made after a certain statute of limitations (think Die Hard 4, Tron: Legacy, The Matrix: Resurrections, etc.) benefit from differing expectations; where a timely sequel is about what happened next, a belated follow-up asks “Where are they now?” (I thought about dubbing such “where are they now” sequels “nostalgia sequels,” and then I Googled it and of course that’s what they’re already called.)
No one expects Willem Dafoe or Alfred Molina, reprising their roles from the first two Raimi films as, respectively, the Green Goblin and Doctor Octopus, to be as compelling, 15-plus years later in a sprawling ensemble crossover film, as they were originating the roles in their own films. If they credibly evoke the original performances — and they do — we will welcome them as old friends.
As it is, those two alone — sharing the screen with underused incarnations of Thomas Hayden Church’s Sandman (2007’s Spider-Man 3), Rhys Ifan’s Lizard (2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man), and Jamie Foxx’s Electro (2014’s Amazing Spider-Man 2) — put to shame practically all of the MCU’s dozens of villains. Dafoe’s mere cackle is more spine-tingling than anything that has ever been done by any MCU villain in going on 30 films, which is not to disrespect, among others, Tom Hiddleston, Josh Brolin, or Michael B. Jordan, each of whom was doing his own thing. Still, after so much time and so many films, to have not a single villain who tingles spines as much as Dafoe laughing is surely some kind of collective indictment.
Then there’s Molina, whose tragic gravitas, carried over from what remains the best live-action Spider-Man film, 2004’s Spider-Man 2, boosts No Way Home far above the previous MCU Spider-Man movies, and for that matter above all but the best MCU movies. Tom Holland’s earnest Peter is the protagonist, but the relationship that matters most, both emotionally and morally, isn’t young Peter’s filial bond with Marisa Tomei’s Aunt May or his infatuation with Zendaya’s MJ. It’s Octavius’s connection to Tobey Maguire’s now middle-aged Peter, because that’s what gives heft to the film’s theme of redemption.
I’ve always loved time travel, partly for its potential as a metaphor giving imaginative shape to the deep human longing to see the mistakes and wrongs and hurts of the past set right: to heal wounds otherwise incurable by reaching back to their very roots. The 2000 thriller Frequency, for all its rickety plot mechanics, is a nearly perfect incarnation of the emotional power of time-bending storytelling in this regard.
The Infinity War/Endgame saga ostensibly did something along these lines, but there the wound (half of all beings in the universe erased with a snap of Thanos’ fingers) was so catastrophic that it felt unreal; I never accepted emotionally that Spider-Man, Black Panther, Doctor Strange and others were really “gone,” because the universe too clearly demanded a reset. (The lack of seriousness with which the MCU itself took “the Snap” was highlighted by its later rebranding as “the Blip.”)
This is different. The tragedy, horror, menace, and heroism of Dr. Octavius’ life and death are real in Spider-Man 2, which makes the stakes here real. No Way Home uses interdimensional travel rather than mere time travel, but the principle is the same. I could understand a fan of the Raimi film finding this revisiting and reworking a travesty, but Maguire and Molina make it work for me. I think of mentors I’ve lost — some of whom wound up in dark places — and it makes me wish, if it were possible, to bend time and space to help them, to save them. It isn’t, but I pray to the power that is beyond time and space, and when I watch a movie like No Way Home (or Frequency), I see a picture in some way evocative of something I believe is true.
When a movie works on a level like this, I can forgive certain things that don’t work as well. No Way Home requires us to accept not only that our Peter makes a number of really dumb decisions (not implausible because, as this franchise keeps reminding us, as smart as he is, Pete is just a kid), but also, less plausibly, that Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) goes along with some of them or lets Peter determine too much with the stakes too high. Of course it’s ultimately Peter’s movie, but that’s a narrative consideration, not a plot-level rationale.
The film opens with Peter’s secret identity revealed to the public, a posthumous act of revenge by the antagonist of the last film, Mysterio. This has consequences for Peter and his friends MJ and Ned (Jacob Batalon), though nothing like so dire as what happened in the comics when Peter publicly revealed his identity as part of the Civil War arc. (In the comics, this led to Aunt May being mortally wounded, and Peter ultimately making a literal deal with the devil to undo these events and erase public knowledge of his secret identity. Part of this bargain was erasing all memory of his marriage to MJ—a win in the devil’s reckoning, because Peter and MJ’s love was pleasing to God. Some of these plot points are echoed in No Way Home, though in very different forms. For one thing, the MCU doesn’t want to bring God or the devil into things, even if it gets close on occasion.)
Comparisons to Into the Spider-Verse are inevitable as characters from parallel universes start inexplicably appearing, and villains meet a version of a hero they know with a face they don’t. Then the hero comes face to face with different versions of himself, though with nothing like the diversity of Into the Spider-Verse, where (regardless of race, sex, etc.) “anyone can wear the mask.” (Months before the film opened, a friend quipped on Twitter that the MCU’s take on Into the Spider-Verse was “What if Spider-Man was several white guys named Peter?”)
On the other hand, we already know these alternate versions of Spidey, which is a real strength, except when it’s not. It’s a strength, for example, when Maguire, no longer an awkward youth, talks about settling down with Mary Jane, allowing us to glimpse, finally, the grounded Spider-Man that the third Raimi film in particular left me wanting to see. Familiarity also makes Dafoe’s Norman Osbourne feel more rounded than the character really is. (One bit of fan service I especially appreciated: a shot of Osbourne in a hoodie on his glider after smashing his clunky metal mask; with Dafoe’s gaunt, wasted features in that hood, he looks more like the comic-book Green Goblin than anything so far seen on the big screen.)
It’s more of a mixed bag with Garfield’s middle-child webhead. Garfield is the best actor of the three, and he brings comic pathos to his Peter’s sense of underachieving self-doubt. Alas, the plot never gives him the opportunity to flex his real strength in action: the charisma he used to connect with bystanders, throw off opponents, and exert a level of control over chaotic situations. Similarly, of all the underused villains, Foxx’s Electro has drifted farthest from his original characterization, with his personality problems and resentment, and is now just boring.
At two and a half hours, No Way Home has stretches that drag, with clunky bits of exposition and plot points that don’t really work. Aunt May’s high-minded moralizing is less convincing than Doctor Strange’s hard-nosed pragmatism, and young Peter’s darkest moment is too heavy-handedly foreshadowed to land persuasively. Still, what works here is a pure gift to fans, and I’m sure I’ll see it again, maybe more than once, as I bide my time waiting for the first Into the Spider-Verse sequel coming in October.
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