on: Spider-Man: No Way Home

Synopsis: When we last saw Peter Parker (Tom Holland), he had just been outed as Spider-Man by media personality J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons). Now, thanks to the revelation of his secret identity and being framed for the death of Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal), the lives of not just Peter, but his girlfriend MJ (Zendaya), best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) and Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) are irrevocably ruined. In desperation, Peter turns to Sorcerer Supreme Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to cast a spell that will remove the world’s knowledge of his secret identity. As can be expected, the spell goes wrong, threatening to tear open the boundaries of the multiverse and drawing in friends and foes alike from alternate universes … some of whom might be very familiar.

[The discourse surrounding spoilers for this movie has been very contentious, so what I will say is that paragraph 6 contains mild spoilers. Also, if it has turned up in the marketing of the movie, it DOES NOT count as a spoiler.]

1. This should not work. This really should not work. The fact that it does is a minor miracle. The fact that No Way Home is one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s most entertaining and most resonant movies is basically voodoo, as far as I’m concerned. I mean, think about it. One reason why Spider-Man 3 (2007) is generally considered the worst of the Sam Raimi trilogy is because it was too ambitious in having three villains. No Way Home has five. Oh, and two MCU heroes in Spidey and Strange. And the theatrical introduction of the multiverse concept to viewers. And an attempt to conclude not only the arc of MCU’s Spider-Man movies, but the arcs of the Raimi and Marc Webb films as well. So yeah, that’s … a lot. And it works! It really, truly, bloody works, and it does so in a way that not only affirms and honours the character of Spider-Man, but also the legacy of the movies that came before. Yes, even the dodgy ones. I’ll say it – No Way Home is so good that it is in contention of being the best Spider-Man movie, and that is a hell of an achievement. (1) So the question is how? How and why does this film succeed against all odds?

2. It’s the screenplay. Obviously. I mean, you read my last one right? It’s always the screenplay. The MCU Spider-Man movies have always been well written, thanks to the team of Erik Sommers and Chris McKenna, with the latter being particularly well-poised to write this movie thanks to having written the greatest ever work of multiverse fiction. (2) There is nothing flashy or subversive about the writing of this movie, which relies on solid fundamentals instead of gimmickry. The character motivations are especially strong in No Way Home, which is vital when considering just how many new villains there are in the film. Clarity is key, and while this might lead to some slightly on-the-nose dialogue (cue Sandman saying ‘I just want to get home to my daughter’), it at least means that plot events feel organically driven by sound character decisions and actions rather than the other way round. It is definitely worth noting that No Way Home is able to achieve this thanks to the excellence of the Raimi trilogy, and is able to sketch the motivations of The Green Goblin, Doctor Octopus, and the Sandman via shorthand due to an assumed audience familiarity with the characters. As for the Amazing Spider-Man (a decidedly far less excellent series of films) villains, No Way Home takes the opportunity to do a a little tweaking of characters that categorically did not work, with Jamie Foxx’s Electro being a welcome recipient of a much greater clarity. The Lizard, however, seems unsalvageable, and the film itself acknowledges this by literally hiding him away until the final climax. Still, four out of five ain’t bad.

3. Of course, No Way Home also does very well by its main characters, especially its protagonist. By now, the writers and director Jon Watts have an excellent handle on what makes MCU Spidey tick, as well as a solid understanding of the mythos of the character. There is no denying that Peter does a lot of stupid shit in this movie, but it is testament to the filmmakers (and Holland’s performance) that the audience never feels like he is being an idiot for the sake of the plot. On the contrary, the film does a great deal to create empathy for Peter, reminding the viewer that he is a teenager trapped in a seemingly unwinnable situation. Cleverly, the film also sets up a dichotomy between what is right and what is easy, and making it clear precisely which side Spider-Man is on. There is literally a MacGuffin in the plot that would resolve everything with the press of a button, and the fact that Peter Parker continually chooses not to use it is presented not as evidence not of idiocy, but of a strong moral compass that guides him to try to help as many people as he can, even those who seemingly do not deserve it. It is a creative decision that cuts right to the core appeal of the character, that he will always do the right thing no matter what because (and say it with me, folks) with great power there must also come great responsibility.

4. The film is also absolutely shameless with fanservice, which I suppose could be seen as a negative if you don’t like that sort of thing. This reviewer, however, has loved Spider-Man since he was a child, and so it was an absolute joy for me. The fanservice ranges from the obvious (hey there’s that character you like) to the esoteric (I belly laughed at a particular line of The Green Goblin’s which references an iconic meme), and again, it is a credit to the filmmakers that it never feels forced. The tonal control of No Way Home is quite a remarkable thing, as the film shifts gears from lighthearted quipping to some of the heaviest emotional scenes in MCU history. Tone is a delicate thing, and No Way Home excels in this regard, allowing scenes that would otherwise be maudlin come across as resonant, and scenes that might have been silly end up being humorous. My take is that this tonal control works because both the emotional and funny aspects of the film arise organically from character interactions without feeling shoehorned. At their worst, MCU entries have a tendency to feel formulaic thanks to what feels like divinely (or Kevin Feigely) ordained story and action beats. Gotta have an action scene here, the hero must make a joke here, and so on, leading to cookie-cutter entries where all the characters, regardless of established characterisation, come across as glib and facetious, which in turn makes the ‘serious’ moments lose all impact. This haha-boohoo swing, however, is a perfect fit for Spider-Man, thanks to the decades establishing him as both the quippy sarcastic teenager and the greatest martyr this side of Bruce Wayne.

5. It also helps that the young cast has by now fully grown into their roles. Tom Holland was always fine casting, but No Way Home pushes him in a way that no previous entry has, and I’m glad to say that he excels in the heavier moments, of which this film has quite a few. Spidey is put through the wringer in this one, and Holland is more than up to the task, even showing off a much darker side to the character. He is ably supported by Zendaya and Batalon, both of whom are consistently charismatic and winning presences in the movie. Marisa Tomei is also finally given more to do than just ‘stand around while we write jokes about how hot you are’, and as expected, she ably delivers. On the villain side, Jamie Foxx does very well with his redo of a formerly disastrous character, even though it does feel less like acting and more like Jamie Foxx just being himself. No such issue exists though, for the two biggest heavies in the cast, both of whom having previously given pantheon-level portrayals of supervillains. Alfred Molina taps into the same mix of twinkly warmth and Shakespearean bombast that made his Doc Ock so iconic, though I must admit to feeling a slight twinge of disappointment that there was no callback to ‘brilliant but lazy’. On the other hand, nothing is disappointing about Willem Dafoe’s performance, which, no joke, might be the greatest supervillain performance ever. Dafoe takes his already magnificent performance from the first Raimi Spider-Man and cranks it to eleven, lending his Goblin a dose of brutal savagery that actually comes close to being the first terrifying MCU villain.

And now, a short break to list the best supervillain performances of all time

x. Vincent D’onofrio as The Kingpin (Daredevil, MCU) – Welcome back, Vinny. You’ve been missed.

ix. Mark Hamill as The Joker (DC Animated Universe, Arkham video game series) – Use the voice, Luke!

viii. Terence Stamp as General Zod (Superman 2) – If only for KNEEL BEFORE ZOD.

vii. Tom Hiddleston as Loki (MCU) – Drops a few notches for basically being an anti-hero at this point, but for a long time was the lone individual exception to the ‘MCU villains are shit’ statement.

vi. Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman (Batman Returns) – Name a sexier villain performance. Wild, unhinged, and just so fucking cool.

v. Michael B. Jordan as Killmonger (Black Panther) – Ok fine, I guess I just did. Suave, urbane, and just so fucking cool.

iv. Alfred Molina as Doctor Octopus (Spider-Man 2 and Spider-Man: No Way Home) – As already mentioned.

iii. Sir Ian McKellan as Magneto (the X-Men series) – The best actor in this whole bunch, Sir Ian could have sleepwalked his way into this list. The fact that he actually took the role seriously is what catapults him into the top 3.

ii. Willem Dafoe as The Green Goblin (Spider-Man and Spider-Man: No Way Home) – Yeah, this movie pretty much seals it.

i. Jared Leto Heath Ledger as The Joker (The Dark Knight) – There are times to be nonconformist. This is not one of them. The obvious choice for a reason.

Break over. Here be spoilers.

6. Speaking of good performances (and this is your final warning to leave if you do not want to be spoiled), no actor revitalises his role in this franchise as much as Andrew Garfield. Garfield was never the problem with The Amazing Spider-Man series, which existed less as a complete narrative and more of a corporate obligation for Sony to retain the rights to the character. (3) If anything, there have been a fair number of Garfield truthers who claim that he was the best Spider-Man, and his performance in No Way Home does a fair bit to convince me of that. Unlike his co-star (who we will get to), Garfield totally commits to the part, and the movie even leans into the meta aspect of him being the ‘failed’ Spider-Man. No Way Home is very gracious to Garfield’s Spidey, even wrapping up his emotional arc and giving him numerous moments to shine, which the actor seizes with both hands. The other Spidey is less successful. Part of it is by design, with Maguire’s Spider-Man serving as a more low-key, calming presence compared to the other two. Part of it, however, seems to be that Maguire has forgotten how to play the character. I can accept that this is an older, wiser version, but that little spark of dorky innocence that was so emblematic of his Peter Parker is nowhere to be seen. It’s not a bad performance by any means, but definitely not on the level of the other returnees.

Spoilers Over

7. This is not to say that No Way Home is flawless. Few movies deserve to be two-and-a-half hours long, and this is definitely not one of them. While I appreciate the movie’s generosity in giving its characters the time to establish themselves, the fact remains that with this deep of a bench, it’s just not possible to do so without the film feeling flabby in parts. Some of the more serious conversations go on for too long, and the movie’s ambition to try to wrap up three separate franchises worth of narrative arcs does sometimes exceed its ability to successfully execute them. Also, as this is an MCU movie, it’s par for the course to point out that the climactic action scene at the end sucks. The one-on-one fights between Spidey and Doc Ock/Goblin are well done, with the Goblin fights in particular a highlight in terms of how brutal and violent they get. However, when all the villains and all the heroes fight each other at the end in a big mass of CGI, the result is as muddy and uninspiring as expected. This has always been one of the MCU’s biggest issues, tanking otherwise excellent movies (Black Panther, Captain America: The Winter Soldier) with ho-hum final fights that were clearly just done by the VFX crew during the previz stage. They are lame, boring, and I cannot for the life of me understand why these movies persist with them. Also, while I appreciate that No Way Home sets up a continuity that is more in line with the core of what Spider-Man traditionally is (poor, struggling and friendless) than the Baby Iron Man portrayal in the previous movies, there is a lot of narrative convolution that is necessary to get to that point.

8. All in all, Spider-Man: No Way Home is as entertaining and enjoyable a blockbuster the MCU has released in quite a while. Tapping into the great and not-so-great work of its predecessors, Jon Watts and his screenwriters have crafted a live action Spider-Verse movie, allowing actors and plotlines of previous incarnations of Spider-Man to shine. The young cast of the previous films continue to do fine work, while the returning old guard (mostly Dafoe and Molina) remind viewers of just why their characters became iconic to begin with. No Way Home excels both at being the light, quippy Saturday morning cartoon where the kid smashes all his action figures together, and being the darker, more serious portrayal that takes the character to some heavy emotional places. The film’s length is an issue, and gets bogged down at times both by its multitude of characters and rote action scenes, but generally No Way Home nimbly swings through its narrative with the grace and agility of some kind of creepy crawly that I cannot quite think of at the moment. It’s enjoyable, resonant, and easily the best thing the MCU has done since Endgame.

Final Verdict: Highly Recommended if you have more than a passing familiarity with all the previous movies, Recommended otherwise.

  1. It’s not though. The list goes – 1. Spider-Man 2 (2004) 2. Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse (2018) and then No Way Home. Still, it comes closer than any other Spidey film so far, at least until the Spider-Verse sequel comes out in 2022.
  2. It’s the ‘Remedial Chaos Theory’ episode of Community, and yes, I’m 100% serious.
  3. For those who might not be aware, Marvel in the 90s was broke, and sold off the movie rights to their most popular characters for a song. This is why the Raimi Spider-Man series predates the MCU, as they were developed by Sony Pictures, who eventually acquired the film rights to the characters in 1999. However, there was a clause in the contract that stated that if a feature film starring the character was not released every five years, the rights would revert to Marvel Studios. Sony, not wanting to lose their prized cash cow, thus rebooted the series, arguably kicking off the current trend of quick reboots. The end result reflects this development process, a cobbled-by-committee attempt to stuff as many ‘cool millennial’ tropes into the movies and a hamfisted stab in the dark to craft a new cinematic universe. To say it did not pan out is an understatement. Eventually, Sony and Marvel agreed a deal to share the film rights to the character (and more importantly, the profits) with the former continuing to develop movies based on characters in the wider Spider-Man universe, hence the Venom and Morbius series.

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