REVIEW: Spider-Man: No Way Home [2021]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 148 minutes
    Release Date: December 17th, 2021 (USA)
    Studio: Marvel Studios / Columbia Pictures / Sony Pictures Entertainment
    Director(s): Jon Watts
    Writer(s): Chris McKenna & Erik Sommers / Stan Lee and Steve Ditko (comics)

It’s just a tree.

**Potential Spoilers**

“Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is Spider-Man.” Those are the words we hear at the end of Spider-Man: Far From Home and the beginning of Spider-Man No Way Home. They’re the dying words/contingency plan of Quentin Beck aka Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal), recorded and sent to J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons) and his Alex Jones alt-verse “Daily Bugle” to turn the entire city of New York against their friendly neighborhood hero. The ramifications are obvious. Anonymity is gone. Peter’s friends (Zendaya‘s MJ and Jacob Batalon‘s Ned) are caught in the crosshairs as vigilante “accomplices”. Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) must move them in with Happy (Jon Favreau) and he’s caught holding the bag on the Stark tech Mysterio hijacked. And all the extra scrutiny does Peter’s MIT admission hopes zero favors.

What choice does director Jon Watts and screenwriters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers therefore have for their anxious teenage superhero than to seek a quick fix? Enter Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) at a moment when the chance to prove he’s the greatest magician in the universe gets him to gleefully take a risk with a spell that causes the entire world to forget they ever knew Spider-Man’s secret identity. For the sake of comedy and narrative, Strange begins to cast said spell before telling Peter its full scope. This causes the latter to make a series of addendums (MJ needs to remember. And Ned. And Aunt May, etc.) all while the former’s concentration rapidly evaporates to nil. The multiverse is born … again (“What If …?” already aired).

Enter Doc Ock (Alfred Molina), Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), Electro (Jamie Foxx), and a couple other former villains I won’t mention since the marketing doesn’t (they’re mostly voice roles)—characters that Strange explains came through the rift he created before he was able to contain the spell in his magic prison box. Why did they arrive? Because they too knew Peter Parker was Spider-Man. As Strange’s spell went more and more out of whack, it began targeting memories of those in different universes as well as those in the MCU. (How Tom Hardy‘s Eddie Brock, a character who doesn’t know what a Spider-Man is let alone his identity, was pulled in becomes anyone’s guess.) The potential for a cataclysmic mess is off-the-charts. Especially once morality enters the fray.

There shouldn’t be a choice. Strange demands they collect the anomalies to mitigate damage, reverse the spell to get it out of its precarious prison box, and get back to the new normal of Peter living under a microscope. Is he right? Yes. Is he callous? Have you seen the character in any of his previous appearances? This is where having a child Avenger adds intrigue—intrigue that’s amplified tenfold by a child who hasn’t endured a tragic backstory wherein he caused Uncle Ben’s death. Where the adults ascribe to utilitarianism, Peter (thanks to Aunt May’s upbringing) believes in hope and second chances. What if they can “cure” these villains before sending them back? What if they can “fix” them so they wouldn’t have to die?

It’s a sweet and wholesome sentiment that more or less forgets Peter didn’t need Ben dying in his arms to grow jaded—Mysterio conning him out of Tony Stark’s bequeathment did the trick pretty well in Far From Home. That’s what happens when May’s bleeding heart gets back into his ears. All that cynicism and mistrust melts away to be replaced by his own wealth of hubris (Strange is rubbing off on him too). If these five monsters turned evil as a result of experiments gone wrong and/or faulty tech, who’s to say their goodness isn’t waiting for release? The question is whether they care or even want his “help.” Unfortunately, it only takes one false step to supply them the means of causing greater carnage than before.

The result is an action-packed extravaganza with archnemeses galore against an always over-matched hero. Peter must take Strange out of the equation if he’s going to attempt this foolhardy plan, so all he has at his disposal are May, MJ, and Ned. While they supply an overwhelming amount of emotional and secondary support, allowing them too close to the chaos inevitably causes more problems since their mortality will force Peter to choose between love and world salvation. You can safely bet that he’s going to get his crash course in utilitarianism real fast and, thankfully, he’ll have some help from a couple unlikely heroes who know the experience of learning those hard lessons on the fly themselves. Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield‘s appearances aren’t (poorly kept) secrets anymore.

As an isolated special thanks for Avi Arad (producer of Sony’s previous Maguire trilogy and Garfield’s cinematic diptych) confirms during the end credits, No Way Home is less a continuation of Holland’s arc and the MCU at-large than it is a heartfelt epilogue to his predecessors and their ill-fated bids at franchises of their own. The conceit to “reform” these villains allows for the possibility of touching moments regardless of whether the plan works because these are all people who impacted their respective Peter Parkers’ lives for the better before turning into psychopaths. And those Peters didn’t escape unscathed either. They suffered losses. They suffered emo jazz-snapping dance routines. Wouldn’t it be nice if they could exorcise some demons while also risking their lives to save another world?

For every legitimately great moment of overlap and reflexive commentary on similarities and contrasts (Maguire’s literal wrist shooters are called out and Miles Morales even gets a thematic mention), however, is a cloyingly trite bid to cash in on nostalgia’s penchant to tug at heartstrings regardless of the reactions being earned in the here and now. So much of what happens on-screen demands that we care for these alternate iterations both to provide closure to their “unfinished,” non-MCU journeys and familiarity to what ultimately becomes a hard reboot of Holland’s current version. Not only does that reality render the stakes moot (If the sacrifices made here repaired the multiverse fractures, why is the next title Multiverse of Madness?), but it also undoes the genius of skipping his origin.

Part of the appeal of this latest trilogy was that Marvel finally gave audiences the benefit of the doubt. Not only did they let Holland’s Spider-Man exist fully formed without rehashing backstory everyone knows, but they leaned into an inclusive cast of supporting players that added a fresh layer of excitement to the whole. Without saying too much, that’s all pretty much thrown out the window now. Or, at the very least, the slate has been wiped clean to give the studio the opportunity to throw it out if they want. Where Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor got to grow and mature in their trilogies, Spider-Man ostensibly gets to die. Maybe not literally, but definitely figuratively. The innocence that makes Holland’s portrayal fun is gone.

Some will say that’s growth. That he’s “matured.” And maybe he has. Maybe he needs to lose to learn, but hasn’t he lost enough? The dude turned to dust in Infinity War and watched his idol die to preserve mankind. To pile on here feels more sadistic than affirming and the arc more depressing than “adult”. The adventure is still entertaining, though, and the rapport born from mixing and matching universes adds a good amount of fan service amusement. But that’s all superficial. The heart and drama that made Homecoming and Far From Home so good is replaced by a script hitting carefully crafted “a-ha” moments that feel more “Martha” than “I love you 3,000.” And that’s fine. This film is fine. But I worry about what’s next.

[1] MJ (Zendaya) prepares to freefall with Spider-man in Columbia Pictures’ SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME. PHOTO BY: Courtesy of Sony Pictures COPYRIGHT: ©2021 CTMG. All Rights Reserved. MARVEL and all related character names: © & ™ 2021 MARVEL
[2] Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Doctor Strange and Tom Holland stars as Spider-Man/Peter Parker in Columbia Pictures’ SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME. PHOTO BY: Courtesy of Sony Pictures COPYRIGHT: ©2021 CTMG. All Rights Reserved. MARVEL and all related character names: © & ™ 2021 MARVEL
[3] Alfred Molina as Doc Ock in Columbia Pictures’ SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME. PHOTO BY: Courtesy of Sony Pictures

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