Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021)
Written by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers
Directed by Jon Watts
This is the second time I’ve written a review for Spider-Man: No Way Home this year, the first being an April Fool’s joke which let me imagine what might happen in the picture. Using leaked details, I pieced together a completely over-the-top film which ended up not being too far off from the actual film. If you are someone for whom Spider-Man films mean a lot too, if they are linked to your childhoods, etc., then you are going to love No Way Home. But I am not reviewing it from that perspective; I want to look at this as a movie and as a reflection on the fundamental elements of the iconic character. When we look at No Way Home in this manner, it really falls apart as a cohesive film.
Peter Parker (Tom Holland) has been outed as Spider-Man thanks to an edited video by the now-dead Mysterio. Pete, M.J. (Zendaya), and Ned (Jacob Batalon) face a world where they are seen as threats to the public. Some people don’t believe the lie that Peter was responsible for the death of Mysterio, while others hold true to the idea that the wall-crawler is a menace. Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) concocts a spell to solve Peter’s problem, but the young man asks for so many caveats that it creates problems. The good doctor contains the magic before all of reality cracks; however, it does bend enough to let through a host of villains that know Peter Parker is Spidey in their worlds. Peter is forced to take on Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina), Electro (Jamie Foxx), and others in quick succession. Waiting in the wings is a confused and angry Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe). When our hero learns these deadly foes are destined to die when they return to their respective realities, he vows to help save them.
No Way Home has many ideas but doesn’t spend much time developing them. Instead, it functions as a sort of greatest hits, a shortcut for the MCU Spider-Man to have the crucial moments he’s been deprived of due to the sprawling nature of this cinematic franchise. Tom Holland’s Spidey has faced off with The Vulture and Mysterio, but few fans would consider those pinnacle antagonists. Speculation has been ongoing about how they might introduce this universe’s version of the Green Goblin. It appears that it was just a matter of going complete multiverse and tossing in Dafoe’s fully realized Goblin. This is where the problems began for me because I made myself look at this movie as a part of the MCU Spider-Man. When you contemplate it in this way, the deluge of villains without any real backstory or character arcs, the film is just messy.
Without two decades worth of viewing other media pieces, this movie just contains so many dissonant elements to tell a coherent story. There are fragments of something in there. The film spends barely any time exploring Peter’s situation, revealing his identity before jumping into the villains’ unleashed plot. There’s a monumental loss in Peter’s life that happens halfway through the movie, and I was legitimately shocked because it felt like a late-second act moment. There are some great character moments between Peter, MJ, and Ned in the third act that are the kind of things I read/watch Spider-Man for. We need to see our hero taking a blow and learning how to live with those changes to his life, understanding that he keeps fighting no matter what.
This is quickly followed by some guest appearances fans have been salivating over since they first realized what might transpire in this film. My heart was certainly tugged at the presence of these familiar faces, but when you look at this as a movie unto its own, it doesn’t work as well as Spider-verse. The characters in that animated film were all new to me, yet I felt more emotional resonance with the character development there than I felt once watching No Way Home. Everything about this movie feels like a pale imitation of Into the Spider-Verse. But as I said, No Way Home isn’t bad, if you love Spider-Man, you will have a fantastic time. But if you are looking for a well-written Spider-Man movie, this ain’t it.
Peter’s status quo is strongly usurped by the end of the picture of the script allowing for a profound reset to the status quo. We now have a Spider-Man much more akin to the classic portrayal. He’s back as an everyman; potential struggles and financial woes lie ahead. There are very subtle seeds planted about a possible future nemesis, but it remains to be seen how that pans out. I am interested in seeing what is done next with Spider-Man, and I hope he can encounter the type of obstacles that ground him better as a street-level hero. Let’s bring back the classic villains and keep the stakes local, like The Vulture in Homecoming. That will undoubtedly be difficult as each Marvel movie seems to push those stakes to greater and greater levels of peril. The tone of the ending is desperately trying to be not so glum, but based on what happens, I think leaving the story on a sad note would be okay. When you think about the situation Peter finds himself in, it doesn’t seem like life will be getting easier anytime soon.
No Way Home represents a big problem in Hollywood right now: the tyranny of fan service. Marvel is probably the most guilty of this, hyping their products to the point of absurdity. This one stands as a truly bizarre example of this, where Marvel execs engaged in a weird relationship of lies that none of the fans believed about who would or wouldn’t appear in the movie. Then, when sitting with the final product, we’re reminded once again that a solo Spider-Man movie seems to literally be impossible for Marvel to make, that they might as well rename this particular branch of their cinematic universe Marvel Team-Up starring Spider-Man. Having recently rewatched the Raimi trilogy, I certainly see they aren’t perfect, but they are pleasantly simple when it comes to plot, reserving complexity for character arcs. I’d like to think the fresh start this picture provides means we might be getting back to that, but I have strong doubts.