Spider-Man: No Way Home is the third installment of the Spider-Man sub-series of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, starring Tom Holland as Peter Parker/Spider-Man. It seems the animated film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse has had a strong influence on the direction of the MCU’s Spider-Man, with No Way Home introducing a multiverse into the series. While the whole multiverse concept is done to death these days (and often feels like a cheap means to “change up” a series and its characters), No Way Home at least uses the concept in a fun way to connect itself to the pre-MCU Spider-Man films (AKA the better Spider-Man films, at least in regard to the original Sam Raimi-directed features). While the merging together of different Spider-Man adaptations provides an entertaining feature filled with fanservice that I think is a step up from the previous Tom Holland-era Spider-Man flicks, No Way Home can feel a bit overstuffed at times, and it doesn’t always do right by the characters it brings back from yesteryear.
Taking place shortly after the events of Spider-Man: Far From Home, No Way Home sees the aftermath of Peter Parker having his identity as Spider-Man revealed to the world by J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons). Having been framed for the death of Mysterio, Parker becomes public enemy number one, with his worldwide infamy not only affecting his life, but also those close to him: his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), his girlfriend MJ (Zendaya) and his best friend Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalon).
With his life in shambles, and his loved ones suffering as a consequence, Peter Parker turns to his fellow Avenger Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to find a way he can get his life back to normal (I guess if you know a wizard, that’d be the person to turn to for answers). Strange says he can perform a spell that will undo the world’s knowledge of Peter Parker’s identity (in a scene I’m sure you’ve seen a hundred times in the trailer). But because Tom Holland’s Peter Parker is annoying and intrusive, he keeps bothering Dr. Strange during the spell, and the magic is botched. Not only does the spell fail to erase the world’s knowledge of Spider-Man’s identity, but it also starts summoning people from other universes who are aware of Spider-Man’s identity in their world. Namely, it starts bringing in Spider-Man’s foes from other worlds: Norman Osborne/The Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), Dr. Otto Octavius/Dr. Octopus (Alfred Molina), Flint Marco/The Sandman (Thomas Haden Church), Dr. Curt Connors/The Lizard (Rhys Ifans), and Max Dillon/Electro (Jamie Foxx).
With all these villains on the loose, Dr. Strange instructs Peter Parker to help him collect these villains in order to send them back to their own worlds, as their continued presence in this world threatens the fabric of reality. But after learning of the sad fates that await each of his foes in their own world, Peter Parker starts to have second thoughts about his mission (though Sandman got off pretty easy in Spider-Man 3, if you remember).
The plot is a little… wonky, for lack of a better word. I love the idea of bringing back these past villains, particularly because the Sam Raimi era antagonists (the first two, anyway) were much better written than any baddie in the MCU (their inclusion here is basically Marvel’s way of admitting “yeah, we can’t do better villains than that. So just bring them back in our movie.”). But the setup of resurrecting these villains just feels kind of clunky. It gives off the impression that the filmmakers saw Into the Spider-Verse, and wanted to use a similar multiverse setup, and then had the idea to use that as a launching pad to connect the film to pre-MCU Spidey films and bring back the classic villains (an admittedly fun idea). But then they suddenly remembered they had that cliffhanger from Far From Home that they needed to address, and then scrambled to find a way to connect that cliffhanger with their multiverse/returning villains idea. And because these MCU Spider-Man movies love shoehorning in another Avengers hero, they decided to use Dr. Strange – a wizard – as an easy means to link their new concept and lingering plot thread together (because the MCU only acknowledges magic when it’s a convenient plot device).
So the premise is weak. But at least it gives us a chance to revisit all these memorable foes of yesteryear, with the highlights of course being Willem Dafoe’s Goblin and Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock (the latter of which I’ll still say is hands down the best villain in any Marvel movie). On the downside, No Way Home seems to take delight in poking fun of these characters and their movies as much as it pays homage to them, because of course the MCU just has to undercut anything serious or heartfelt with a snide remark or two.
The Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies, as campy as they could get at times, never felt the need to belittle their own stories for the sake of jokes. That might explain why I still remember them so fondly, whereas the MCU films have much less of an identity of their own (that, and the MCU’s constant need to hype up future movies at the expense of the story at hand). The Sam Raimi films could be cheesy, but they were honest and genuine in a way that even the best MCU films are not. Even Spider-Man 3, as messy as it was, was at least its own mess.
I mention this because, by bringing in characters from the past Spider-Man films, No Way Home inadvertently exposes the MCU for its over manufactured nature. We’ve seen this same Green Goblin and this same Doc Ock in other movies that had heart. No Way Home acknowledges that these villains have more to them than meets the eye, but it’s tough to say whether or not No Way Home has anything more to itself. Just as Green Goblin and Doc Ock are displaced from their time and place in the film’s story, they’re also displaced as complex villains from more genuine superhero movies who now find themselves in an increasingly pandering “cinematic universe” (fun though it may be). The films Green Goblin and Doc Ock came from had something to say. The MCU is always hyping what’s on the horizon, rarely taking the time to say much.
Annoyingly, the film makes the returning villains out to be not much of a threat on their own – being quickly beaten or outsmarted by MCU’s Spidey and Dr. Strange – and only banded together do the bad guys prove dangerous to the MCU heroes (because the MCU is childish like that and NO ONE CAN BE STRONGER THAN ITS CHARACTERS!). It’s just kind of weird how the film wants us to delight in the nostalgia these characters provide, only to undermine it by enforcing the idea that these characters aren’t as good as the new ones (a concerning trend in the MCU as of late). There are ways to make a current story feel more important without stepping all over the past. Maybe by caring more about the present and less about hyping the future? Just a suggestion.
I guess I shouldn’t say it’s all hype this time around. No Way Home gives a solid effort and has some strong emotional moments, but it still ultimately succumbs to some MCU-ness that takes some of that away. At least Tony Stark’s overbearing presence is no longer casting a shadow on these Spider-Man films, though you could say Dr. Strange simply takes over that role, conveniently just in time to build hype for his upcoming sequel.
Okay, I’m sounding pretty negative. But I suppose most of my complaints are more towards the MCU as a whole, and how it affects No Way Home, than they are with No Way Home itself. On the positive side of things, No Way Home brings fun back to the Marvel Cinematic Universe after Eternals saw fit to be an excruciating bore.
Spider-Man: No Way Home doesn’t skimp on the action scenes, and though they can’t quite match those of the recent Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, the action scenes here are more visually distinct from most of those in the MCU. An early encounter against Doctor Octopus on a freeway over a bridge is a notable highlight (due in no small part that Doc Ock’s conceptually simple power of having mechanical arms on his back provides a visually perfect supervillain). A duel between Spidey and mentor Dr. Strange also delivers a visual spectacle (especially since it seems to unapologetically turn to the video game Portal for inspiration). And of course, No Way Home features plenty of great fanservice moments, perhaps more so than any other MCU film (Endgame be damned), seeing as it gives so many blatant callbacks to the original Spider-Man trilogy and the Amazing Spider-Man films in addition to the usual MCU fare. Again, some of the references are deprecating, which is disappointing. But when No Way Home pays proper respects to past movies, damn, it’s satisfying. Without spoiling anything, one moment in particular is probably the most touching piece of nostalgia/fanservice I’ve seen in a long time, and honestly gave me a lump in my throat. If you’ve seen the movie, it’s probably not the moment you’re thinking of. Or that other one. Or that other one. But it was special to me.
Spider-Man: No Way Home is a very entertaining movie, even with its faults. It provides the crowd pleasing fun you’d expect from the MCU, and even has moments that pack an emotional punch. Simply seeing Alfred Molina and Willem Dafoe back as Dock Ock and Green Goblin (and to a lesser extent, the other villains) is an utter joy. But it’s a shame the setup to it all feels a bit forced. It has plenty of merit, but Spider-Man: No Way Home can’t help but feel a bit cluttered, and the overarching MCU is starting to negatively affect the individual stories within it (I’m really not spoiling much by saying the end-credits sequence here is literally a trailer for the Doctor Strange sequel). As big as the MCU has become, it would do well for itself to learn from the movies that No Way Home borrows from.
I think my point can be summed up by the character of J. Jonah Jameson. While I couldn’t be happier that Marvel brought back the great J.K. Simmons to portray Jameson in the MCU (making him something of the “connective tissue” between Spider-Man’s cinematic past and present), the MCU version of the character is purely antagonistic. He’s a corrupt newsman who spreads misinformation and fearmongering. While the real-world parallels are timely, they come at the expense of the character himself, who’s now a one-note villain. Compare him to the Jameson of Sam Raimi’s trilogy: he was still a biased newspaperman who let his emotions get the best of him, but there was more to him than that. In the 2002 film, Jameson was loud, bombastic, and was out to smear the good name of Spider-Man, the hero we were meant to cheer for. But as soon as Green Goblin attacked Jameson in his office demanding to know “who takes the pictures of Spider-Man” for Jameson’s paper, without missing a beat, Jameson wouldn’t surrender Peter Parker’s name to the Goblin. The same character who up until that point was depicted as antagonistic comic relief was suddenly willing to risk his life to save someone he barely knew.
That’s the kind of character element that continues to make the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films so memorable. And it’s something the MCU is sorely lacking. Spider-Man: No Way Home tries to replicate that by bringing back the classic villains and the stories they entail. But it only seems to half-understand what it has on its hands. Either that, or it’s place in the MCU only makes it able to half-realize it.
To this day, 2004’s Spider-Man 2 is not only my favorite Spider-Man movie (sorry Into the Spider-Verse), but my favorite Marvel movie. And possibly one of my favorite movies outright. It had its faults and its cheesy moments, but damn it all, it had heart! Suffice to say, I don’t think Spider-Man: No Way Home poses any threat to displacing Spider-Man 2 as my favorite Marvel/Spider-Man movie. But in a way, No Way Home reminded me why I love Spider-Man 2 so much. I suppose that’s a victory in its own right.