Spider-Man: No Way Home (spoilers)

This is sort of a rambly post about Spider-Man: No Way Home which I saw last night…more soft of an extended commentary than a proper review.

Big Spoilers!

Man, as somebody who likes comic books, superheroes and movies, it’s like every year I’m struck afresh by the craziness of the world we live in.

I mean, I grew up in the 70’s and the 80’s. And back then, cinematic adaptations of superheroes came along in drips and drabs. You had Christopher Reeve as Superman, Linda Carter as Wonder Woman, Lou Ferrigno as the Hulk, and so on. Some of them were better than others, but they all felt like a bit of a novelty. And as time went on, even when superheroes did appear they were often sort of unrecognizable compared to their comic book counterparts.

And then 2002’s Spider-Man hit the big screen, looking pretty much exactly like the character in the comic. This was a Spider-Man movie for people who liked Spider-Man, which is not as obvious an idea as one might think.

And I sat there watching it, marveling that life and pop-culture had brought us around to this point, where a superhero could be translated to the big screen with such unabashed affection for its comic book roots. What a world we live in, I thought (or would have, if I’d been framing my thoughts with this blog post in mind).

And now nearly 20 years later, I’m thinking the same thing, having just seen Spider-Man: No Way Home, directed by Jon Watts.

This is a competently made movie with a somewhat incompetent story, but which makes up for it by its absolute commitment to having fun, and its unashamed delight in its source material. Only this time the source material is not just the comics where Spider-Man was first created, but in the film treatments of the character that came before.

And this is appropriate–the Marvel Cinematic Universe Spider-Man movies are the furthest from the original comics out of all of the big-screen approaches to the character, but make no mistake, they could not exist in their present form if those earlier movies hadn’t come along first. If we had not already had two different presentations of Spider-Man’s origin, of Uncle Ben’s death, of Peter Parker’s relationship with Harry Osborne, and of Peter’s love life troubles with Mary Jane and Gwen Stacy, then the MCU films could never have stretched out into new directions as they did.

If Homecoming had been the first film version of Spider-Man, we fans would have been all like, What?! What is this? Where’s Mary Jane? Where’s the Daily Bugle? Where’s “With great power…”??! But because the films had dug into that well so many times already, we can instead have Peter’s man in the chair, and nano-technology spider-suits, and Zendaya.

And this latest movie celebrates that cinematic heritage in the most direct way possible–by straightforward references each previous movie, including the return of lots of major cast members. It doesn’t make No Way Home perfect by any means, but it does mean there is something joyfully nostalgic about it the whole way through.

No Way Home is a movie that is roughly divided into four parts in my mind, though they are not of equal length. Each segment works on its own at the very least, although they don’t often gel together very well if you think about it for a minute.

Part one starts with the fallout of Peter Parker’s identity being exposed at the end of Far From Home, with the film literally beginning with the same scene that the previous one ended with. (When we heard about this, my daughter wondered if they were going to finish the swearing dialogue that got cut off before–the movie came up with an amusing way to deal with that.) This goes on to show Peter’s legal and public relations troubles, accompanied by lots of ranting by J.K. Simmons’ J. Jonah Jameson. Peter also continues to have money troubles, which goes to show that maybe some sort of college trust fund would have been a better legacy for Tony Stark to leave behind as a legacy for him than the murder glasses Peter was bequeathed in the last movie. Although maybe that wouldn’t have helped, since Peter, Ned and MJ all fail to get into any colleges because of the controversy they’ve been part of.

In any case, the site of a Halloween decoration prompts Peter to visit Dr. Strange (allowing for us for a fun Benedict Wong cameo as Wong) looking for help. Strange suggests erasing everyone’s memories of his identity, which he immediately starts doing without really explaining things properly. Peter’s reaction what is happening leads to some pretty hefty complications. And it’s here that we run into the first of the film’s major problems, which is the fact that basically every bad thing that happens in the movie is because either Spider-Man or Dr. Strange is acting like an idiot–Peter interrupts Dr. Strange repeatedly even when warned not to, and Strange absolutely fails to explain what is going on and then berates Peter for having him do it even when it was his own idea.

In short order, characters from other universes (namely, the two previous Spider-Man film franchises) start showing up–Dr. Strange explains that in his efforts to make everyone forget Peter Parker is Spider-Man, his out-of-whack spell is first drawing in people from other dimensions who know that Peter Parker is Spider-Man. In one sentence, the film justifies everything else that is going to happen.

The first of these interlopers to appear is Alfred Molina’s Dr. Octopus from Spider-Man 2, who attacks Peter on a crowded bridge, throwing around cars like they’re confetti. The film’s first major action sequence is a hoot, and Doc Ock is still one of the best villains that we’ve had in a movie based on a Marvel property (I’d put him ahead of about 90% of the MCU threats). Thanks to computer de-aging, Alfred Molina looks pretty much exactly like he did in 2004, and the actor gives just as menacing a performance.

Other familiar threats to show up are the Sandman from Spider-Man 3, the Lizard from Amazing Spider-Man, and Electro from Amazing Spider-Man 2, and most significantly Willem Dafoe’s Norman Osborn from the original Spider-Man, who has managed to shed his Green Goblin persona…for the moment. There is a deliberate effort to keep everyone’s continuity intact–Doc Ock, for example, knows that Norman Osborn is supposed to have been impaled by his own glider while fighting Spider-Man, while the Sandman knows about the deaths of both the Green Goblin and Doctor Octopus. When Peter realizes that most of these guys are heading back to their universes just to die, he becomes convinced that the thing to do is to try to fix everyone before sending the home. This leads to a fight with Dr. Strange in a magically world inspired by craziest things from Inception for control of a magic box that can send everyone back to their own dimensions.

The story then moves into what I see as the second part, which is by far the movie’s weakest section. Peter and Aunt May hide all the bad guys in Happy Hogan’s apartment (where they are staying), where Peter is going to science-up cures for them all. And guess what? Shoving a bunch of super-villains into a crowded apartment without any special restraints for most of them…causes problems. Peter’s “help” for them basically just involves taking away their powers which for some reason everyone just goes along with (giving opportunity for all the actors to play a few forced character bits) until Norman Osborn breaks bad again and reminds Electro that they like having powers. Everything goes crazy and all the bad guys end up just running away (even though a couple don’t really have motive for doing so), but tragically, in the longest death scene ever, Aunt May is killed.

But not before she is able to tell Peter that with great power comes great responsibility, which just goes to show that nobody should ever tell Peter this, because as the move reminds us shortly, it just means the character is going to die that day.

Aunt May’s death is meant to be the emotional centrepiece of the film, but I found it hard to take seriously because the whole sequence around it was so poorly developed that the whole thing just seemed ludicrous. Luckily the movie found other things to distract me with, as we got into the third section of the story, and in some ways, the most exciting.

This part starts with MJ and Ned sitting around with the magic box that will complete Dr. Strange’s work to undo the trouble. MJ had earlier threatened that if she doesn’t hear from Peter, or if there is any trouble, she is pressing the final button and sending everyone home. Now, they haven’t heard from Peter and there was a massive attack at the building Peter was staying at and Aunt May has been killed…but inexplicably they are still debating as to whether it’s time to press the button. Ned discovers that some magic brass knuckles he lifted from Dr. Strange’s place earlier lets him open little glowy portals according to his wishes, and when he asks to see Peter again, he does…sort of.

Now if you haven’t seen the movie yet and are still wanting to avoid spoilers, I don’t know why you are reading this, because Andrew Garfield has been being asked for ages about whether he is in this movie, and he has been strenuously denying it the whole time. But, and this is the important bit, he was lying.

And even though by this point in the movie I was pretty sure both he and Tobey Maguire were going to appear, the moment where Spider-Man hops through Ned’s portal and pulls off his mask to reveal Garfield’s awkward smile is one of superhero cinema’s crowing moments of awesome.

Soon enough the film is full of Spider-Men, sitting around and commiserating about their personal tragedies, in a scene which is almost a carbon copy of something from Into the Spider-Verse. Yes, Sony knows a good thing when it sees it. They then go onto finishing all of Peter’s science projects which will allow them to save all the villains from their fates, all while having their own little funny moments and amusing character bits.

Conveniently, and inexplicably, the bad guys are completely absent from the movie during all of this. They just off screen and…well, do nothing, I guess. Electro isn’t sucking up power from the city’s energy supply, even though he keeps talking about that. Green Goblin isn’t out there causing chaos. And Doc Ock isn’t trying to help anyone, even though now he might be a good guy.

Having the villains remain out of the way even while they really want a magic box that the heroes are holding onto brings up unpleasant associations with the Justice League movie from a while ago, in which a very similar thing happened. But then, in this movie, the old Spider-Men also stayed hidden while all their old enemies were causing trouble, so maybe turnabout is fair play.

The last part of the film is big battle between all three Peter Parkers and all the bad guys, which inexplicably gets set at the Statue of Liberty (Spider-Man’s choice). Nonetheless, it’s pretty much everything one could want from such a sequence, with all three Spider-Men getting a bunch of good stuff to do, and their own heroic moments in which to shine. Of particular note is the bit where Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Man gets to dive down and save a plummeting MJ from certain death–in much the same way he failed to save Gwen in his last movie. And then Tobey Maguire gets to save Tom Holland’s Spider-Man from going down the dark path of vengeance over the death of Aunt May.

Things only get worse, though, when Dr. Strange comes back and his attempts to complete the dimensional undoing are thrown into chaos by the Green Goblin. Suddenly, portals are opening all through the sky, with untold numbers of people about to stream through who know Peter Parker is Spider-Man…

…So Peter gets Dr. Strange to use a memory-erasure spell that they had tried to do in the first place, only this time to make everyone, everyone, forget who Peter Parker is all together. This is just as ridiculous and underdeveloped as it sounds. It’s supposed to be a character growth moment, as it shows Peter willing to sacrifice and make selfless choices, but it doesn’t make any sort of logical sense.

It apparently works, because we see that MJ, Ned, Happy Hogan and J. Jonah Jameson have all forgotten him. But what about all the physical evidence? If that all vanished, then how does Peter still have things like clothes and so on? How does he have money even to eat, or a place to live? At Aunt May’s grave, he “meets” Happy again for the first time and they both say they knew May through Spider-Man…but why does Happy think May knew Spider-Man if she wasn’t his aunt?

Of course this solves the problem of Peter’s identity being exposed, but unless the next time he shows up it’s going to kick him off with a new love-interest, I assume that the future movies will just have to do the hard work of restoring his relationships with MJ and Ned, which just sounds like a chore.

Still, it was a fun movie and I liked it. It’s got some good visuals and fun action sequences, and all the leads are at least fine in their roles. There are loads of easter eggs to alternate versions of Spider-Man, and nearly every major character in the older movies is at least referred to.

It’s great seeing Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield again–both versions of the character had unfinished business when their movie series ended, and it’s nice to at least touch base with them both. I’ve never been sure who my favorite version of Peter Parker is, but I’m pretty confident that Garfield is the best at actually being Spider-Man–his hopping around and quipping is most like the comic character for me.

And this movie ends with Holland’s Spider-Man living in dingy apartment wearing in a home-made spider-suit, which all brings him a lot closer to the source material for me, in a good way.

There are lots of flaws but nearly all of them are the movie’s overall structure, which is serious of course, but there is so much going on in individual scenes and moments that I found impossible not to have a good time.

Oh, and I almost forgot…Charlie Cox also shows up as Matt Murdock (aka Daredevil)! That was cool.

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