No Way Home offers some genuinely playful noodling with Spider-Man‘s cinematic legacy, even as it often stumbles in execution and suggests a muddled future for the MCU.
The days of Sam Raimi’s original Spider-Man movies seem so far away now. It’s easy to look back on them as a bit hammy and a bit quaint given the MCU machine we’ve become accustomed to, but their bright colors, Raimi’s exaggerated comic-panel form, and simple economy of character and emotion seem to have evaporated over the last two decades of superhero movie saturation. The latest Marvel offering (produced by Marvel Studios, that is, but released by Sony) and the third of this latest series of Spider-Man films, No Way Home tries valiantly to bring the character back to those glory days. And doesn’t quite get there.
Picking up right where previous entry Far From Home left off, we find Peter Parker (Tom Holland) publicly unmasked as the webslinger, and framed for the actions of Jake Gyllenhaal’s villain in that movie, Mysterio. This immediately sabotages Peter’s life and the lives of his friends. He’s suspected by the authorities of all manner of wrong-doing, and he, his buddy Ned (Jacob Batalon), and his girlfriend MJ (Zendaya) find their futures in jeopardy when no college will admit them due to the controversy. It’s this stuff that hews closest to the relatable drama you might expect from a friendly neighborhood, etc., but things soon unravel into the usual MCU spectacle once Peter involves Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), standing in for Tony Stark as a sort of mentor figure. Peter convinces Strange to magically reverse the situation, which almost immediately causes a collision of parallel dimensions with our own. Before you know it, the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), Sandman (Thomas Haden Church), and Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina) from the Raimi series show up looking for their enemy Spider-Man, as well as Electro (Jamie Foxx) and the Lizard (Rhys Ifans) from the ill-fated Andrew Garfield strain of movies.
So, if it’s not enough that you need to know 20-plus movies in order to follow whatever latest entry in the mix-and-match MCU continuity you happen to be watching, this one adds five more to the mix from “other universes.” It’s entirely too much, but mileages will vary as to how pandering or annoying individual viewers will find it all. The real problem is that all of these fun actors, who previously did so much heavy lifting in the older movies, are here mostly relegated to the background, here only to stand by while Peter wrestles with the ethical dilemma of sending them back to their own worlds to ostensibly be killed by his interdimensional alters-ego. It’s certainly a more interesting narrative direction and a savvy use of the more epically-scaled MCU’s commitment to multi-dimensional play, but in practice, it’s a generally poor use of such an army of scenery chewers.
As usual with this particular version of Spidey, the high points come from Holland’s lightly humorous interactions with his pals and his generally impulsive emotional clumsiness. It would be spoiling things to reveal just who else he gets to spar with comedically here, but it shouldn’t take a super-scientist to guess, and that development actually does far more than the oversaturation of bad guys to make all this crossing over both amusing and a not-unwelcome reckoning with the cinematic legacy of the character. Strangely, while this overdetermined fan-service is probably a bad omen for MCU stuff going forward, it does mine some genuine poignancy out of the idea of tangling up three unfinished series’ emotional arcs, even while the whole thing smacks of feverishly digging around in an intellectual property toy box.