starring Tom Holland, Zendaya, Benedict Cumberbatch, Marisa Tomei
written by Chris McKenna & Erik Sommers
directed by Jon Watts
by Walter Chaw SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. Peter Parker (Tom Holland), having just been outed to the world as Spider-Man by a dying Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal), finds himself besieged by press and angry mobs mistaken in their belief that Mysterio was a very handsome hero. This pushes Peter into hiding with his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), girlfriend MJ (Zendaya), and bestie Ned (Jacob Batalon). The kids need guards when they go to school (why are they still going to school?) and are trying to focus on applying to MIT because they're all three of them brilliant, in case you've forgotten. Recognizing the toll of his exposure on the people who have remained loyal to him, Peter asks Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to cast a spell on the universe so that people forget him. How this might be achieved in the age of social media and pocket cameras is dismissed as "magic," which is also how it's explained that a hole in the multiverse opens up, allowing a bunch of villains and other versions of Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield) to cross over into this one's reality. At least the film has the self-awareness to constantly call out the facility of "magic" as a catch-all, layering its characters' incredulity in a running joke about a "wizard's dungeon" and one character's "You have magic here?" As wit goes, it ain't much, but I'll take it.
The sloppy is so sloppy, the slow so slow, the action so house. What works about Spider-Man: No Way Home (hereafter No Way Home) is its essential understanding of Spider-Man as basically just a good kid who cares about people and gets his life ruined for it on the regular. He loses a series of surrogate dads, constantly disappoints and imperils the women who love him, and seems trapped in a loop where he's reminded, daily, of how much he has yet to learn about the personal cost of empathy in a cold universe. No Way Home plays out like "A Spidey Christmas Carol," then, with all these ghosts of Spideys past coming to haunt three different versions of Peter Parker played by actors in their twenties, late-thirties, and late-forties. Going in order of their franchise appearances: Spidey 1 mentions settling down with his MJ in his universe; Spidey 2 mourns that he's alone and having a hard time processing the death of his girl, Gwen; and Spidey 3 is currently in the throes of puppy love with his smirky girlfriend. They're at different stages of their lives, in other words, but bound in one typically overwritten albeit fan-pleasing moment immediately after the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) kills Spidey 3's Aunt May (thus continuing the MCU's trend of using women's battered bodies as tools for the emotional awakening of men), where they talk about losing their respective Uncle Bens.
The real emotional core of No Way Home is the return of Alfred Molina's Otto Octavius from Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 2--that film (and nemesis) still the high-water mark for this intellectual property in this medium. In fact, Raimi's picture is so obviously superior to virtually anything being ground out in this tsunami of nerd-appeasement that No Way Home suffers, almost mortally, from the forced comparison. Doc Ock and Peter Parker's mentor/student relationship is the most touching casualty of this endless mythology's Passion, and when Peter, rather than sending these baddies back to their own dimensions and fated doom (and where's Venom? Oh, mid-credits sequence, got it), tries to cure them, Doc Ock's return from supervillain-dom is absolutely devastating. It's like getting your dead dad back. And he loves you this time and says as much. If only No Way Home had leaned harder into this kind of Petite Maman emotional excavation, but, alas, there's all this other stuff with an underused Sandman (Thomas Haden Church), a megalomaniacal version of Jamie Foxx's Electro (betraying the melancholy of his "invisible man" characterization in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (and jettisoning the fascinating blue costume for the more nerd-friendly yellow)), and a CGI'd Rhys Ifans as Dr. Connors, a.k.a. The Lizard. And though Dafoe similarly played the tragic father figure in Raimi's original, there isn't much interest in developing Norman Osborn/Green Goblin into anything other than the most Sinister of the Six-ish.
What's left is a film that doesn't know which story it's telling, so it tells all of them. Everyone's quite good in it, as you would hope, and the coda, with the world finally forgetting Peter Parker's alter ego, comes as a relief because it finally allows all that "Scooby-Doo" shit with Peter's sidekicks to take a rest. But the lingering aftertaste is that the good things about this movie are because the actors understand their characters better than the masters of this multiverse, who are now beholden to REDDIT streams in checklisting every demand made by a fanbase who will lament their grievances like plague monks, should their desire to have their empowerment fantasies made manifest go unhonoured. To that end, we have what feels like two full hours of dramatic entrances and drab declarations, dry callbacks, and other appeals to nostalgia. No Way Home reminds me a lot of Ghostbusters: Afterlife in that while both are well-acted and boast a surprisingly strong emotional undertow as a result, they are ultimately betrayed by the sad throng of fans whose own fear seeps into the execution of their celluloid objects of fetish. At this point, the commitment to tie up every thread causes each successive installment on this treadmill to implode. That happens with No Way Home, too, but I'll tell you what: Otto coming to his senses and calling Peter "dear boy" made me cry...and reach for Spider-Man 2, back when these movies were amazing instead of merely big.