Film Review: SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME (2021)

There is a debate coming about Spider-Man: No Way Home, set to go down in cinematic lore as both the end and a new beginning for Tom Holland’s Peter Parker. A debate around just how much fan service has now arrested control of popular cinema.

While No Way Home will almost certainly do gigantic box office business, even by the metrics of the hugely successful Marvel Cinematic Universe, not everyone is going to embrace the ambitious steps Jon Watts’ film takes. This isn’t, after all, simply the concluding beat of a three-film trilogy, such as we saw in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 (and let’s not forget there was talk of a fourth for a time afterward). No Way Home is the conclusion of seven previous Spider-Man adventures, not to mention Holland’s web as a character within the wider MCU itself.

In that sense, Marvel have crafted a sequel quite unlike any other here, by tapping into the burgeoning concept of the ‘multiverse’ in the way audiences have previously understood to be the point of parallel universe stories: to depict alternate versions of the same characters. The MCU has thus far established the concept on more of a conceptual level in outings such as Loki, or even irreverently in the last Spider-Man film Far From Home or in elements of WandaVision. Here, the franchise goes for broke in providing audiences with long-standing closure that, had the MCU not been as rampantly successful, would never have happened.

For some, like this writer, the result is joyful. Others will find it infuriating and strangely reductive. And either way, No Way Home could be a sign of times to come, should it be the huge success people are predicting.

As we know, what audiences long predicted in No Way Home happened. All three on-screen Spider-Men, Holland, Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield, came together.

Indeed, No Way Home even provided the other rumour, that Charlie Cox’s Matt Murdock (aka Daredevil) would appear as Peter’s lawyer. More on that later.

But crucially, No Way Home is built on audience knowledge and awareness of not just the MCU but the entire history of Spider-Man on screen. If you only have awareness of Holland’s run, the moment Garfield or Maguire appear (both of which elicited gasps in my showing from presumably less internet literate audience members) is going to mean little. No Way Home provides a level of explanation, and some dramatic context, but you’ll never feel what the film wants you to feel unless you know the journeys these actors and their versions of Peter went on.

There are numerous reasons why this choice was made for Holland’s third Spider-Man outing. The character is owned by Sony, one of the few non-Marvel owned Marvel superheroes of renown remaining, and was only ever loaned out to the MCU from Captain America: Civil War onwards for a limited amount of films. This was expressly following the unsuccessful attempt to launch their own Spider-Man extended franchise revolving around the ‘Sinister Six’ after the polarising response to 2014’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2, not to mention behind the scenes issues concerning Garfield and the infamous Sony Pictures hack. It was a calculated move that paid off dividends for Sony but, much like Maguire’s more feted run, the Garfield incarnation’s story felt unfinished to many fans and audiences. No Way Home very clearly works to redress that.

One reason why Watts’ film works so well is that Holland’s Peter still remains the emotional and dramatic core of the film. Garfield & Maguire only arrive for the final act and their own development, while managing to provide closure on the hanging dramatic aspects for their characters (chiefly Garfield’s Peter’s grief over Gwen Stacy), is designed to serve Holland’s Peter. Their presence throws into sharp relief just how young the current Peter is, and almost works to establish three ‘generations’ of the character at different phases of their life. Holland’s Peter is the earnest teenager grappling with great responsibility. Garfield’s Peter is the cute, geeky thirtysomething lost in love & life. Maguire’s Peter is the wiser mentor more at peace with his world.

They work as a trio, on screen, surprisingly well.

It reminded me, as it probably will many others, of a multi-actor Doctor Who story, particularly 2013’s The Day of the Doctor, just exchanging time travel storytelling for multi-dimensional trickery, courtesy of Dr Stephen Strange, played with a comfortable relish by Benedict Cumberbatch. Strange plays a similar role to Tony Stark in Homecoming, a troubled mentor/accomplice whose own hubris leads to the multiverse breaking trouble that brings all of the Sony-owned characters and dangling narratives into the MCU. If there is a Marvel character the most like the Doctor in some ways, it’s Strange. Loki the series played a bit like Who but Strange, as a somewhat eccentric and irascible wizard who plays with magic, time and memory, moves Spider-Man as a series away from the high-school, grounded Marvel level of storytelling into the cosmic.

It’s been going this way for Peter since Avengers: Infinity War, of course, and it’s quite comical to see Holland’s Peter tell his alt-universe versions of his tales battling aliens in space with Avengers and both of them being stunned at his experiences and his technology. No Way Home both establishes how advanced the MCU has grown on multiple levels from the earlier eras of Spider-Man, and indeed how sophisticated the narrative and villainy has developed. The crashing arrival of characters such as Doctor Octopus or The Lizard or the Green Goblin seem strangely and deliberately incongruous to the MCU and are presented as throwbacks to a more simplistic (if not always less effective) era of comic-book cinema. The MCU laughs at Doc Ock’s name. That’s where we are now. Yet it doesn’t insult. It uses this as a jumping off point for a fascinating approach the film takes.

If No Way Home establishes the alternate universe villains of earlier Spider-Men as cackling, camp aberrations to be laughed at, by then having Holland’s Peter determined to cure rather than defeat them, it serves to place these elder comic-book adaptations in the scope of mental illness. Alfred Molina depicts Ock as a snarling revenge-fuelled supervillain but once Peter cures him, he becomes a pastoral ally. Willem Dafoe shows us, even if it is a feint, a Norman Osborn old, lost and bewildered. Jamie Foxx—who steals several scenes here—gives us an Electro who grapples with the pull of power verses his own insecurities.

The MCU seeks to find a way to rehabilitate the kind of enemies who no longer fit the more nuanced, sophisticated approach modern comic book cinema delivers, for the most part.

This approach is also part of the essential reboot that No Way Home provides Spider-Man as a character in cinematic terms.

By the end, Peter Parker not only loses his aunt May, and loses everyone who ever knew he was Spider-Man or even remembered him at all, he is transformed back into a street-level ‘friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man’ akin to the Maguire & Garfield approaches. That’s why Cox’s Murdock makes sense being introduced into the MCU in the context of this film, in a cameo back-door fashion (on the same day, no less, than Daredevil’s arch nemesis Kingpin returned in the TV series Hawkeye, which is absolutely no coincidence), in this film. 

The MCU is deliberately creating space for a street-level side of the universe that has threatened to be lost amongst the increasingly cosmic aspects of the MCU since Guardians of the Galaxy, and a revived Daredevil—perhaps softened slightly from the Netflix-pocket universe he once played in—will fit more easily with any future Holland-starring Spider-Man films this suggests might be coming. Peter is now free to maybe become a photographer at the Daily Bugle as he grows up, incognito, tussling with J. Jonah Jameson and maybe even romancing a new Gwen Stacy. Maybe he’ll come up against his universe’s version of Harry Osborn or the Rhino or even some of the villains he encountered here, as will remember encountering. There is certainly a strong hint he might tussle with a Venom perhaps divorced from the Tom Hardy-led films – although given the post-credits scene of Let There Be Carnage, who knows? 

It positions the franchise in a unique space now, as a halfway house between the MCU and the sole Spider-Man universe, and rival franchise, that Sony have wanted to develop for years. The door remains open for Holland to appear in the MCU, and have Spider-Man reintroduced in that universe as a character perhaps in an entirely new paradigm, but it equally allows them to go in a different direction, perhaps more in line with Spider-Man stories and adventures of old. This is the closest equivalent we have seen on screen in the MCU yet of when a comic line for a character reboots, with almost an entirely new continuity, and it feels quite a bold and risky choice given how audiences have bought into relationships such as Peter and MJ (and on a broader level the much-shipped real life romance of Holland and Zendaya).

Even the title to me seems pointed.

While ‘home’ has naturally been a refrain across all of the Holland pictures, representing the familial nature of the young Peter and ostensibly his rites of passage through teenage years, there is also a wider sense of the push-pull between Sony & Marvel in the presentation of these films as a joint venture. Homecoming was for Marvel, a feeling of joy that Spider-Man was back, almost fully, in the Marvel fold. Far From Home, however, suggests a yearning from Sony, post the huge success of Holland’s take on the character—arguably one that has broken more powerfully through popular culture thanks to the MCU than the others—that Peter has drifted away from his cinematic cradle. Which brings us to No Way Home, and Sony’s anxiety that should Peter stay the same course on the MCU as we have seen, he will never find his way back to Sony – which, by the closing scenes of the picture, he does.

No Way Home, while entirely in line with the previous appearances of Spider-Man in the MCU, also works to bridge the gap between the MCU’s post-modern superhero approach with the era that came before it. An era that shook off the camp of the 1990s and sought to add colour and weight to comic-book properties. Choosing to do so by having an empathetic Peter, young and perhaps a touch naive, losing everything he holds dear in a bid to rehabilitate the villains of a different age, is a fascinating and largely very successful approach. While without question we will have another Spider-Man film again, and indeed likely one with Tom Holland, you could bring the curtain down on this iteration nicely with this film. It feels like an ending while pointing the way toward a fresh, revived new beginning for, in part, another studio.

And so, let the debate as to whether this film is fan servicing or fan satisfying, or even both, begin.

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