A film review by Craig J. Koban January 7, 2022

SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME jj
 

2021, PG-13, 148 mins.

Tom Holland as Peter Parker / Spider-Man  /  Zendaya as Michelle 'MJ' Jones  /  Benedict Cumberbatch as Stephen Strange / Doctor Strange  /  Jon Favreau as Harold 'Happy' Hogan  /  Jacob Batalon as Ned Leeds  /  Marisa Tomei as May Parker  /  Alfred Molina as Otto Octavius / Doctor Octopus  /  Jamie Foxx as Max Dillon / Electro  /  Willem Dafoe as Norman Osborn / Green Goblin  /  Tony Revolori as Eugene 'Flash' Thompson  /  Angourie Rice as Betty Brant  /  Martin Starr as Mr. Harrington  /  Hannibal Buress as Coach Wilson  /  J.B. Smoove as Mr. Dell  /  J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson  /  Benedict Wong as Wong

Directed by Jon Watts  /  Written by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers
 

 

 

 

 

The fundamental problem with the MCU's handling of their SPIDER-MAN films is definitely not with the man behind the wall crawler's bug eyed mask.  

I'll be the first to concede that Tom Holland has made for a splendid version of the iconic Stan Lee and Steve Ditko created Marvel Comics hero.  Alongside his two main co-stars, Holland and company have infused a considerable amount of dramatic heart and soul into the proceedings.  Holland's web slinger is just so bloody charming and likeable, which makes it all the more disappointing that the three films that he has occupied don't allow for the actor and character to carry them.  More often than not - and to a frustrating degree - these recent SPIDER-MAN films feel more like larger assembly line mass marketed products that are attempting to extend the larger MCU brand as opposed to telling more insular storylines that just focus on Spidey and his world alone. 

If one looks at, for example, the enjoyable, but problematic SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING it was easy to see how poor Peter got a tad lost and marginalized in the limelight of other higher marquee and veteran MCU players; it came off more as an IRON MAN/Spidey team-up movie that a solid film deeply entrenched in the latter's surroundings (plus, the incomparable Robert Downey Jr. cast an awfully big shadow).  Then came SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME, which had sizable shoes to fill as a larger epilogue, so to speak, for AVENGERS: ENDGAME in terms developing the MCU post-blip/Thanos defeat.  Now comes SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME, which once again goes out of its way to be a team-up picture (in vastly more ways than one), that not only features Spider-Man becoming allies with Dr. Strange, but he also has to face the multiple threats of a grander multiverse of villainous elements that have appeared in past non-MCU Spidey films made by Sony Pictures.  This is unquestionably a bigger, more audacious, and sometimes thanklessly ambitious sequel, but it also comes with the negative side effect of overstuffing itself to the point that it's a miracle that Mr. Parker and his non-super hero amazing friends manage to get any level of focus here. 

I did, though, admire the cliffhanger ending of FAR FROM HOME, and NO WAY HOME starts off precisely just after the last film's shocking finale, during which time that dastardly Mysterio conspired to make Spider-Man look like a dangerously unstable vigilante murderer and - double gasp!!! - revealed his secret identity to the world.  It's at this point in the opening of this new sequel that the makers do understand one of the cornerstone curses of Peter's duplicitous life:  Despite his extraordinary abilities and yearning to right criminal wrongs, he is, after all, a young adult with ordinary young adult problems that wants a normal life.  Now that he has been unmasked, having any semblance of a normal life becomes impossible for not only himself, but also for his new love in Mary Jane (Zendaya),  his longtime BFF in Ned (Jacob Batalon) and his always supportive Aunt May (Marisa Tomei).  Now, the frazzled Peter has become one of the most famous outed Avengers in the world, second only maybe to his mentor in Tony Stark.  Regretably for him, however, is that he's wanted for the false murder of Mysterio and now the public - largely spurred on by J. Jonah Jameson's (J.K. Simmons) podcasts - has started turning on him.

If the constant media attention and having high school classmates recording his every move was not bad enough, prestigious colleges that Peter, Ned, and M.J. wish to get accepted into are getting cold feet because of Peter's legal woes and thorny super hero status, which makes Peter growing increasingly depressed with how his world is quickly imploding in on itself.  He begins to feel responsible for ruing his friends' futures as well, which is a major bummer.  As a last ditch option, he seeks out Avengers acquaintance Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and asks him to use his magical powers to cast a spell to make the world forget that he is Spider-Man.  Strange begrudgingly obliges, but then Peter - mid-spell - begs the sorcerer to make some last minute amendments to the potion, like ensuring that his family and friends are still allowed to know his double life.  Tragically for all, this messes up Strange's casting of said spell, which has dire consequences of a galactic nature (when does it not in these films?).  Strange has inadvertently opened up mystical doors to multiple dimensions that span multiple universes, thereby allowing for a menagerie of super villains from (I don't think this is a spoiler at all, based on the marketing of the film) the Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield SPIDER-MAN films to come into the MCU of Holland's Spider-Man, which causes all sorts of complicated issues.  Peter doesn't realize this at first, but after he crosses paths with a dimension hopping Dr. Octopus (Alfred Molina, returning to role after his iconic stint in 2004's SPIDER-MAN 2) and discovers that the tentacle villain doesn't recognize him as "his" Peter Parker/Spider-Man then he begins to put the pieces together.  But it's not just Doc Ock that passes through, but also William Dafoe's Green Goblin from the first SPIDER-MAN film in 2002 as well as a host of baddies migrating in from Garfield's two AMAZING SPIDER-MAN entries from a few years back.

 

 

Annnnnnnnnd....yeah...HOLY SHIT.

I'll defend - albeit gingerly - this obvious fan servicing element in NO WAY HOME by bringing in aspects of past non-MCU SPIDER-MAN films by stating that the manner with which these antagonists are used is a fairly compelling plot device (granted, a plot device nevertheless).  With an assist by Dr. Strange, Peter has to hunt down and nab all of these newly arrived and dangerous adversaries, but after incarcerating them all he has an epiphany: Instead of just zapping them back to their respective dimensions, why not do everything that he can to rehabilitate these monsters and turn them back to their once productive ordinary citizen selves?  In many respects, NO WAY HOME evolves beyond its fetch quest/capture villains element and becomes more engrained in Peter's ever-growing maturity as a super hero with great powers and great responsibilities.  He actually wants to help these criminals, especially Dafoe's personality skipping mad scientist, but this also sets up an intriguing conflict between Peter and Strange, with the latter just wanting to zap them back home and be done with them.  There's a legitimate arc here to these sinister bad guys that's a lot more than initially meets the eye. 

Everything builds towards a protracted and climatic third act - which I will endeavor not to spoil in any way - other than to say that this film doesn't simply end with all of these villains popping in here to be a serious thorn in Peter's side (anyone with some basic deductive logic can easily predict where this film is heading in terms of more cameos from other past SPIDER-MAN film properties).  There's is a relative tsunami of nostalgia bait that floods over NO WAY HOME, especially with fanboy love (or criticism) of the Maguire and Garfield Spidey adventures.  This film is like fan servicing on steroids, and there's an undeniable OMG-WOW! factor in seeing many of these cherished characters from the Spidey film canon that has spanned twenty years appear here.  Unfortunately, this all but underlines my aforementioned grievance with these three MCU Spidey efforts: Instead of allowing Holland's hero to evolve organically on his own - as well as his core world within the MCU world - the makers here instead just shoehorn him in to propel Marvel's latest phase as well as cherry picking greatest hits elements from past Spidey films for a pseudo reunion tour.  That does a great disservice to the hero and Holland's impeccable work in these films; once again, he feels like a guest in his own solo feature placating to the needs of larger forces around him.

The scale of NO WAY HOME is indeed colossally epic in most respects.  Director Jon Watts deserves respect for managing to create visual fluidity amidst all of the crazy chaos that permeates this sequel (visually and technically, this is as grandly and pristinely orchestrated as any MCU film before, and in particular I liked sequences involving a standoff between Strange and Peter in a surreal and mind tripping mirror realm as well as massive donnybrook featuring every single player confronting one another at a retooled Statue of Liberty that's being retrofitted with Captain America's shield).  But a bigger and busier film doesn't necessarily mean a better one.  Also, when one starts to modestly scrutinize and deconstruct Peter/Strange's initial plans there are considerable logical loopholes.  It doesn't speak well to Peter's usual altruistic self to want to tamper with the minds of millions upon millions of people, not to mention that it reflects equally poorly of Strange for being a willing accomplice.  That, and for a dude with a high IQ and affinity for science, Peter seems unable to deduce that a better and less stress-free spell would have been to make Strange give Mysterio a mind wipe to forget Spidey's alter ego.  Wouldn't have that been easier and made more sense?

I asked other questions while watching the film - maybe too many.  Did Strange's spell destroy all social media posts/footage of Spider-Man's reveal...or mainstream media footage of him...or Jameson's podcast ramblings on the public record?  I know...I know...exploring these queries and many more might be a fool's errand.  That, and without Strange's hand and fingering waving tinkering with reality we wouldn't have a movie here.  That's a chicken and egg conundrum.  In terms of more concrete issues, this film is also too long and suffers from pacing and tonal problems (once again, we get the worst aspects of an MCU formula rearing up in terms of setting up moments of gravity that are upended by cute gags and verbal quips that feel more annoyingly incongruent than ever now).  But maybe - just maybe - NO WAY HOME needed smaller stakes and less characters - and universes - vying for attention and a more intimate focus on Holland's hero himself versus kowtowing to MCU plot threads to come and the convoluted stakes of involving other players from other past Spidey films not related at all to the MCU. 

That's all too bad and a shame, because the trifecta of Holland, Zendaya, and Batalon are so effortlessly winning here and have such natural on-screen chemistry together that makes us invest in their roles, even when the films that they occupy seem less invested in them and more so on other weighty MCU matters.  NO WAY HOME absolutely expands the scope of what's possible with these types of super hero films (the possibilities are endless moving forward), but at the same time the emotional stakes seem more manufactured and artificial.  Holland remains a sensational, amazing, and spectacular SPIDER-MAN, to be sure.  If only the trilogy of solo films that he was a part of placed more faith in him and his companions to lead the charge.  Just imagine how sensational, amazing, and spectacular they could have been.  

It's ironic that the character of Peter Parker never seems to get a break in his comic book storylines because he also never seems to get one in these MCU blockbusters either. 

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