Into the Villain-Verse — Spider-Man: No Way Home
After the absolutely infuriating tragedy that was Eternals, the Marvel Cinematic Universe desperately needs a palate cleanser, if not a full-on reversal to redeem itself. Hope was on the horizon with a new Spider-Man movie fast approaching, one that would also feature Doctor Strange. Tom Holland is widely considered to be the greatest version of the friendly, neighborhood web-slinger, and Benedict Cumberbatch brings that perfect combination of humor and gravitas to everything he does in the MCU.
There was a solid chance to clear the horridness from our collective short-term memory, though there was one major potential red flag when the trailer for Spider-Man: No Way Home debuted, namely the appearance of villains from the two core Sony Spider-Man franchises that featured Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield in the title role. In a vacuum, this is an incredible idea. It’s shameless fan service, but it provides the chance to expand on the characters, and in some cases, cast them in a more favorable light than their previous outings. The problem is that we already have the utterly brilliant Into the Spider-Verse that just used this exact conceit to Oscar-winning effect. So how do you pull off this trick without making it feel derivative and lazy?
The answer: lean completely into the absurdity while also giving this film real stakes using the established characters. Into the Spider-Verse was in many ways an animated reboot, setting up its own world (and several others) with winking narration and references outside the live-action films. We got many totally new Spider-People (and Pigs) to have fun with and root for in different adventures. No Way Home, however, uses the heft of 13 years’ worth of built-in MCU knowledge (five of them featuring Holland) to not only delight the hardcore fans but also further develop the existing players that will still be around once the credits roll.
Picking things up literally from the moment that Far From Home ended — with this world’s version of J. Jonah Jameson (still J.K. Simmons) using fake video from Jake Gyllenhaal’s Mysterio to reveal Peter Parker’s identity and accuse him of murder. As all of New York instantly turns on him and swarms, Peter takes M.J. (Zendaya, a name I am incapable of speaking without swooning) and flees to his apartment, where Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) and Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) have just conveniently broken off their relationship, formed in the last movie. The quartet, along with Ned (Jacob Batalon, introduced with the best “DUDE!” exchange since BASEketball), are apprehended by the Department Of Damage Control (what a stupid name, especially since they use DOGC as their initialism; who puts “OF” in the abbreviation?), but are eventually released, and Happy lets them stay in his condo, the location of which is unknown to the local media.
This madcap section has several flaws. For one thing, I shudder to think that there’s any universe — comic book or otherwise — where its version of Alex Jones has enough clout that literally all of the city of New York, and eventually the country, would not only watch his show, but believe it to the point that they’d instantly abandon Spider-Man, one of the guys who, you know, saved the entire world from Thanos. It’s exceedingly hard to believe. Further, breaking up May and Happy is without substance, and the Damage Control story basically goes nowhere, and feels like it was set up just to get a gasp/applause break when a famous Marvel character makes a cameo. There are a few of these, some of which confirm the presence of new members of the MCU, while at least one is confirmed to NOT be a part of it, at least not in their current iteration.
Still, the sequence serves a narrative purpose that makes the more cringeworthy moments forgivable. Hounded by supporters and detractors alike, able to see the pain and hardship that his friends and family have to go through, and forced to tolerate Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori) turning into a star-fucker, Peter is desperate to go back to a world where he’s still relatively anonymous. He feels the same crushing guilt that comes with his suit that Maguire and Garfield felt at one point, just in a different form. And it’s those moments of adversity and self-doubt that went the furthest in shaping those previous versions of the character.
Cue Strange and Wong (Benedict Wong; I swear I didn’t write it that way to make it look like a James Bond joke). Without the Time Stone, there’s no way to change history and prevent Jameson from outing him, but there is a spell that will make everyone forget that he’s Spider-Man. However, as this version of Peter Parker is prone to rushing into things without thinking them through, he tries to alter the spell as it’s being cast to exempt certain people from the worldwide memory wipe. This causes Strange’s work to become unstable, forcing him to contain it in a magic box lest it go completely haywire and tear apart the fabric of the multiverse. So, you know, minor concerns.
Resigned to this new reality, Peter decides to at least try to make things right for everyone else — even if it means he suffers alone — as they’re being punished by association. On his way to the first of those attempts, he is ambushed by none other than Doctor Otto Octavius, aka Doctor Octopus, played once again by Alfred Molina. After a fairly tense battle, Octavius sees Peter’s face and realizes it’s not the Parker he knows (that would be Maguire). Their joint confusion is then interrupted by the appearance of Norman Osborn, aka The Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe, in all his scenery-chewing, Power Ranger Vampire costume glory). Octavius becomes angry and distraught, because he knows that Osborn is dead in his world.
Strange explains that the botched spell ended up transporting people from other worlds who know that Peter Parker is Spider-Man into their universe, and that they must be returned to their reality, or you know, multiverse go boom. We’re eventually reunited with the likes of Electro (Jamie Foxx), Lizard (Rhys Ifans), and Sandman (Thomas Haden Church), with the latter two voicing CGI motion-capture characters rather than appearing themselves.
The dilemma for Peter is that the villains realize that most of them are dead in their world, killed while fighting Spider-Man, and his conscience is too great to just send them back knowing it’s a death sentence. He wants to help them, so he’s got to “Scooby-Doo this shit,” as Strange says, to find some way to cure the baddies of whatever turned them evil before they go back, while also preventing them from running amok again.
With one major plot hole exception (Octavius didn’t know Osborn was Green Goblin, just that he was dead, yet he talks like he does know Norman’s past), this is fairly inspired. Into the Spider-Verse focused only on the multiple Spideys, not the villains. We had the singular form of Kingpin and that world’s version of Doc Ock, with some Prowler sprinkled in for pathos, but there wasn’t all that much in the way of development for them, or their association with Miles Morales (apart from Prowler). The whole affair was also mostly played for laughs within the animated world, with even a good deal of the action working in and around slapstick.
Here, however, we’re focused squarely on the humanity within these characters from the get-go. Peter appeals to Octavius’ scientific mind, May is sympathetic to Osborn’s mental illness, and Flint Marko is firmly in antihero mode as he’s still fighting for his daughter’s sake. All of this shows that there is a chance at redemption to be had here, not just for the villains, but for their respective versions of the franchise. Whether it’s giving Electro more character development and a better outfit, or finding a way to turn the issue of “Too Many C(r)ooks” from Maguire and Garfield’s last outings into an asset rather than a liability (the trick is to introduce them all at once rather than staggering them, as both Spider-Man 3 and Amazing Spider-Man 2 did, and make them active parts of the plot the whole way through instead of jumping back and forth to different subplots), this film is committed to not only entertaining us in the here and now, but in finding a way to view the previous efforts with a more forgiving eye. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, Sony.
This is accomplished by maintaining the delicate balance between jokes and danger. There are myriad callbacks and references not just to the MCU, but the other Spider-Man movies (including Spider-Verse) that are not only clever, but relevant to the action of this film’s storyline. Some of those moments are lamer than others, but when they work, they work really well. When they don’t work, at worst it elicits a brief eye roll, which is still fairly impressive for most MCU writing. But when it’s time to get serious, the film gets serious. There are always one-liners to be had during the fight scenes, but again, they’re germane to the characters and the story, rather than just cheap gags. Even one moment I was dreading from the trailer — M.J. falling from a considerable height, because we can’t have a Spider-Man movie without the love interest falling to her potential death — was expertly executed in a way that subverted expectations and corrected a massive error from an earlier film.
Some elements don’t particularly work, like a Statue of Liberty with a giant Captain America shield being built over the torch, or the potentially muddy implications of the ending, but the vast majority of this works to the highest level because it’s clear that the filmmakers cared on this one. There’s no self-serving plot twist, no brazen displays of studio hubris (if anything Disney uses this as a way to firmly distinguish itself and this version of Spidey from Sony’s films past and present). The way the movie goes about fixing the bad guys feels like a genuine attempt to show appreciation for what came before, but without resorting to yet another cash-grab reboot. Because we don’t know if anyone is truly being saved here. They can be within the confines of this universe and this film, but there’s no rule stating that sending them back to their world and time actually changes anything. So it’s a satisfying way to address the sins of the past without necessarily undoing them and pretending they didn’t happen, which is about as far from corporate storytelling as one can get while still serving the bottom line.
I will spoil one thing, so if you don’t want to know what I’m about to say here, just skip this paragraph. As always, there are the end credits scenes in these MCU movies, and this one has two. There’s one after the animated first half of the credits, as has been done before. Then there’s a second one once the credits are over. I will attempt to save you some time by telling you that the second scene is not an actual scene. It’s just the trailer for Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, which is slated for release next May. I don’t mean it’s a teaser scene that sets up the movie. I mean it’s literally a trailer, much like Captain America: The First Avenger ended with a two-minute preview of The Avengers. If you want to stay through the end, by all means do so. If you really need to pee, just know you won’t be missing anything that won’t be on YouTube within the next week, most likely. Mind you, this is actually kind of appropriate, as trailers used to always come at the end of the movie — hence the name — but if you’re looking for actual “content” related to this movie’s events, that only applies to the mid-credits scene.
I’ve long said that the MCU’s version of Spider-Man was the first to truly get the character right, and I stand by that. But that doesn’t mean that Maguire and Garfield brought nothing to the role. And while 3/5 of their collective time in the Spidey Suit didn’t work as well as it could have, it’s still worth acknowledging (I actually defend Spider-Man 3 on occasion), even if it’s a knowingly cheeky admission that a lot of it was cheesy or nonsensical. Spider-Man: No Way Home is about reconciliation, about coming to terms with who Peter Parker is, where he came from (both in this world and in the meta sense) and where he’s going. A cadre of crossover combatants is a delightful way to illustrate that idea while still maintaining a sense of importance to the character and his journey. It’s crucial for a story that emphasizes the value of memory and thought to take the time to examine what we remember as outside viewers while also finding ways to let us remember them just a bit more fondly. And if nothing else, in a film that openly admits its flaws, one can’t help but wonder if the MCU is ready for its own reckoning.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Can the MCU turn things around and get back to consistent quality? Who’s your favorite Spider-Man villain? Let me know!
Originally published at http://actuallypaid.com on December 18, 2021.