I’m currently both behind and out of sync with my viewing of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I’ve seen Black Widow, but overleapt Shang-Chi and Eternals to get to this widely-discussed and already-beloved instalment. And that’s without discussing the various canonical TV series there now are, which I think some of us still thought would be treated as ‘side projects’ but seem to be being used to introduce and explore key elements that underpin Phase Four. Which is another way of saying: hopefully this film makes sense without having seen Loki. (It does, assuming you know what a multiverse is — and as that was also discussed in the previous Spidey film, I think we’re good.)
No Way Home picks up at the exact moment the last Spidey movie, Far from Home, left off: Peter Parker’s identity has been revealed to the public, and he’s accused of murder. Rather than make a whole story from the fallout, No Way Home uses it as a jumping off point. As revealed in the film’s own trailers, Peter asks Dr Strange to magic things back to how they were before, but the spell goes awry and drags in villains from alternate realities. As the trailers didn’t give away — but was, frankly, inevitable (and has been widely used in post-release promos, so I’m not counting it as a spoiler anymore) — it also pulled through alternate Peter Parkers, as played by Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield.
And that’s not the half of it! It feels like they’ve gone out of their way to crossover with everything possible: as well as the two previous Spider-Man film series, there’s something from spinoff Venom, and even the MCU Netflix series, which were previously of dubious canonicity (of course, now they’re on Disney+ so they’re allowed to count again). About all that’s missing is Into the Spider-Verse, and there’s even an oblique reference to that. With all of that in the mix, it plays kinda like Fan Service: The Movie. Normally that would be a criticism, but it does it so entertainingly — and it’s so much the movie’s very raison d’être — that I think it works, in its own way. It feels similar to X-Men: Days of Future Past in the way it mixes different eras and facets of the same franchise together to create an ‘anniversary special’ kind of feel. That also means it doesn’t just feel like “The MCU: Episode 27”, but instead a climax to all the Spider-Man movies. That’s a pleasant change of pace, and one befitting such a storied superhero.
Keeping the appearance of the other Spideys out of the marketing may have seemed daft — of course we all knew they’d be in it — but it at least means we hadn’t already seen their best interactions in the trailer(s). How rare is it for a blockbuster nowadays to actually keep some of its biggest thrills for the film itself, rather than blowing them in advance! Indeed, my favourite bit of the whole film was the Spideys just hanging out and chatting while they waited for the villains to show up for the climax. It’s mostly fan service again — their discussion is almost entirely framed in references to previous films — but it’s nice as a moment of calm. And, like all of the film’s fan service, it tickles the nostalgia glands in those of us who get the references.
It’s notable that each of the Spider-Men has a distinct personality. We’re now familiar with Tom Holland’s childlike, motormouthed take. Garfield brings the earnest, kinda skater/surfer dude feel that he sometimes has in real life — witness the moment he pauses mid action sequence to tell the other two Spideys, quite sincerely, that he loves them. Maguire, on the other hand, is very quiet and still. He only speaks if he needs to, and that doesn’t seem to be too often. It’s an innate calmness — perhaps also maturity — but it goes beyond that. It’s not that you feel he doesn’t want to be there, more like he’d feel exactly the same way if he wasn’t there — whatever; it’s all fine. If that sounds like “laidback” might be the right label, it isn’t. It’s almost that he’s doing… nothing. But that would be a rude thing to say to an actor, because of course he’s not doing nothing. It’s a bit of an odd one; or odd within the context of the hyperactive MCU, at any rate.
The (literal) cheers that greeted No Way Home on its release have led to it being labelled a Great Movie by some (there was even a campaign to get it Best Picture recognition). Part of that is the regular thing of certain MCU fans apparently not watching anything other than MCU movies and so not having a proper frame of reference. But it’s also how the movie works: it tickles certain pleasure glands in such a way that, for some people, there’s confusion between “this is a lot of fun” and “this is a genuinely superb piece of cinema”. Heck, maybe, for some people, those are the same thing. Not for me. I don’t even think it’s the best Spider-Man film. But let’s not end on a negative, because it is a highly entertaining and, in its way, rewarding couple of hours of entertainment.