Spider-Man: No Way Home(12/27/2021)

I’ve had my ups and my downs with the Marvel Cinematic Universe but without exception I’ve seen every one of their movies in the theaters and while I haven’t seen all of them opening night I almost always went to see them within the first couple of days of release.  There have been a couple of exceptions, but generally speaking I’m pretty stoked to see them, especially in the last couple of years.  That has been somewhat tested this year, though not really by my choosing.  It took me six days of waiting in order to see Shang-Chi and Eternals, which probably doesn’t seem very long to normal people but for someone trying to remain in “the discourse” that’s quite the pain.  And the reason for these delays is, of course, COVID.  With the virus floating around it just seemed irresponsible to go to these movies while the crowds are too big to maintain reasonable social distancing.  Fortunately the crowds for those movies did thin out enough to slip into weekday afternoon screenings shortly after release and not have to deal with crowds that were too out of control.  That was not the case with Spider-Man: No Way Home.  The movie released right at the onset of the Omicron Varient, when you’d think people were at their most afraid to go to the movies than ever, but instead the audiences who shunned cinema-going all year suddenly decided that this was the time to absolutely pack in the theaters and every damn screening of the thing was basically sold out for the better part of ten days.  I finally got into a screening that was only about half full after its second weekend, which still doesn’t seem like the most responsible thing I’ve ever done, but it did allow me to finally stop running in fear from spoilers on the internet so I guess that’s a relief.

The film picks up right where Spider-Man: Far From Home left off: with Peter Parker (Tom Holland) having his identity as Spider-Man revealed to the world by J. Jonah Jameson (J. K. Simmons).  Parker is able to dodge legal liability from the deceased Mysterio’s attempts to frame him but public opinion is divided about him and this scrutiny extends to his girlfriend MJ (Zendaya) and best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon).  When this notoriety affects all three of their ability to get into MIT as they had planned Parker decides to take something of a desperate action.  He visits Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and asks if there is some sort of sorcery that can be used to somehow solve his problem and Strange agrees but in the process of casting the spell something goes wrong and Strange needs to contain it rather than let it go through and asks Parker to leave.  On his way out he gets a hot tip that an MIT representative is on the highway heading to the airport and he swings out to the highway overpass in order to try to convince her to let MJ and Ned in but then something bizarre happens: the highway is attacked by Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina)… the one we all saw in the 2004 film Spider-Man 2.  Soon it becomes apparent that Dr. Strange’s spell did have some odd side effects because it soon becomes apparent that the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) and other villains from alternate Spider-Man universes have shown up in this continuity and Spider-Man will need to hustle to stop them all and send them back where they belong.

So, obviously the big novelty of this movie is that it’s using the concept of the “multi-verse” to make this a crossover with Sony’s pre-MCU Spider-Man movies, thus officially making them canon in a way.  As pure fan service that’s really cool but there are some downsides.  First and foremost three of the five movies they’re drawing characters from kind of suck.  Spider-Man 3 was plainly kind of a disaster and I didn’t like either of Andrew Gafield’s Spider-Man movies even a little.  Jamie Foxx’s Electro is a bad character, I barely even remembered what The Lizard’s deal was, and while The Sandman looked cool he does not have an arc I’m remotely attached to.  Truth be told I was never much of a fan of the Willem Dafoe Green Goblin either; I dug his performance but I always thought his costume kind of sucked, so really Alfred Molina’s Dr. Octopus is the only villain here that I’m unreservedly happy to have back.  The film does try to undo some of the mistakes of the past in realizing some of these characters (like getting rid of Electro’s stupid blue makeup) there’s only so much they can really do to try to make some of these characters work and that’s a problem and the way the film almost seems to pause for applause whenever some of these characters show up is kind of cringe.

I would also note that I find the magical conceits used to make these crossovers happen did not make a ton of sense to me.  Dr. Strange generally behaves in what strikes me as a fairly out of character way to be trying to do this memory erasure spell in the first place and the fact that the spell goes awry through a sort of silly comedy is a bit weak to rest a film on.  I also found Strange’s rather vague description that the spell is, and I paraphrase, “drawing people who know Peter Parker is Spider-Man into this universe” seems a bit odd given that this phenomenon is pretty selective about who it draws in: where is the Kirsten Dunst Mary Jane or the Emma Stone Gwen Stacy or the James Franco Harry Osborne or any number of other non-super villains who know Spider-Man’s identity?  There are various financial (or in the case of Franco moral) reasons these actors aren’t here and there likely wouldn’t have been a place in the movie for them anyway, but a clearer explanation for who is crossing into the universe and why would have been appreciated (and don’t get me started on how little sense the post-credits cameo makes).  Without getting too deep into spoilers I also don’t really get how the ultimate resolution to this predicament works either and how it doesn’t undo most of what Spider-Man was trying to accomplish through much of the rest of the movie.

Having said that, the Tom Holland Spider-Man universe has a pretty strong foundation to work from and it remains a pretty strong here.  The supporting cast we’ve come to enjoy (Zendaya, Jacob Batalon, Marisa Tomei, Jon Favreau, etc.) has not really missed a beat and Jon Watts continues to impress behind the camera.  I have no idea if this guy can direct outside the MCU, and frankly I have a hunch that like the Russo Brothers his skills may well not translate to anything grittier, but he plainly understands the right tone for Spider-Man and knows his audience.  After a year of kind of weak MCU movies I think this did come closer to recapturing that magic audiences have come to expect from these movies and I appreciate that too, but after watching it I did feel I was a touch unsatisfied.  The film’s status as the movie that’s “saving theaters” by becoming a record-setting hit may have imbued it with an Avengers like air of importance for this franchise that it was maybe never meant to have and an event status it can’t quite live up to.  Slight resentment that I needed to compromise my health to see the damn thing may also have biased me against it just a bit.  That said I don’t think this is all a matter of context there are script issues that left me unsure about this thing and the fan service nature of its most prominent elements is ultimately kind of hollow.  I fear I’ve been more negative about this movie than I intended to be, though I also fear I’m giving it a bit of a pass on certain things out of fanboyism, it’s kind of a movie that feels a bit mood dependent in how much you’re inclined to forgive it for holes and circumstance did not have me in the most forgiving mood when I watched it.

*** out of Five


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