In Spider-Man: No Way Home, MJ (Zendaya) has a maxim that basically goes like, “You should expect to be disappointed, that way you’re never disappointed.” For the young characters, who are looking to get into MIT, disappointment is the worst possible outcome. It also seemed like the filmmakers behind No Way Home were desperately afraid of disappointing the fans. The fans had expectations for what a Spider-Man movie in the multiverse should be, what they wanted to see, and they would be very upset if they did not get it. Sony, eager to make as much money as humanly possible from this sequel, would be more than happy to give the fans what they wanted. But good storytelling is not necessarily about giving your audience what they want, but what they need even if that means upending their expectations. That’s why Spider-Man: No Way Home largely feels like bad fan-fic—an attempt to rewrite past stories into something pleasing. Is it fun? Sure, in the same way as eating a bunch of sugar is fun, but you don’t really feel great about it afterwards.
At the end of Spider-Man: Far From Home, Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) revealed that Peter Parker (Tom Holland) was Spider-Man. While Peter is awkwardly cleared of charges of killing Mysterio (the whole thing doesn’t make much sense and the first half of the film’s plot is a mess), the world now knows he’s Spider-Man and thinks he may also be a murderer. Peter wants the world to go back to the way it was before his secret was out, so he goes to Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and asks him to turn back time. Strange says he can’t do that anymore, but he can cast a spell to make everyone forget that Peter is Spider-Man (messing with people’s memories seems deeply immoral, and the film doesn’t explore this at all!). However, during the casting, Peter keeps interrupting with people he wants to know his secret, so the spell goes haywire and opens the multiverse to allow in other people who know Peter Parker is Spider-Man. This means facing off against villains from the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man movies—Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), Doc Ock (Alfred Molina), and Sandman (Thomas Haden Church)—as well as the Andrew Garfield Spider-Man movies—Lizard (Rhys Ifans) and Electro (Jamie Foxx).
Far From Home makes clear that while Sony and Marvel finding a way to make these movies is a spectacular business achievement, it’s been a raw deal for Spider-Man as a character. Tom Holland continues to excel in the role because he’s a charming guy and knows how to play up the gee-whiz aspects of a young Peter Parker. He’s also helped tremendously by being able to bounce off MJ and Ned (Jacob Batolon). But this is now the fifth movie with Holland as Spider-Man, and I could not tell you how he has really grown or changed or what drives his him through these stories because the MCU Spider-Man is whatever that particular movie needs him to be. To put it another way, you could stroll into No Way Home having never seen Homecoming or Far From Home and not have missed anything important about who Peter is as a character. He doesn’t grow between movies as much as he’s just got a different conflict, and it’s a conflict that frequently overshadows his personal stakes.
For No Way Home, his conflict is about the “with great power comes great responsibility” canard, which is weird because Captain America: Civil War heavily implies that Peter had already learned that lesson from the death of Uncle Ben. Here, Peter is now willing to shun his responsibility if it means sending the supervillains back to their own universes even though they’ll likely die (also the multiversal aspects don’t make much sense, so don’t try to sort it out; these characters know each other but they’re also from different points in a timeline and all that really matters is that they got the characters to be in this movie). It’s Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) who imparts the lesson that people deserve a second chance (again, a weird thing to convey to Peter who chose to save the life of the Vulture (Michael Keaton), someone who tried to murder him repeatedly and also knew his true identity). So Peter resolves to “cure” the six supervillains and then send them home so they won’t die.
From a plot standpoint, this is where No Way Home finally finds a bit of a rhythm and I can’t deny that it’s enjoyable watching these villains banter with each other. It’s genuinely thrilling to watch Willem Dafoe reprise his role as Green Goblin, a character he hasn’t played since 2004 (if you count his cameo in Spider-Man 2) and give it everything he has. No one here feels like they’re collecting a paycheck, and the film is a blast when it’s just putting all the characters together in a room and having them interact with each other. However, the notion that Peter feels compelled to “save” them doesn’t feel rooted in anything because, again, the MCU Peter Parker isn’t rooted in anything. He loves the people in his life, but nothing that’s happened so far says that Peter feels like he must save supervillains, especially when he didn’t seem too broken up about Mysterio’s death. It’s not so much that I believe Peter would be indifferent as much as it’s a dramatic inconsistency in the way he’s written across this series.
You can also tell the film doesn’t know what to do with Doctor Strange as it seems far more at ease when he’s not in the movie. There’s not much chemistry between Cumberbatch and Holland, and Strange seems present simply to facilitate the machinations of the plot rather than reveal anything about his relationship to Peter or how Peter feels about him. Sure, this isn’t Strange’s movie, but he’s pretty much a non-factor. He’s either casting spells or he’s a in a big set piece where he fights Peter in the mirror universe, which as far as action scenes go is probably the highlight of the film.
“How can you say that?” you may ask. “How can you say that’s better than the finale when Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield show up!” We’ll get to those guys in a minute, but it’s kind of easy to say that because it’s the only action scene that seems fairly inventive and pleasant to look at. I was kind of on the fence about director Jon Watts, but No Way Home solidifies for me that he is a deeply uninteresting filmmaker. I know that Marvel has their house style, but there’s no rule that says their movies have to look like brown-grey dishwater. His shot compositions are baffling, and the pacing seems designed more to get to the next one-liner than land any emotional beat. Everything about his approach to No Way Home screams, “This will do.”
The kicker is he can kind of get away with it because he has Maguire and Garfield in his back pocket. People will lose their minds when they come on screen because, and regardless of what you thought of their respective movies, they liked the actors as Peter Parker and Spider-Man. No Way Home almost feels like a reward for everyone who sat through a bunch of Spider-Man movies and that reward is you now get to see Holland, Garfield, and Maguire share the screen together and bounce off each other. I can’t deny that it’s fun. They’re likable in these roles, but there’s no “and then” to their presence in No Way Home beyond imparting the “With great power comes great responsibility” message and that they too have grappled with rage and grief. That’s not a bad page to take out of the Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse book, but it makes more sense for Spider-Man’s first movie, not his sixth (or third if you only count the movies where Holland is the star).
I’m sure this review reads curmudgeonly. After all, I’ve admitted that the film is fun. It gives the people what they want, and I’m sure there will be much cheering when these characters from previous Spider-Man movies step on screen in No Way Home. But is this all movies are supposed to be? Is it nothing more than recognizing the thing? Great movies are about great storytelling, and No Way Home isn’t telling a great story as much as just throwing together a bunch of actors you recognize playing roles you’ve seen them in before. The excellence of Into the Spider-Verse shows that this “multiple Spider-Men” approach can still yield a great movie, but Spider-Verse has a point about why Spider-Man is a unique hero who means something to so many people. The only point of No Way Home is to make the audience nod and smile at the things they recognize before the film ends with all the characters forgetting that Peter Parker is Spider-Man.
Why does the film end this way? Is it a matter of Peter having to be careful about what he wishes for and that’s the lesson he had to learn in this movie? No, it’s a business consideration because Sony and Marvel and Tom Holland haven’t cemented what the future looks like for the character. That’s not a satisfying resolution because No Way Homenever really set out to tell a satisfying Spider-Man story. It has quantity in place of quality, but you can sometimes get away with quantity. It is the most Spider-Man movie, and sometimes people confuse that with “best.” But really Spider-Man: No Way Home is just resoundingly “fine.”