The smashing success of Marvel’s latest superhero vehicle, Spider-Man: No Way Home, had two of our critics curious: Is it actually any good?
Turns out, they vehemently disagreed. But sometimes that’s more fun, right?
Below, Shannon Keating and Elamin Abdelmahmoud hash it all out: Is Tom Holland’s Homecoming trilogy a welcome expansion upon the existing Spidey-verse, or just a depressing cash grab? What can millennial nostalgia tell us about the Tobey Maguire–helmed series, which kicked off nearly 20 years ago? Does the deployment of the multiverse in No Way Home actually make any sense? And, finally, should you see it?
Elamin Abdelmahmoud: In Toronto, where I live, new COVID restrictions due to the spread of Omicron require movie theaters to refrain from selling popcorn, candy, and drinks. Which is to say: They require movie theaters to refrain from selling joy. So what would make anyone go to the theater under such unfulfilling conditions? This weekend, the answer was Spider-Man: No Way Home. Audiences turned up in droves for the movie, helping it pull in the third-biggest opening weekend of all time worldwide, and the second-biggest of all time in the US. That’s not a pandemic-era record. It’s an all-time record. I was among these people. I put on a fresh KN95 and settled in for what I was sure would be a lesser movie experience. But it was not.
No Way Home, reportedly the conclusion of Tom Holland’s tenure as Spider-Man (or…is it?), is one of the most satisfying entries into the franchise, perhaps second only to Into the Spiderverse. That’s because of its sheer scale and ambitious plot — in No Way Home, Holland’s Peter Parker attempts to fix the consequences of his actions through a time spell from Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), but his plan goes terribly wrong when the spell becomes unstable and starts pulling in Peter Parkers/Spider-Men from alternate universes (aka Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man and Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Man) and all the villains they’ve fought, too.
Describing a film as “satisfying” can read like shorthand for “fan service,” which has become a lazy way for franchises with big, passionate fandoms to elicit excitement without putting in the effort to write films that offer something unique. No Way Home does deliver big fan-servicey moments — when Garfield showed up, there were audible gasps in the theater — but the devastating emotional center of the film makes it far more than a simple play on nostalgia.
In this iteration, after Holland’s Peter suffers a catastrophic loss, the multiverse Spider-Men show up not just to help him on his quest but to redeem themselves, too. By the time we meet Maguire’s Peter, he’s a Spider-Elder who has reckoned with his Spider-Doubts and found purpose. Meanwhile, Garfield’s Peter is rudderless and lonely, having lost himself in his Spider-Duties. These two Spider-Men share touching moments (“No, you are amazing, and I need to hear you say it,” Maguire’s Peter says to Garfield’s; Garfield’s Peter can’t quite get there, but he’s overwhelmed with gratitude to be seen). Together, all three Peters unite to resolve the central question that the previous movies have been circling but not quite answering, which is: What is Spider-Man for? Ultimately, the answer is a poignant and simple one: to help us understand and better deal with grief. That’s why No Way Home is good, actually. Shannon, what do you think?
Shannon Keating: Totally agree that Spider-Man is about understanding and dealing with grief! But I’m not sure I agree about how well No Way Home deals with those themes.
After watching No Way Home this weekend (in Mexico City, where COVID cases are currently decreasing), I went home and binged the three Tobey Maguire iterations. The first, Spider-Man, came out in 2002 (!!!!) when I was 10 years old. Almost 20 years ago. Wild. Those movies are obviously big millennial touchpoints; Maguire will always be my Spider-Man, I think. There’s a certain grittiness to the trilogy that I appreciated even as a kid.
Spidey’s origin story is a dark one, but before my rewatches, I had forgotten just how dark. In Spider-Man, when Peter holds his murdered Uncle Ben’s hand, it’s not a beautiful or poetic moment; Ben is grimacing with pain and anguish. It’s pretty horrible. Then we have all of James Franco’s daddy issues with the incredible Willem Dafoe — my introduction to both actors were their roles as Green Goblin and son Harry Osborn — and the unhealthy and eventually murderous ways Harry channels his confusion and his grief.
The Maguire movies are also lovely tributes to New York City. Spider-Man doesn’t just save New Yorkers; New Yorkers have his back, too. In the first movie, a proud and rowdy group rains detritus upon the Green Goblin when he’s trying to kill Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane and a cable car full of people, one of them yelling, “You mess with one of us, you mess with all of us!” In Spider-Man 2, after Spider-Man stops Doc Ock (Alfred Molina) from plunging a subway train into the river, he passes out from exhaustion and the passengers gently lift him into their arms, set him down, and promise not to reveal his identity — his mask had come off during the fight.
This is all to say that I didn’t get a lot of those big, emotional beats from No Way Home, even with that one significant and sad death. I’m sure my millennial nostalgia is a part of that — an unwillingness to accept this new version of an old, beloved character. But I don’t know, man.
First off, No Way Home is just…doing a lot. The multiverse is a fun concept, and it’s cute to see all these different Spider-Men united in brotherhood, but I think I preferred it when Spider-Man hewed closer to that gritty New York realism. No Way Home, though it does have its darkness, feels very Disney: shiny, wholesome, sexless.
This could just be a me problem, but the logic of the movie also escaped me. When Holland’s Spider-Man is trying to rehabilitate the villains from other worlds, I couldn’t stop thinking: Why are you making gigantic, fundamental changes to universes that are not your own??? We all know how tweaking things in time and/or space can have disastrous consequences! What’s going to happen when these men who were supposed to have died go home and are alive and, I guess, also nice now? Holland’s Spider-Man says multiple times throughout the movie that these guys are not his problem, which we are supposed to judge as callousness, because his Aunt May and the movie overall insist that they should be his problem. But why exactly is that the case, especially when the other Spider-Men have already dealt with them sufficiently back at home? I guess it’s a bummer that they had to die in their original universes, but as Dr. Strange says, that’s their fate. Leave the complications of other universes alone!
That brings me to my confusion about what the movie is trying to say about being a good person, which I’d love your thoughts on, Elamin. I found it pretty goofy on both a thematic and practical, logistical level that all the Spider-Men could create perfectly calibrated antidotes that would turn their respective villains back into regular men, at which point they would seemingly be worthy of redemption. While I appreciate that idea, and would be very interested to see more superhero movies take on ideas around justice and restitution — especially if we have to live in a world where most movies are superhero movies, ugh — I felt like No Way Home handled it all so clunkily.
Something I admired about 2002’s Spider-Man is that the Green Goblin wasn’t evil just because he accidentally zapped himself with jacked-up superpower juice or whatever. Norman Osborn was already a power-hungry capitalist, making oodles of money by providing the military with horrifying weapons of mass destruction. He was also an asshole patriarch who was sexist toward Mary Jane and emotionally tortured his son, which in turn led to Harry’s own descent into supervillainy. This is a bad guy! Who dies, remember, in a botched attempt to murder Peter.
Not to say that Norman isn’t deserving of restorative justice — I think we all are, supervillains included — but still, it felt pretty reductive to erase these specificities in favor of promoting the idea that all the bad guys were only or mostly bad because of the way they acquired special powers. Superhero movies work best when they’re allegories for our real-life structural problems, and No Way Home’s kumbaya approach felt kinda basic and bogus to me. I know this is a movie for children, but still!
EA: OK, not only is it a movie for children, it’s also a movie about children — I’m really compelled by the way that Holland plays the idealism of Peter. His “I can fix it” attitude, his desire to just resolve the matter in the simplest way (“Let’s just make the bad guys good!”) is the most kiddish thing about him, and that’s what drew me in. In his world, he’s trying to apply the morality lessons of helping everyone, and he immediately realizes he can do that with the technological tools he has access to — tools that perhaps the other Spider-Fellas didn’t. And what’s more, they work. He’s seen evidence of this. Changes to other multiverses be damned, there’s good to be done here!
That’s not to say this viewpoint isn’t challenged — he suffers some serious consequences for trying to maintain his little-kid attitude and his Pollyannaish energy, and he’s faced with a personal crisis. I mean, Holland is ready to kill in this film, before the Spider-Elders offer their perspectives and bring him back from the edge.
What unites all the Peters is that moment where they rally around the idea of great power/great responsibility. They realize they all have this in common, but it applies differently in each of their lives: Maguire realizes that his angst over the responsibility that he’s been given is not for nothing; Garfield concludes that he is his Spider-Brothers’ keeper; and Holland realizes that there is a cost to his idealism, but it is worth preserving.
One thing that I think is elegant about this film is the way it handily settles the debate between who is the “best” Spider-Man by saying: Actually, all of them deal with different tragedies, and you can’t compare them but you can resolve them, so each finds some closure.
SK: You’re totally right that Holland’s can-do Peter feels appropriate, especially due to his age! As much as I didn’t love this movie, I am a little bummed that Holland’s time as Spider-Man is allegedly coming to an end — I’m genuinely curious to see how his idealism would evolve over time.
The Spider-Elders hyping each other was obviously fan service, in a way that probably would have delighted me more if I were more of a real fan, as opposed to someone who isn’t that attuned to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But I do really like that idea, Elamin — that this movie is weighing in on the debate about who’s “best” by sharing the love.
OK, OK, I’m starting to give the movie more credit than I did initially. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend people who aren’t MCU fans drop into this one — especially in our era of Omicron — but catch it on an airplane in a few years? For sure. ●