From a certain point of view, Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021) might just be the worst movie in the MCU
Despite being the preeminent movie franchise of the 21st century, rarely has the hype machine cranked up as high as it did for SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME. Could anything possibly succeed in meeting the lofty expectations of the MCU’s latest chapter? The answer, as demonstrated by a box office take that shrugged off the pandemic drag factor to haul in north of $1.8 billion globally, seems to be an emphatic yes. Huzzah! Congratulations all around then? Well, maybe not because while the latest MCU entry scales the box office heights, it also risks taking the franchise into the Spider-worse.
In the aftermath of Mysterio’s announcement of his identity in SPIDER-MAN FAR FROM HOME, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) seeks out the assistance of Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to pull the wool back over the world’s eyes. But when the spell goes awry and starts pulling in adversaries from other universes, Peter must confront their great power and his greater responsibilities.
There’s something haphazard about SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME that makes it feel less like a cohesive start to finish story and more the outcome of a brainstorming session where most statements began with “Wouldn’t it be cool if…”. There’s a clumsiness to its construction that doesn’t exactly feel off-brand for this MCU sub-franchise but hasn’t, to date, been this obvious. As usual, the down-to-earth human drama involving Holland, Zendeya and Jacob Batalon is terrific, their easy chemistry elevating the trials and tribulations of their lives to something captivating and it’s in these quieter moments, away from the hurly-burly high concept actions that the film soars. Not that the action is underwhelming in any respect, indeed some of the set-pieces here rank amongst the best the MCU has offered thus far, it’s just that their quiet character moments have a depth and authenticity to them that some of the action – for all its undeniable spectacle – lacks.
One thing SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME does show is just how on-point the villain casting was for the Tobey Maguire SPIDER-MAN movies. Alfred Molina is wonderful in reprising his poignantly melancholic Doctor Octopus but, as if there was any doubt, it’s Willem Dafoe who steals the movie with a portrayal of Norman Osborne that manages to out-do his original turn from two decades ago. Although Thomas Haden Church and Rhys Ifans seem to have recorded new dialogue, it does feel like they were largely present in CGI form and, in the final moments via re-used footage. Rounding out the rogue’s gallery is Jamie Foxx’s Electro. Not the best characterisation in THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 in the first place and, once again, a conspicuous weak link here despite being given an almost unconnected do-over in terms of the character.
Weighing in at a hefty two and half hours, SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME more than occasionally feels bloated, mostly by lazy and opportunistic fan service. Some of the dialogue is truly cringeworthy and the storytelling is as flabby as what lies beneath Maguire’s obviously CGI six-pack. In terms of the two biggest “surprise” guest stars, there’s no denying that Andrew Garfield is delighted to be back in the spandex. His enthusiasm and energy make it obvious why he is the first alt-Spider-Man to be brought into the movie and contrasts sharply with Maguire’s detached and oft-times disinterested approach to the role. Perhaps its because there are no real hanging threads for his version of Spider-Man to weave a web from whereas Garfield’s tenure was cut short, immediately following his defining tragedy – a tragedy which is revisited to provide him with a wonderfully cathartic moment in this movie which sees Garfield deliver the finest performance moment of the entire film, eclipsing even Holland’s pivotal moment of loss.
Faced with the existential crisis of Covid closures, cinema – especially genre fare – has indulged in something of a flight to nostalgia in recent months – with GHOSTBUSTERS: AFTERLIFE, THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS and even NO TIME TO DIE evoking the spirit of glories past to lure their audiences back in and its in this way that SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME stakes its claim to be the worst movie in the MCU.
Previous – and even current – contenders for that title from THE INCREDIBLE HULK and IRON MAN 2 to the cruelly underrated ETERNALS all share one thing in common; no matter how ramshackle their narrative was or how successfully they told their stories, there was a relentless move forward, advancing the macro-narrative, sometimes at the expense of the micro, but always with an eye to the future. SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME’s sole focus is on mining the past, checking off a list of callbacks and latter-day memes which may provoke audience whoops and chuckles but aren’t anything to cheer about. The failure to break new ground and move things forward – despite building upon LOKI’s introduction of the Multiverse feels like a failure of ambition (as does not having the Christmas tree at the Rockefeller Centre lying on its side in the film’s closing scene). Playing it nostalgically safe may satisfy in the short term but it’s poor narrative nutrition once the novelty has worn off.
In its final moments, the movie does look to the future but only to reveal how precarious Spidey’s position in the MCU really was during production. The final resolution, enacted by Doctor Strange at Peter’s insistence, almost counts as breaking the fourth wall given how obviously it was designed to allow Spider-Man’s time in the MCU to be cleanly cauterized if Sony had decided to take their ball and go home at the end of this third contractually obliged movie.
Good but not great and certainly falling short of Amazing, Spectacular or any of the other Spider-superlatives, the flight to familiarity treats the audience with, if not contempt, then at least cowardice.