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The Multiverse Curse Overwhelms Spider-Man: No Way Home's Ambitions

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The Multiverse Curse Overwhelms <i>Spider-Man: No Way Home</i>'s Ambitions

Spider-Man: No Way Home holds no surprises. It delivers what’s expected and whether you cry “spoilers” or not, you likely already know exactly what I mean. That’s what the film is hoping for, as its premise—that Peter Parker (Tom Holland) has come so far from his enjoyably low-key Homecoming, his secret identity known thanks to Far From Home, that he must literally toy with fate spanning far beyond his own universe—assumes its audience has a working knowledge and appreciation of two decades of Spider-Man cinema. The multiverse, which supplemented the Oscar-winning Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse origin story with explosive animated verve, is the only force at work here. It is a massive fan servicing crossover, with the MCU bringing staggeringly little to the fold like a potluck mooch. It is a metatextual collage, which often overshadows the actual text—it’s easy to miss the movie for the Easter eggs. No Way Home is an intriguing case study of corporate collaboration, a self-aware meme machine, and a lackluster movie that understands its hero so well that the disservice stings all the greater.

What director Jon Watts’ trilogy has done better than its Raimi and Webb counterparts is convince us that Peter Parker is a kid. A nervous, charming goodie-goodie with a headful of knowledge and not a lick of sense. So it fits that when he, his girlfriend MJ (Zendaya) and BFF Ned (Jacob Batalon) face problems—blown out of proportion by crippling cases of teen-brain—he’d run off to Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and plead for a magical worldwide memory wipe without really considering consequences or alternatives.

What follows, with characters from past Spidey films getting interdimensionally sucked to this NYC, only really makes sense if you’ve been keeping a keen eye on casting rumors. If so, congratulations: They’re here and shenanigans ensue. If you don’t really care about a fan-fictional Spidey Greatest Hits parade, there’s some other stuff in the movie (it continues trying to convince us that Marisa Tomei’s May and Jon Favreau’s Happy were anything but a long and bad running joke; it lightly engages with bad journalism’s shift from tabloids to InfoWars) but you can tell it’s mostly ceremonial. It’s a movie built for a very specific demographic, growing past what Marvel had previously trained its audience for—having a working knowledge of two dozen movies, knowing what Stan Lee looked like—to a place where knowing about the failings of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a barrier to entry. It’s a spider’s webcomic what-iffing its way through two and a half hours, the MCU finally giving into what Brianna Zigler called “the sinister serotonin rush one receives upon recognizing something” in her Space Jam: A New Legacy review.

And this is the New Legacy of Spider-Man movies: A film that works hard to do what other films already have, enticing us with parts of movies we’ve already seen. It is, to be fair, much better than Space Jam. Its Spider-Manifesto attempts to use its subject’s film history to move its character forward, delivering familiarity and freshness; /r/Raimimemes and MCU catharsis. Its ambitions frustrate and dazzle.

This franchise-spanning makes No Way Home simultaneously the Watts film with the most overwhelming scope and the loosest and least-controlled script on a granular, moment-to-moment level. There is simply too much to wrangle—too many concepts, too many characters, too many emotional arcs, too many franchise canons—for the film to spend so much time on Apatowian stammering and lackadaisical riffing until scenes mercifully Peter out. Instead of grounding a grand and sprawling corporate synergy, only fully comprehensible if you’ve been watching superheroes for 20 years, its bumbling script means that the only things that really stick with you are those whiteboard strategy meeting Moments—where X gets Y power that will pay off two years later in Z—that the charming Holland films have been mostly free from compared to the rest of the MCU.

But the conversations? The battles? The gags? The motivations of the characters themselves? Some shine through the dense complexity, but only by overcoming an existential storytelling foe. The excellent Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin, the tragicomic Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock and a few thrilling shots striving for what seemed effortless in Spider-Verse shouldn’t have to fight tooth and nail to survive. If you’re anything less—like poor Jamie Foxx, a fight sequence that manages to land a blow without cutting, or one of the two villains too unimportant to even serve as punchlines—you’re lost in the postmodern visual mess. “Be careful what you wish for,” might seem like the correct No Way Home quote to sum the film up, but so too does “Did you see that?” “Uh, it’s really dark.”

All that standing around and hard-to-parse midnight webslinging is in service of something great for Holland’s Peter. All stops are pulled, all mentors milked for wisdom, all cheap shots taken. He is growing up, damn it. Holland and Zendaya continue to spark when the film rarely allows them, and their performances successfully convey emotional lessons without beating us over the head. (You may want a helmet, however, to weather the direction.) But it wouldn’t be a modern superhero movie if it didn’t undercut itself until there was no time left. Part of that comes along with the jokey Spidey personality, but as more floods in from the MCU’s house snark and the meta callbacks and references that No Way Home’s whole premise relies upon, there’s very little room for its sincerity to stand on its own. That is, until its end.

Great movies can be undone by a terrible ending. It’s hard to think of the excellent Signs without its goofy reveal coloring your memory. It’s hard to forgive Wonder Woman its third act of gray porridge. Endings are tough. Iffy movies with great endings are more rare. Spider-Man: No Way Home’s routine is overwhelmed with flourishes, more devoted to Spider-Man™ than its Spider-Man. But it sticks the landing. It’s not that it’s without the MCU’s required final act CG spectacular, but that said spectacular is followed by an excellent denouement, subtly written and acted in turn by performers who’ve waited years to actually act with each other. After so long playing with the legacy and impact of Spider-Man, No Way Home finds its way back.

Spirits are high when the credits roll. But all you really remember is the last fifteen minutes, not the two hours that got you there. It feels a bit like it was figured out first, and the rest slapped together to fill time until they got there. With the way Marvel movies consistently resemble flowchart bubbles, less entities than operations, it might just be how things work. All the spectacle, all the stunt performers and stunt casting—it all evaporates like so many Snapped extras when confronted with small, connected scenes of human-level dramatic filmmaking that remind you why broke loser Peter Parker resonates with us so deeply in the first place. It’s valuable, this recollection, but getting back to Spider-Man basics is a shallow victory with diminished returns. Perhaps the fact that Spider-Man: No Way Home finds any success in this familiar territory, after devoting itself so wholly to unwieldly examinations of its own IP, is itself its biggest surprise.

Director: Jon Watts
Writers: Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers
Stars: Tom Holland, Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield, Zendaya, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jacob Batalon, Jon Favreau, Marisa Tomei
Release Date: December 17, 2021


Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.

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