When is a movie that’s only good, rather than great, the best thing you’ve seen all year? When it’s a fan event on the scale of Spider-Man: No Way Home, which unites everyone who ever loved the big-screen franchise (going back to 2002’s Spider-Man) for a gorgeously nostalgic feelgood romp.
This is the climax to Jon Watts’ “Home” trilogy, following the excellent Spider-Man: Homecoming and its 2019 sequel Far From Home. But while it nicely rounds off the character arc of Tom Holland’s Peter Parker, it also restores a sense of wellbeing to the Sony-owned Spider-flicks that came before it, and may just turn out to be the future. So what did we learn from our latest trip into Spider-Man’s rapidly expanding world?
Doctor Strange: shonky characterisation or ingenious arc?
We already know there’s something pretty weird going on with Benedict Cumberbatch’s wacky wizard, and our spider-senses are only tingling more intensely by the time the credits roll on No Way Home. No longer Sorcerer Supreme after disappearing for five years, Strange seems bored and reckless, happily going for Parker’s rash suggestion that he cast a dangerous spell to restore Spider-Man’s secret identity. It ends up going horribly wrong and inviting supervillains and heroes from alternate realities (AKA the five Sony-owned films from 2002-14, prior to the studio striking a deal with Marvel) into the MCU.
Perhaps Strange is just going through a narcissistic phase a la Tony Stark in Age of Ultron. But for such a trusted, supposedly wise member of the Avengers to make such a bad decision almost beggars belief. Maybe Marvel simply used the plot device to set up the forthcoming Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, with the former Sorcerer Supreme now a rogue agent being run down by former comrades. At the very least, Strange’s character arc looks set to make Tony Stark’s look like an episode of Countryfile.
Three Spider-Men are better than one
No Way Home reminded me of those Doctor Who specials in which multiple versions of the Time Lord played by various actors would team up to face down a greater threat. While these were not always the most incisive modes of storytelling, the opportunity to see past iterations of the Doctor always upped the goosebumps factor. This is certainly the case during the scenes in which the Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield incarnations of Spider-Man unite with Tom Holland’s to restore normality to the MCU and save the interlopers from instant death.
We could go on about the ways in which No Way Home gives the webslingers from previous series a fitting finale, but the simple fact is that it is just nice to see Garfield, and in particular Maguire, swinging back into action once again.
Aunt May’s death and the threat of constant sorrow
It’s the oldest trick in the book: kill off a major character and ensure your audience spends the rest of the movie panicking that other fan-favourites are set to go next. Still, it felt like a dirty move to take out Marisa Tomei’s Aunt May, especially when we’ve always assumed Holland’s Spider-Man lost his Uncle Ben before first appearing on our screens. And yet it’s May’s kindness in the face of adversity that ends up fuelling Spidey Prime’s determination to cure the supervillains rather than taking them out. That ultimately makes for a surprisingly original narrative that allows all three Spideys to play their part in the action, even if it also does remind us that pretty much all Sony’s bad guys followed a rather samey path towards villainy.
The de-ageing, the villains and the brilliance of Willem Dafoe
It’s been the over a decade since we saw Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock and Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin on the big screen, but No Way Home lets us know early on that we’re seeing them as they were just before their respective deaths in Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2. It’s not surprising that some special effects were clearly used to restore Molina to his younger self. Whether the same went for Dafoe is harder to tell – the 66-year-old is still so spritely that he insisted on doing all his own stunts this time around, to spectacular effect. His Green Goblin stakes his claim for the all-time list of movie supervillains with a bravura return of cackling insanity. The movie’s nod to the Goblin’s traditional hooded costume is another lovely touch.
How about those other villains? They never quite made it to a Sinister Six, as in the comic books, unless you count the fleeting post-credits appearance of Tom Hardy’s Venom. And truth be told, Rhys Ifans’ Lizard and Thomas Haden Church’s Sandman take relative back seats. As for Jamie Foxx’s Electro, this was a very different character to the one we saw in The Amazing Spider-Man 2.
Has Sony finally won the battle of the studios?
The first two movies in the Home trilogy always felt like Marvel films, even if Sony continued to hold co-ownership on paper. With characters from the MCU popping up incessantly, as well as the bright and breezy writing, Watt’s films felt like a new beginning for Spidey.
By contrast, No Way Home feels like the movie Sony demanded when it struck the deal that allowed Spider-Man to appear in the Avengers movies. Both the Sam Raimi trilogy and the films overseen by Marc Webb ended poorly, with Spider-Man 3 and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 receiving short shrift from critics. Story arcs were left unfinished, redemption for our hero was never quite achieved, and without Marvel’s intervention it is unlikely we would ever have seen Maguire or Garfield suiting up on the big screen again. But after the events of No Way Home, all bets are off: Spider-Man on the big screen has now potentially been spliced in three, and Sony has a completely different sandpit to play in.
Where does Peter Parker’s future now lie?
It seems unlikely the studio would ever make new Spider-Man movies starring Garfield or Maguire, but the reality is that No Way Home paves the way for either option. The Raimi and Webb universes have been brought thrillingly back into the picture, and there is no reason further adventures might not take place for either. There’s even the option of teaming all three Spider-Men up with a new Miles Morales big-screen webslinger, though that would take some seriously snazzy writing. There is no reason Sony couldn’t introduce one of its Spideys into a Venom film.
Meanwhile back in the MCU, Holland’s Parker faces an uncertain future. His world has been shrunk from an infinite sandpit of universes to a much smaller one based around the mean streets of New York. After the casting of Strange’s spell, he has no friends, no job, no apparent access to Stark technology and little to do but take down minor criminals in the back alleys of Queens. Will the already green-lit fourth instalment see Parker slowly rebuilding all his connections to the wider world, or will this slimmed-down version of reality become the new normal, with Spidey returning to his comic-book roots?
The post-credit scenes … and a significant shakeup
One clue may stem from the mid-credits scene in which Venom is briefly revealed as having been zapped into (and then out of) the MCU during the sequence of events that ushered in the other supervillains. This might seem like a cheeky plug for Sony’s Venom flicks were it not for the scene’s final frame, in which we note that a small amount of the character’s unique alien symbiote has been left behind. Is our new, friendless Peter Parker about to fall victim to that infamous, dangerously cool black suit?
What about that final end-credits scene? It looked more like a full-on trailer for In the Multiverse of Madness than anything we have seen before, showing Doctor Strange teaming up with Scarlet Witch, coming into conflict with Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Mordo and even seeming to meet an alternate version of himself. Is this the future for Marvel’s post-credit teases? If so, it seems we’re even more likely to be forced to sit tight until the absolute final frame than we have been until now. There’s just too much to risk by making an early exit.