Directed by Jon Watts
Written by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers
If you read this (and despite the vanishing insignificance of myself and this site, I do somehow get a few readers), I expect, as a matter of statistics, you'll sharply disagree with it, and probably hate it. Might I direct you, then, to a nice Avengers: Endgame review? Let's all agree that was a pretty great movie. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has given us a lot of good movies, and therefore, conceivably, could even do so again. And if you're still here, I should start by saying something pleasant about Spider-Man: No Way Home: it has a solid, eclectic Michael Giacchino score. Merry Christmas, everybody.
The point is I don't know exactly when I became the kind of shithead about the MCU I've always hated, and given that I was a member of the quiet minority who actually liked Eternals, it must've been recent, and so I could tell you that it must have happened while I was watching this. But if I'm completely honest, it was probably during the marketing and hype leading up to this; there's no denying that it turned me off and I went in with rock-bottom expectations. Partly, that's even fair, because Spider-Man: Far From Home was Marvel's worst content of all, at least till they started making their own TV shows (actually-factually, Disney+ is almost certainly the biggest reason I've come to completely distrust both the MCU and the MCU's fans); but either way, this is the direct sequel to a film that left Spider-Man, the concept, in pretty rough shape. But, yeah, of course it's mostly because No Way Home sounded like the biggest fucking wank in the franchise's history and, in this fanboy's estimation, Kevin Feige has been consistently bad at his handjob technique at least so far as stroking nostalgia is concerned. A character in this film says, "If all you expect is disappointment, you can't be disappointed," or something along those lines. This is not true. You can be very badly disappointed.
None of the foregoing means I didn't at least try to give it a fair shake, and every once in a while something even happened to threaten to turn it into an actual narrative or aesthetic object. So it's not the worst movie I saw this year—I guess—though unfortunately this is true solely because Space Jam 2 happened in 2021*, and the hell of it is, No Way Home is also fundamentally akin to that movie, in that it's barely "a movie" at all. It's the Space Jam 2 that got made with a little bit more discipline and a whole lot more desperate pretense from all involved that, oh no, you've got it all wrong, it's a celebration of the phenomenon of Spider-Man in cinema (and therefore superhero cinema in general!), and not entirely a branding exercise. This I think is what makes it by a huge and overwhelming margin the most depressing movie of 2021, the kind of rare movie experience that genuinely affects you, not solely because it's Godawful terrible but because the atmosphere around it makes you feel like you're taking crazy pills, like everyone involved, including everyone who was excited about seeing it and came out satisfied that it checked the boxes they wanted checked, really is pretending. Like, nobody pretended Space Jam was good. But No Way Home is beloved. It will be the first movie since the advent of covid to surpass a billion dollars at the box office; when all's said and done, it may wind up accounting for something like a tenth of 2021's entire box office. (If you spuriously throw out Chinese domestic superhit Battle at Lake Changjin, then there's no way around it.) Which isn't even the problem: bad movies used to make a billion dollars (or the 00s equivalent of a billion dollars) all the time, and that was perfectly fine because they didn't seem to suck the air out of the entire industry, or engender this brand of unconditional worship. It's isolating, at the least. It's the kind of movie where you spend the whole ride home in near-silence because you can't say anything nice and you don't want to ruin it for anyone else with your negativity, and you just sink into your own psychological problems, reevaluating your relationship with movies and other people, and you wonder whether the future still holds out the possibility of joy. So that's obviously too much to blame on a movie. But I had to watch Flash Gordon to cheer myself up, and even that didn't totally work till I got some sleep and reset a bit.
Anyway, it picks up where Far From Home left off, and for all its problems (indeed, for all I was correctly skeptical about it), Far From Home's ending at least pointed in an interesting direction for poor Peter Parker (Tom Holland) when Mysterio's dying act was to reveal Spider-Man's secret identity to the whole world, while simultaneously accusing him of his murder. It's only fair play to accept a movie's premise—that people would believe Mysterio and stir a big pot of controversy for Peter—and while it does start to strain our credulity in its pursuit of some extremely vague form of social commentary, it's at least credible enough. This controversy, anyway, has been picked up in a big way by conspiracy-monger Alex Jones (J.K. Simmons)—they usually don't put real-life figures in these movies for good reason, and I really can't say why they decided to cast the guy who played J. Jonah Jameson back in the Raimi Trilogy—and his web news show has amplified Spider-gate to the point that Mysterio partisans are protesting outside Peter's school.
The media follows the teen's every move, and thanks to his notoriety, not only is Peter's application rejected from MIT, his best bud Ned (Jacob Batalon) and girlfriend M.J. (Zendaya) have theirs thrown in the trash, too. (Why, Spider-Man is so feared and distrusted that when he tracks down the MIT admissions officer who wronged him, confronting her on a freeway in a display of his inescapable superhuman might that's only made more ironically perverse by his nanotechnological Stark spider-armor's return to its "civilian" state, why, she registers extremely mild annoyance.) Meanwhile, the U.S. or world government, who can say, undertakes a thorough investigation that apparently gets handled in the narrative's negative space by Hell's Kitchen slip-and-fall attorney, Matt Murdock (the guy from the TV show several years ago that no one's thought about since). And I have no idea why I'm going on about any of this: this isn't even remotely what the movie's about. But you can see how even this first act, the one that sort of feels like somebody originally had an idea for a movie (or at least an idea for an idea) winds up mostly a delivery device for idiotic fan-service and lousy jokes.
So what the movie's about is Peter looking for a magic solution to all his problems. Fortunately, he knows a magic problem solver. He comes hat in hand to Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), who's bitchy but agrees to help by casting a spell that will make everybody forget that Peter's Spider-Man—do not think about this for even a second, it's truly infinite in its sloppiness—and through a comedy of errors that requires Strange to be one of the most irresponsible, bumbling, and stupid characters in superhero film history, instead of talking through the precise parameters of what Pete means by "everyone," Strange permits him to keep interrupting him in the middle of his spell. This throws Strange off badly enough that the spell he casts reaches instead into the multiverse, and pulls in everyone who's ever known Spider-Man's secret identity. Unfortunately, this is mostly people whose sole reason for living was to try to kill Spider-Man.
Look, you know what it is: the entire purpose of the movie was to get Willem Dafoe, Alfred Molina, Rhys Ifans, Jamie Foxx, and Thomas Hayden Church to reprise their roles from Sony's preexisting pair of Spider-Man film continuities headlined by Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield, respectively, thereby prompting Maguire and Garfield to also reprise their roles, and the film accomplishes this single-minded purpose. If this makes you happy, great. It also drags in Tom Hardy for a mid-credits scene that I drastically despise because it sets the table for an MCU Venom in the dumbest way, though if I reflect on it, yes, Venom's comic book origin is even more terrible. (For the record, I don't despise anything in the movie more than the bizarre close-up of a LEGO Emperor Palpatine toward the end, which is rather like if someone pissed on your face after they beat you up, then showed you a LEGO Emperor Palpatine.) One may reasonably ask where Kirsten Dunst, Emma Stone, James Franco, Dane DeHaan, Rosemary Harris, Denis Leary, and Topher Grace are. They are not here. Some of that is explicable, some of that is convenient; Grace is of course the big miss, not solely because I liked Grace's Venom, and the small part of myself that actually responds to No Way Home's fannish appeal is disappointed, but because if the noble justification for this exercise in super-pandering is to celebrate everything, even the unpopular stuff, then Grace's absence betrays the real reasons. They don't care because they're already giving you the Venom that resonated—the one that makes them money.
And if this whole scenario sounds like an echo, of course it does: Sony already did a movie with the whole "Council of Cross-time Spider-Men" concept three years ago, and it was pretty great (albeit mostly because of its take-no-prisoners animation style), and they're even doing another to be released next year. This means that three Spider-Man movies in the space of four years will be about cosmic shenanigans across a multiverse involving stakes that are literally bigger than the fate of just one planet. Garfield's Spider-Man, incidentally, remarks that fighting a bank robber in a robotic rhinoceros suit makes him lame. No, it's what made you and Maguire the stars of the only two Spider-Man sub-franchises that had an even basic understanding of the assignment. I'm looking forward to Across the Spider-Verse because I expect it will be another blast of visual energy, and Spider-Verse's multiversal exploration had the decency to be mostly a joke, rather than a reverent resuscitation of former avatars of the IP; but it's getting real hard not to start finding "multiple versions of the same character" tiresome, and it's looking real clear that that's the MCU's go-to move now.
Everything in the film's "plot" exists to move these action figures across the playset, and while that's true of almost any work of narrative fiction, even the MCU has never been so blithely transparent about it. It's absent, almost totally, of any art, or character, or logic, or plausibility, and demands you be happy with the atom-thin rationales it provides for everything. To this end, it offers Peter a moral quandary, in that his alternate-Earth villains have been snatched from right before the moment of their impending deaths at another Peter Parker's hands. Strange can send them back, but doesn't that mean that Spider-Holland will be killing them himself? At Aunt May's (Marisa Tomei's) instigation, he elects to double-cross his ally, potentially endangering the structure of the multiverse, opting instead to rehabilitate his foes, most of whom had their minds broken whenever they got their superpowers. In the end, they can go back to their home universes so they can get snuffed with their full faculties, I think—it's a bit muddled—and while technically this means that the film has broached a moral discussion, the prospect of anyone thinking it's "about" rehabilitative justice kind of makes me queasy, given that because it's a fantasy movie pitched at six year olds and intellectual six year olds, this boils down to the MCU's super-genius Peter jamming formulae and microchips into their brains as a sort of on-off toggle for "being evil."
Even on this Saturday morning cartoon level, No Way Home is in no danger of taking its villains and their varying motivations seriously, as actors in different time zones make great efforts to revivify characters that in some cases they never did much with in the first place (I don't necessarily stand by the text of any review I wrote seven years ago, but I will maintain that Electro is a great antagonist in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 because he represents Spider-Man fighting what amounts to a god; even in 2014, I don't think I asserted that Foxx's performance as Electro was particularly good, and as none of the awe-inspiring fearsomeness of Electro-the-concept gets translated into this film's iteration, he's effectively just a redone color scheme). For obvious reasons, then, the Raimi film villains get the bulk of the "story's" attention, but I cannot name a movie that makes it clearer that characters have no offscreen reality at all, so that they sort of pop in and out of existence for the benefit of the apparently large number of Spider-Man 2 fans who've been breathlessly waiting for the Doc Ock redemption arc that's told with the kind of richness that you only get out of four minutes of screentime; meanwhile, for up to one microsecond at a time, our screenwriters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers will almost even remember that Sandman isn't crazy, never died, and actually wants Strange and Spider-Man to send him back home.
The Spider-Men are treated slightly better (Maguire's somehow soulful—you know what would be vastly more fascinating? just a straight-up direct sequel to Spider-Man 3 that catches up with middle-aged Spider-Maguire). But even then, three quipping Peter Parkers and the general robotic Marvel-ness of the proceedings also present the irresistible invitation to begin undercutting its own emotional currents at every possible opportunity.
Of course, in the end, doing the right thing has the consequences it always has if your name is Peter Parker—oddly, it has the same consequences as when you ignore your duties, if your name is Peter Parker—and in the middle, Spider-mythology is regurgitated (May eats it and gets to give the "power = responsibility" speech); this is all buffered by comedy scenes, obviously. From time to time the movie manages some manner of fun idea, sometimes just an image (Spider-Man managing to traverse rural New York by way of high-tension wires), sometimes ideas so fun they're not established as having any sort of purpose (what I'm asking is, given the restoration of the Statue of Liberty to its original dull copper hue, was it blown up in Hawkeye or something, or does director Jon Watts, or a pre-vis artist, simply hate verdigris?). The strongest idea, anyhow, or at least the one that persists for more than a shot or a single line of dialogue, is a match-up so counter-intuitive and unbalanced that it intrigues purely on the basis of existing, and for at least five minutes, a Spider-Man vs. Dr. Strange battle makes No Way Home visually cool, and it offers the film's only proper drama as two worldviews clash in a scenario that Spider-Man couldn't possibly win, and I'll happily accept the Silver Age cheese inherent to how he wins anyway. So that's five minutes—the movie's 148.
There's stuff in here I despise and haven't even mentioned, even at this woe-begotten length. (Just one more, or it'll bother me forever: I'd have given the ending a pass as "total nonsense but they need it for the emotional payoff of Pete's sacrifice, fine," but then they go and stress how fucking ramshackle a worldwide mind-wipe would be by having him meet Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) at May's grave, and they ask each other how they knew her. "Through Spider-Man," Pete answers, "me too," Happy replies, and Jesus Christ, that is bold "who gives a shit?" screenwriting.) Anyway, almost all of the rest of it is phony bullshit hollowness, and all the respect in the world to Holland for acting his heart out and pretending it's happening to a real human being named "Peter Parker," but it's like the cutscenes for a Spider-Man tie-in video game revolving around the movie properties, which is almost exactly what No Way Home is, except for the fact that this tie-in video game expects you to cry over it and it was released in theaters for the delight of at least a hundred million people, who just love where the artform is, here at the end of 2021.
*Well, also Army of the Dead, but that's not rhetorically useful.