Dir. Jon Watts. Starring Tom Holland, Zendaya, Willem Dafoe
Spoilers, but also I might be the last person in America to see this.
In Spider-Man 2, there are two climactic action scenes which must be considered alongside the best sequences of this subgenre. First, the one where Spider-Man stops a speeding train, saving the many passengers, but almost killing himself in the effort. Normies, civilians see his face—”he’s just a kid!”—and they bear him Christlike through the train. Second, the one where Spider-Man manages to reason with Doc Ock as his fusion reactor has begun to throttle out of control, by now so dangerous that it might suck all of New York into its fiery maw. “I will not die a monster!” the villain, now in his right mind again, cries out. Octavius pulls the supports out from underneath the reactor and in so doing sends his invention, his tentacles, and himself into the water. Spider-Man 2 is about reformation, whether that’s in the literal sense of remaking oneself or the ethical sense of self-improvement, and it’s not for nothing that the film separates its finest action sequence and its most powerful emotional moment. The way Spider-Man stops the train is pressured, painful, and jaw-dropping. And the way that Octavius reclaims himself in the last moments of his life—through his own recognizance and will, not through defeat or through coercion—stands head and shoulders above any moment of redemption in any comic book film I’ve seen. Although the former contains plenty of emotional power and the latter contains visually compelling action, the primary purposes of both scenes are clear, and neither impinges on the other’s might.
Why begin a discussion of No Way Home with a discussion of Spider-Man 2? Because No Way Home invites it, that’s why, and it’s a miscalculation in conception far graver than the much-maligned origin story of Electro (Jamie Foxx). The older I get, the more I believe in a fairly simple principle for movies to follow: don’t invite comparisons to much better films by referencing them outright. The typical offense is to show a clip of that film within the run of the movie. To take an example from a previous Spider-Man property, Homecoming has a clip of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in the background as Peter (Holland) does something like Ferris’s madcap dash home. Arrogantly, the film decides that it’ll give us something we already like and assumes we’ll like Homecoming more because we like Ferris Bueller. What happens instead is that the film creates a comparison between itself and Ferris Bueller, and as much as I enjoy denigrating John Hughes’s oeuvre, there’s no element of Homecoming from craft to effect where I’d give it the advantage. There are any number of other examples, and people better educated on this subject than I am have their own terms for it. (Ben Yagoda, who runs the wonderful blog Movies in Other Movies, calls it the “South Pacific/Welcome to Woop Woop syndrome.” If I come up with something catchier I’ll let you know.) There are examples of this principle which use the referent wisely, either as a character-builder or a plot point. Take When Harry Met Sally, where the title characters are watching Casablanca on television but doing so in their separate beds over the phone. Casablanca is an incredibly romantic movie for the two of them to be watching together and too serious to be set aside like it was just a way to kill time; When Harry Met Sally is setting groundwork for the romantic relationship that neither Harry nor Sally will embrace with both hands yet. Even The Shawshank Redemption, which is not exactly the subtlest picture ever made, uses that clip from Gilda as a way for Andy to get a poster of Rita Hayworth that no one would think twice about.
What No Way Home is doing is far worse than including a clip just to make us like something more, and it’s nowhere near as elegant as referring back to another text to develop story or character. No Way Home resurrects the villains of past Spider-Man movies, some beloved while others are ludicrous even in the film itself. (I haven’t seen either of the Andrew Garfield Spider-Man movies, but I am now extremely aware of the whole “Jamie Foxx falls into a vat of electric eels” business because of how many punchlines they include on that subject. Even if you stayed off Tumblr, No Way Home makes sure that Tumblr finds you anyway.) The cynicism, even for an MCU movie, tips the scales. If you loved Willem Dafoe as Norman Osborn in Spider-Man, you’ll love him playing the same role…sort of? at least he’s got the same name?…in No Way Home. And so on down the line, down to Rhys Ifans and Thomas Haden Church, and a film which comes in at an onerous 148 minutes doesn’t have to spend a minute of that on serious character development. More time is spent on the same crap as usual, the muddy effects shots which have to be shot in some anonymous industrial setting: an overpass, an apartment building, scaffolding. The chirpy banter between its three leading “kids” in Peter (Holland), MJ (Zendaya) and Ned (Jacob Batalon) is absolutely exhausted. At least that’s better than the equally chirpy banter between the three Peters, which goes on with the endurance and humorlessness of a Puritan sermon.
The emotional beats are emotional beats of previous films, such as the scene where Raimi-Peter (Tobey Maguire) and Webb-Peter (Andrew Garfield) share the stories of their heartbreak with Watts-Peter as he tries to cope with Aunt May’s (Tomei) death. Not for nothing, Raimi-Peter’s recollection of guilt is more powerful than Watts-Peter’s, because the scene where Uncle Ben is killed in Spider-Man is just so much better than the scene where May is killed in No Way Home. (As a result of a major journalistic investigation, you can see the tools that lead editor Jeffrey Ford used here to craft that endless scene where May snuffs it.) Yet the engine of that scene, as it is the engine of this movie, is nostalgia for the Spider-Man movies of the intended audience’s youth. We’re not really feeling Watts-Peter’s pain in that moment, but glowing somberly for Raimi-Peter or Webb-Peter, which is to say we’re mostly feeling about ourselves. Nostalgia, that most craven emotion, is the fuel for a self-absorption machine throughout this picture. It is ironic that this film which has been credited with forestalling the doom of movie theaters, makes each viewer part of himself or herself only rather than part of that mystical collective critics love to jaw about. What might be numinous is only frivolous; who really thinks there’s anything noble about feeling like you’re eleven years old again?
I’ve gone long on what makes a good Spider-Man movie in the past, but for me it really comes down to two principles. First: “the forced aloneness of a young man who is dying to reach out and feel someone else’s hand on the other side of the void.” Second: “he has to feel like only he is capable of fixing the problem, and he has to bear all the consequences of it.” Does Peter feel like he’s on his own, backed into a corner? And when the results come down of his being backed into that corner, how much of that result will he believe is his own fault? No Way Home is trading on the second idea pretty firmly. Peter makes some bold unilateral decisions about how to get MJ and Ned into MIT, and at the end of the movie decides to go it alone by convincing Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to erase everyone’s memories of him. He definitely wants to take responsibility for things he feels like he’s done wrong to other people, but this is the MCU; no one can be allowed to act without assembling some other Avengers. There is no aloneness in No Way Home, whether it’s because Ned and MJ are doing Ron and Hermione Tech Support or because Peter is teaming up with other Peters or because Peter’s first fix for a minor problem is to involve an immensely powerful magician. Without that aloneness, it’s difficult to understand where Peter’s sense of responsibility comes from; one informs the other. But then again, No Way Home makes it difficult to understand where most of its solutions would come from.
There’s a lot about this movie that grinds my gears, but one of the major plot issues with No Way Home is a plot issue that has become more prevalent in [represses full-body twitching] Marvel’s Phase Four. In Black Widow, Eternals, and now No Way Home, characters are changed through what is either literally referred to as mind control or what is functionally the same thing. In Black Widow, mind control makes the Black Widows do stuff; in Eternals, Druig’s mind control is arguably the most potent power that group possesses. And in No Way Home, it turns out that by sticking the right syringe in the baddies, they can be returned to a more normal and less hostile state. All it takes to fix Norman Osborn is some Ecto Cooler in a comically sized vial. All it takes to fix Max Dillon (Foxx) is a stick-on electricity gathering gadget. These presumably complicated serums and pieces of machinery were created either by Tony Stark’s magic build-it machine or fabricated in a high school laboratory with high school laboratory instruments. The film would not be all that different if the Peters were to go out and whisper “Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight” in unison in order to undo the Green Goblin or Electro or the Lizard (Rhys Ifans). The downside is that such an orison would involve fewer punches and almost no web-swinging to speak of, but it would make about as much sense dramatically and cost a fraction of whatever they spent to stick the Captain America shield on the Statue of Liberty. At this point, it seems pretty clear that even the pretense of characters acting on some basis of humanity or personality has been washed away in the MCU. If the mind control can be undone chemically or if insanity can be cured (?!) with enough goop in a tube, then there’s not a lick of agency in this universe, and it’s hard to muster up any kind of interest in films which see their characters as problems to jury-rig rather than the reason to make the movie.
What paltry claim to empathy No Way Home has comes from May, who works in a charitable institution and encourages Peter to help Norman and Otto (Molina) and Max and the rest. The alternative is to press a button that sends them back to their own proper worlds, where some number of them are dead. Taken at face value, this makes some sense—you could make the question of whether it’s ethical for Peter to send Norman and Otto back to their timeline into two weeks of a philosophy seminar for college freshmen—but the film never takes May all that seriously. If it’s a question of really caring for Norman, as opposed to just not killing him, then surely there must be more to caring than just giving him an injection and moving on to the next supervillain. No Way Home questions whether there is such a thing as a supervillain over and over again, but never seems that interested in figuring out how one might cure a supervillain or rehabilitate him rather than vaccinating them. And for anyone who believes that it’s a superhero movie, it’s light fare, it’s not that serious, it’s just an MCU popcorn flick, let people enjoy things, here’s the counterpoint.
Peter does enough to protect himself and MJ from Doc Ock, but saves the villain’s life by unplugging the electrical conduit. He shows himself to Octavius, taking his mask off and revealing himself to be Peter Parker, “brilliant but lazy.” In a single gesture by Maguire and a single reaction by Molina, there is more empathy than you can see in all three of the MCU Spider-Man movies. There’s such vulnerability in Peter’s gesture, goodwill that risks all to gain all. He could keep the mask on and preserve his secret identity and his personal safety, but he knows that the only way to save himself, MJ, New York City—perhaps even Octavius himself—is to appeal to the man in a mechanical monster by letting Doc Ock put a real face and a real name on Spider-Man. At first it seems like Peter’s attempt will fail, as suggesting that they shut the machine down earns him one of the tentacles around his throat. Yet Peter continues to make his argument by using Otto’s words. “A gift to be used for the good of mankind,” Peter says, which sparks the memory for Otto, who replies, “A privilege.” From one science whiz to another, reason and sense save the day; it is not Peter’s might or tactical acumen or vials or serums, but his goodness. One good turn deserves another, and Peter’s mercy appeals successfully to Otto’s ethics.
If No Way Home were really about extending a hand and being brave for the sake of others, if it made Peter someone who deserved the responsibility he takes because he acted on his own, if it were about believing the best of the lowest among us, then it wouldn’t look the way it does. It would look a lot more like Spider-Man 2. Shame on No Way Home and its creators for trying to pass off something that soulless and that narcissitic when we have cinematic proof that a Spider-Man story can be filled with great heart.