As far as I’m concerned, there’s only one real Spider-Man: the version played by Tobey Maguire in Sam Raimi’s early-aughts film trilogy. Andrew Garfield’s rapscallion portrayal was unrecognizable as the nerdy high schooler Peter Parker, and Tom Holland’s iteration—while perfectly adequate—mostly seems to have mastered the art of looking nonplussed.
Raimi’s trilogy was ideally calibrated to fire the preteen imagination. I watched the films in junior high, the perfect age to be entranced by them, roughly as they released in theaters. And while some purists complained that the cast didn’t look much like high schoolers—all the main leads were very clearly in their twenties—for me that was part of the charm. There was a profoundly aspirational element to them all, rooted in the idea that we could all potentially be Peter Parker, working to eventually balance adult responsibilities and win the love of a pretty girl. Unusually for the genre, the comic-book action really did play second fiddle to the human drama. I love them to this day, even the third one.
Because I still cherish the Spider-Man character and mythos, I’ve seen all the follow-up films since, though none have ever held a particularly privileged place in my heart. Marc Webb’s two “Amazing Spider-Man” flicks felt inauthentic, and Jon Watts’s “Homecoming” and “Far From Home” were throwaway popcorn fun. But given the glowing reviews for “No Way Home,” naturally I was there in the theater as soon as possible.
(It’s tough to write about this movie without revealing major plot points, so consider yourself duly warned that there are spoilers throughout.)
As “No Way Home” opens, a leaked cell phone video taken by deceased villain Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) reveals Spider-Man’s secret identity to the world. Overnight, the lives of Peter and friends MJ (Zendaya) and Ned (Jacob Batalan) are transformed as they become worldwide celebrities. Worst of all, their college applications to MIT are summarily rejected, on the grounds that the university doesn’t want to court controversy over their admissions. (This part strains credulity. In real life, it’s obvious that schools would be fighting over them.)
In search of a supernatural remedy, Peter seeks out fellow Avenger Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch). Strange promises to cast a spell of forgetfulness that—with a few exceptions—will expunge the memory of Peter’s identity from the world’s collective consciousness. Naturally, the spell goes awry, tearing a rift in the multiverse that brings in a swarm of others who know Peter’s secret: for the first time in years, past versions of the Green Goblin, Doc Ock, Sandman, Lizard, and Electro turn up on the silver screen. And, as anybody who’s been remotely online for the past few months already knows, the Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield incarnations of Spider-Man show up from their respective continuities to fight alongside Holland’s version.
Following some early fisticuffs, we learn that these villains were transported from their respective timelines while seconds away from death, at the very instants that they came to know Peter’s secret. (For example, the Goblin of Raimi’s 2002 “Spider-Man” first saw Spider-Man unmasked in the moments before being impaled on his own glider.) Banishing them back into the bowels of the multiverse, back to their own timelines, is thus a death sentence. And this is an outcome Holland’s Peter does not accept. Instead, he decides that—consequences be damned—these classic villains can still be put right, saved from their own horrible fates.
On the surface of things, there’s a delightfully eschatological bent to this plot—a kind of apokatastasis, or universal redemption, in comic book form. Here “No Way Home” taps into a common theme of the Spider-Man canon—the conversion of enemies into allies—to suggest that no soul is, in principle, beyond all possibility of reconciliation. So far, so great.
But alas, from a narrative standpoint, all these story beats don’t really cohere.
For one thing, the villain-redemption plot element disappointingly sidesteps a haunting metaphysical question. To redeem these villains is, inevitably, to alter the timelines in which they reside—and so to alter their relationships to the respective Peter Parkers of their universe. But would Tobey Maguire’s fortysomething Peter Parker be the same man, with the same character, if he had never had to reckon with Norman Osborn’s death? To change the past is, inevitably, to change the future—potentially for the worse. And yet this dilemma is simply never posed.
What’s more, it’s worth noting that in “No Way Home,” these villains are “redeemed” through direct therapeutic interventions, which correspond to the circumstances of their transformations. So the Goblin is injected with a counter-serum that undoes the effects of his toxin, Doc Ock is refitted, Electro’s bioelectrical charge is drained away, and so on. But throughout the prior films, many of these transformations were not, morally speaking, accidents: in the case of the Goblin and Doc Ock, their hubris led to their respective falls, with technology playing only a contingent role. Accordingly, in allowing for these characters’ restoration through mechanical quick-fixes, “No Way Home” retroactively cheapens the moral stakes of its predecessors. This grace comes too cheap.
Finally, “No Way Home” concludes with a nod to the controversial “One More Day” comic arc that, while poignant, feels unearned. It simply doesn’t follow from this film’s narrative logic that Peter’s tragic destiny is to have his true identity forgotten by everyone. His fate is not a punishment that follows organically from the villain-redemption motif. or that’s germane to the theme of multiple “Spider-Men” existing across dimensions. Rather, it comes off as a screenwriting decision that lands like a lead balloon.
So, for that matter, does the movie’s decision to kill off Aunt May—which I haven’t mentioned thus far because it’s so transparently a replay of Uncle Ben’s death. (You thought you were safe from having to see a third take on this scene in Holland’s trilogy? Ha! Gotcha!) And to make matters worse, the introduction of the multiverse means that Marvel character deaths now feel even less weighty than they did before. I didn’t feel much, and chances are you won’t either.
Now, none of this means that “No Way Home” isn’t a fine enough time at the movies. The repartee is unsurprisingly great, and it’s a delight to see old Spider-Men back onscreen once again. And it offers an entertaining, if not really pulse-pounding, climax. But on the whole, this is not the game-changer that I expected and hoped it to be.
Maybe I’m getting too old for this stuff. The tangled skeins of Marvel Cinematic Universe storytelling are increasingly beyond my ken. But I have read my fair share of Spider-Man comics and followed these cinematic characters for the better part of two decades, and by that standard, “No Way Home” is less a triumphant coda than it is a monument to creative exhaustion.
By the time 2041 rolls around, I fully expect to watch a fully CGI version of Harrison Ford, playing Indiana Jones at his prime, battling Godzilla and Darth Vader in the same film. I’ll probably go see it, and I’ll probably enjoy it. But I won’t feel much inside.