Spider-Man has long towered over pop culture mythology because he stands at the very core of our shared humanity. Yeah, yeah, “Get thee behind me, Satan” and all that jazz, but please also note that no instruction written in any holy scripture can as quickly cut a person into a decent shape as “With great power comes great responsibility.”
In a year littered with sometimes violent ill-tempered ignorance at the smallest inconveniences, watching a hero in a mask learn the nobility of self-sacrifice feels something like a secular cinematic prayer. Ridley Scott can thumb his nose at the low-brow “silliness” all he wants. The way in which the Marvel Cinematic Universe speaks a crucial moral lesson in a visual language that is effectively social Esperanto is wildly significant in a way that can’t be, shouldn’t be, shit on or dismissed. Least of all by a dude who made two movies that are basically eye turpentine in the span of one year.
They can pretend they don’t care, but you know Scott and Marty Scorsese absolutely still dream of getting widespread reactions like Spider-Man: No Way Home is getting. Yet, even in positive reviews, the final chapter in director Jon Watts’ trilogy is often disparaged as “fan service,” a term that is rapidly becoming totally useless. Y’all: It’s okay to simply say whether you think a film is good or bad without speculating on the motivations of its makers or the reception of people who are decidedly not you.
Anyway, maybe it’s time for me to do the actual review now… No Way Home picks up moments after Far From Home, with Peter Parker (Tom Holland) getting his secret identity doxed by J. Jonah Jameson (JK Simmons). Jameson is reimagined as a pill-hawking Alex Jones figure here who mobilizes conspiracized hate against the hero. In a critique at least twice as clever as the “satire” in Don’t Look Up, the film quickly skewers a polarized, politicized public that can’t parse the good guys from the bad ones.
Due to the controversy, Mary Jane (Zendaya) and Ned (Jacob Batalon) are denied admission to MIT because they’re FOS (friends of Spider-Man). Overwhelmed with guilt, Pete asks Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to do a spell and make everybody forget his real name. Screenwriters being able to rely on magic spells is much more convenient than it is for fictional sorcerers, and the wizardry get botched. As a result, Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina), Electro (Jamie Foxx), Sandman (Thomas Hayden Church), the Lizard (Rhys Ifans), and the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) get sucked from other universes into the MCU. The rest be spoilers.
What’s not a spoiler is acknowledging that the result of the epic No Way Home is the most fully realized live-action Spider-Man since the character’s creation. As if soaking wet and dancing to Rhianna, Holland nimbly dances Pete into adulthood, forever destined to drag an invisible cross, suffering and going without so that others don’t. Spider-Martyr may not be all goth-emo-cool like Batman, but the two should really have a pout-off one day.
Other non-spoilers: Unlike the vast majority of blockbusters, No Way Home is quite legitimately funny. There are gags in the film, not just mid-battle action quips. There is also well-earned, palpable sorrow and existential and literal loss. Spider-Man has always been, at least a little bit, about the transformational power of grief and the quiet triumph of doing the right thing on your worst days.
More can be said, but not here, not until we’re all collectively caught up. Because sharing this together is part of it. The way in which the mainstream embrace of this pop art is offensive and dismissible to some is so glaringly telling, as if you can’t love both the arthouse and the comic shop. We love nothing so much as wholly unnecessary binary divisions.
After all these years, Spider-Man is still the patron saint of the futile effort, the mascot of trying to save everyone, even those who hate you. In the end, No Way Home is a treatise on not giving up on people, even when it hurts. Poo-poo Peter’s parable all you want, but it’s what I needed right now. Thanks, Spider-Man.
Grade = A
Other Critical Voices to Consider
Kristy Puchko at Mashable says “I was in awe of how Watts and his team weaved such different styles and textures together to express common themes and a familiar yet fresh tale of what it means to be a hero who is hurting. These elements play together in a dizzying ballet of action and emotion, bolstered by impeccable visual effects and an all-star cast eager to sink their teeth into these juicy collisions.”
Andrew J Salazar at Geeks of Color says “Against all odds, No Way Home does indeed deliver on practically all of its promises, perhaps to its own detriment.”
Hoi-Tran Bui at Slashfilm says “And yet, despite its flaws, despite the blatant nature of the fan service, it works. As clunkily executed as it can be, fan service doesn’t necessarily need to be a bad thing, especially when it services a larger thematic purpose: grappling with Spider-Man’s legacy.”