HEAVY SPOILERS AHEAD. DO NOT READ IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN THE FILM.
by Paul Deeter.
In 2002, I was 11 years old and I had an obsession. My obsession was with the ole' friendly neighborhood superhero Spiderman. Spiderman was my everything. I read all of the comic books ranging from the Web of Spiderman series to Spiderman: Peter Parker and more spin-off runs than I can properly rack my brain to remember. Spiderman was my lunchbox, blankets and t-shirts. Hell, Spiderman was on my underwear. I couldn't get enough of the web-head, and in 2002, my Dad took me to see Spider-Man in the local theater. This was a decade before Internet buzzing trolls geeked over leaked images of possible cameos. This was before "spoilergates" and the idea of pirating a film easily online. Spider-Man just was a film you could experience on the big-screen from matinee to midnight, with a dark theater full of nerds of all ages. And as an 11 year old Spiderman super-fan, I sat in that crowd, and perhaps went more than one or two times to see it again, wide-eyed and in awe of the way a film could portray a bigger than life character for me. I leaned into the back of my seat as Willem Dafoe's Norman Osborn put on the Green Goblin mask (albeit the film mechanized it more than the comics did.) I fell in love with Kristen Dunst as MJ, I mean who didn't? Time flew by and the action and drama and loving fan service that Sam Raimi offered just worked. It's a movie I may never return to (although No Way Home makes a return-trip very tempting) just to preserve its nostalgic perfection almost two decades later. Tobey Maguire is old now, Kristen Dunst and Willem Dafoe and the rest of them have serious careers and at least at the time prestige acting and comic-book acting didn't mix. Today, any and maybe every actor is entering the MCU, some even defecting from the DCEU to sit at the popular table (sorry Justice League.) But in the early audi's with X-Men and Fantastic Four sandwiching this flick as exception, there really wasn't much of anything to bide the time with the comic book fans of our age.
I could make this (review? essay?) a dive into the history of Spider-Man (2002) or Spider-Man 2 (2004). I could jump ahead into the forgettable reboots of The Amazing Spider-Man 1 or 2, but there's so much to get lost in the weeds over. I'm sure there's critics that will analyze Spider-Man: No Way Home's connection to the earlier comics of its hey-day or further back, but most critics who get it will connect every dot back to 2002 to today. It's unfortunate that I should stress get it and try not to come off as snobby, but some more grizzled critics may view this as a chapter of the somewhat baffling amount of MCU Phase Four projects out there, and will write it away as a sequel to Spider-Man: Far From Home. This isn't entirely wrong, but I think that director Jon Watts and the team at Marvel Studios intended this film to be not just a sequel to Tom Holland's trilogy as Peter Parker but (spoilers begin) a sequel to The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Spider-Man 3 (2007) as well. For those still reading (and if you are you better have seen the film dammit) you've already been surprised (or maybe just satisfied) with the conclusion of Tobey Maguire's arc as Spider-Man and Andrew Garfield's as well. The trailer had no problem spilling the tea a bit with the inclusion of Doc Ock, (as previously seen in Spider-Man 2004) and Green Goblin (of the original Spider-Man 2002.) I know some of my friends felt a little let down by the reveal of these classic villains in a modern MCU film, but let's not throw shade at the marketing team. Spider-Man: No Way Home is a film that sets up the multiverse most directly in the fourth phase, but also establishes from the first third that we're going to see some familiar faces. The introduction of Doc Ock for example, as he throws cars aside on a highway to face Holland's Parker, happens at about thirty minutes into the film. It's clear early on that this film is ready to be a trip through memory lane.
Let's not get lost on what works for the movie as far as how the modern Spider-Man is holding up. Peter Parker (Tom Holland, sorry to keep clarifying but it does get confusing) is revealed as Spider-Man's secret identity, following up on the conclusion to Spider-Man: Far From Home. For me, Far From Home works as a fine Spider-Man webslinging tale for its international spin and solid Mysterio performance by Jake Gyllenhaal. It wasn't perfect, and following up on Avengers: Endgame it did feel a bit slight in the grand scheme of things. But the cliffhanger intended to fill seats years before this grand feature, just for the idea of a movie where Spider-Man is already on the run from minute one. And if you worried that the film would dawdle this detail over you before allowing us the pleasure of enjoying things when they got heated up, well it didn't. Peter Parker hits the ground swinging as him and MJ (Zendaya) go on the lam past helicopters and onlookers and news outlets galore. All this happens to the tune of Talking Heads "I Zimbra!" I enjoy that this movie takes no time at all to get going, but from the twenty minute mark or so, I was mildly worried that the film just wouldn't slow down. This was a relief when after Peter Parker decides to (somewhat accidentally) open an entire multiverse for people to forget he's Spider-Man. Oh, and all this to try and get into MIT with his friends because the school turns them down due to the overall controversy of the matter, which... fair. I felt like the film kind of pushed itself a little beyond the realm of believability to just get the damn villains coming, and it's perhaps the movie's slight weakness. This can be ignored for the sake of appreciating the movie's risk-taking premise, though. And when Peter Parker opens up the multiverse he may have damned the rest of the timeline for the new Avengers, although part of that can be blamed on Sylvie's actions in the finale of the first season of Loki upon meeting Kronos. We'll get back to Loki when season 2 drops, so let's brush past the 'who doomed the world' blame game for now.
I was certainly wondering how after over 22 big-name superheroes filled the screen in 2019 with Endgame would the MCU manage to up the ante for another phase. It was with the announcement of multiple different titles in a timeline of the next 3-5 years that most Marvel fans were satiated with the promise of full steam ahead work for our heroes old and new. Some of our favorites retired, some of them passed. But with the title of 2022's Doctor Strange: Multiverse of Madness it was rumored that the possibility of seeing some of our old heroes return could be true. And finally, at the end of 2021 and past a number of solid Marvel TV series and an ungodly uncomfortable delay for Black Widow, the rumor-mill was silenced with the visual proof that sometimes, villains never die. Again, I digress. To put it simply, as advertised Spider-Man: No Way Home delivers from its initial action sequence that Peter is beyond his minds wildest imagination for what he can stand against. No foe until now can be completely comprehended, due to the fact that every villain (of the rumored Sinister Six, one member short) is from a dimension where Peter Parker isn't the one in our current MCU. Of course, Tom Holland is Peter Parker, as established in 2016's Captain American: Civil War. But according to this film and the optimistic future of the multiverse, The Amazing Spider-Man's Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is still Peter Parker. And so is Tobey Maguire, who will always be my childhood's big-screen Peter Parker. But all of these Parkers (this is getting old) exist just in different timelines, not different movies. Where Sony's rights to Garfield's Spiderman didn't fair successfully enough to link into the MCU, NWM finds the clever way of bringing him in the third act because, hell his villains are already here. And the most satisfying moment of all, and the biggest fanfare I've ever heard from an audience came when our boy, Tobey Maguire shows up from his own timeline and meets our Peter Parker for the first time.
But this is what we all came for right? The rumor mill kept churning and maybe more frantically when Alfred Molina showed up in the newest trailer, when the echoes of Dafoe's Green Goblin could be heard and Electro could be seen in a haze of fog. There was no end to the possibility of who could show up in NWH and the movie praise be delivers on every. single. promise. I almost welled up when Tobey showed up and our audience cheered for a good thirty seconds. I did cry when we get Andrew Garfield's Parker to catch MJ from a drop, and he gets teary-eyed because he recalls letting Gwen from his universe fall. It's his validation in catching MJ that helps him forgive himself for Gwen's death. And there are so many arcs for characters that close so beautifully here. The film at it's core honors Peter as a kid who believes despite his mistake that nobody has to die, villain or not. He sees that capturing and sending Doc Ock back without helping reform him is a death sentence. Most of these villains, be it from Garfield's world or Maguire's, are aware of their demise. And isn't it more wholesome to want to see these guys get fixed as much as we enjoyed their return to action. It certainly fares better than a villain slaughter in a Disney flick.
Additionally, this film does some very unique things with the villains it revives. Surprisingly, Norman Osborn enters the story as a man trying to fight the demons in his head that were there from the other chapter of his life in his alternate reality. He seeks out Peter and Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) to help him, and this was at a point of the film that I questioned whether or not I felt each character was being properly exhibited. After we get Electro (Jamie Foxx) enter angrily among a few other of the baddy's I (almost) felt that the movie was going to run out of steam with everything being thrown at our protagonist. As I mentioned prior, the movie starts with a bang and doesn't feel like it's going to let up as it rushes the process of the spell-casting into play to reveal our chessboard of villains. But the movie does find some time to reflect, and the introduction of Dafoe as Osborn is perfect for moments of quiet in between the action. Additionally, and not unlike my other favorite film of the year, The Suicide Squad the villains had weight outside of their powers. Doc Ock is suffering from his technology as he was in Spider-Man 2. He feels the struggle of the nano-tech inside him and embraces Parker when he feels back in control of his body. But its with Willem Dafoe's performance that we get the plot in its best direction as he turns back to evil. It's what everyone wanted, right? But at the cost of seeing Aunt May's passing in one of the franchise's most realistic feeling death. Again, cried.
The core of the movie is rooted in Holland's Peter and his goodness. He is told by the other Parkers that they fell into their dark periods (and dark suits.) With Aunt May passing, the other Parkers share their own loss. Each franchise has had them and its what makes these characters mortal. But modern Peter Parker has the opportunity for good, and in the twist of May's death and the moment he almost gives in to hate, we see the film's truest message. Everyone can change, heroes and villains alike, and while not everyone gets a second chance, sometimes we can work ourselves through the darkness. This is all very Disney, but it works. And Tom Holland has never put on a better performance. I was a little iffy on him from the first Spider-Man film he was in, and I was wrong to doubt him by this feature, when he brings it all home. And bringing it all home is the feeling you might share as I did, when the boy in me from 2002 witnessed Tobey Maguire put his suit back on twenty years later. It's not everyone who gets this opportunity, but damn it feels good to return down memory lane. This is the most nostalgic I've been in a theater in years. This is the best film of 2021, and will go down as one of my new favorite movies.