What a world, what a world. Not so long ago, a movie like John Watts’ Spider-Man: No Way Home would definitely have prompted me to open my review by dubbing it, if not the best Spider-Man movie ever, at any rate the most Spider-Man movie ever. Not much longer, that is, than three years ago, before the matchless brilliance of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse set the highest of bars for both best and most — a bar that none of Tom Holland’s outings, not even this multiversiferous one, can clear.
And yet No Way Home is a landmark achievement in its own right, an audacious act of cinematic retconning almost without parallel. (The nearest precedent is X-Men: Days of Future Past, which brought together its old and new ensemble casts in a time-bending story centered on Wolverine. There are also distant echoes in the Star Trek franchise, notably Leonard Nimoy’s lingering presence in J.J. Abrams’ rebooted Trek films.) Almost 20 years of Spider-Man movie history spanning three separate film series (along with elements from a number of different comic-book arcs) are woven into a single movie almost as big and messy in its way as the Infinity War/Endgame saga, but considerably more fun and moving.
That’s partly because the Infinity War/Endgame saga had the burden of paying off the first two phases of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, while No Way Home gets to tap into the Sam Raimi/Tobey Maguire Spider-Man trilogy and the Marc Webb/Andrew Garfield films, with no narrative expectations about what it will do with them. It’s both a proper sequel to the first two MCU Spider-Man “Home movies” and a shaggy, belated follow-up to the two non-Disney series.
I’ve often noted that sequels made after a certain statute of limitations (think Die Hard 4, Tron: Legacy, The Matrix: Resurrections, etc.) benefit from differing expectations; where a timely sequel is about what happened next, a belated follow-up asks “Where are they now?” (I thought about dubbing such “where are they now” sequels “nostalgia sequels,” and then I Googled it and of course that’s what they’re already called.) No one expects Willem Dafoe or Alfred Molina, reprising their roles from the first two Raimi films as, respectively, the Green Goblin and Doctor Octopus, to be as compelling, 15-plus years later in a sprawling ensemble crossover film, as they were originating the roles in their own films. If they credibly evoke the original performances — and they do — we will welcome them as old friends.
As it is, those two alone — sharing the screen with underused incarnations of Thomas Hayden Church’s Sandman (2007’s Spider-Man 3), Rhys Ifan’s Lizard (2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man), and Jamie Foxx’s Electro (2014’s Amazing Spider-Man 2) — put to shame practically all of the MCU’s dozens of villains. Dafoe’s mere cackle is more spine-tingling than anything that has ever been done by any MCU villain in going on 30 films, which is not to disrespect, among others, Tom Hiddleston, Josh Brolin, or Michael B. Jordan, each of whom was doing his own thing. Still, after so much time and so many films, to have not a single villain who tingles spines as much as Dafoe laughing is surely some kind of collective indictment. Then there’s Molina, whose tragic gravitas, carried over from what remains the best live-action Spider-Man film, 2004’s Spider-Man 2, boosts No Way Home far above the previous MCU Spider-Man movies, and for that matter above all but the best MCU movies. Tom Holland’s earnest Peter is the protagonist, but the relationship that matters most, both emotionally and morally, isn’t young Peter’s filial bond with Marisa Tomei’s Aunt May or his infatuation with Zendaya’s MJ. It’s Octavius’s connection to Tobey Maguire’s now middle-aged Peter, because that’s what gives heft to the film’s theme of redemption.
Tony, Tony, Tony. How can we miss you if you won’t go away?
No one almost destroys the universe or the planet, or even demolishes a large European city or a sizable chunk of a New York borough, in Jon Watts’ Spider-Man: Homecoming.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.