I don’t usually tend to talk much about the Marvel Studios productions here. And there’s a good reason for that: in my position, I’m privy to certain information about these productions ahead of time, and secrecy is always a watchword. So it’s best to simply avoid the topic entirely most of the time, so as to not accidentally slip up and disclose something that was privileged or a spoiler. It isn’t my place. But I saw the new film Spider-Man; No Way Home this past Thursday–it was a rare Marvel production that I hadn’t gotten a look at before it opened. and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. And so, as a fan, as a viewer, I feel like jotting down a number of thoughts and observations about it, which I’ll do momentarily. But before anything further: if you are reading this, I am going to assume that you have already seen the film, and full spoiler disclosure is going to be in effect here. So if you don’t want spoilers, if you haven’t had the experience for yourself yet, please turn away.
I want to preface this with a story that I related briefly on social media. About two years ago, in the days before there was a pandemic, myself and a bunch of the senior Marvel publishing staff flew out to the west coast for a summit meeting with Kevin Feige and his Marvel Studios team. The purpose of the get-together was for each side to go through all of their plans for the next couple of years, so that we’d be in better position all around to coordinate and synergize our efforts. It was a wonderful meeting, Kevin and his team were incredibly forthcoming about what they were working on, showing us rushes in certain cases that had literally only been shot the day before. And Kevin walked us through everything that their team had in the works going forward. About halfway through his presentation, he began to take us through what was planned for this film, and my brain pretty much cracked. I was able to pay attention to the stuff that came later, but the scale of what he was proposing to accomplish for this film in terms of its scope and its complexity seemed, frankly, virtually impossible to pull off. And yet, when I sat in the theater this past Thursday, everything that he described came to pass up on the screen. That alone is a dazzling accomplishment. (And of course, the toughest part of the past two years in that regard was not being able to say anything about any of it to anybody–the price of being let inside in the first place.)
This isn’t going to be a review so much as something more along the lines of my DOCTOR WHO reactions, a stream-of-consciousness set of responses and thoughts about the work. It isn’t going to be all that organized, for all that I’ve numbered the points. And I’m really doing this not simply because I loved the film, but also because I’m amazed and interested in how all of the assorted moving parts came together. So here we go.
1. IT’S A DOCTOR WHO ANNIVERSARY STORY. This is maybe a strange place to begin, but I need to start somewhere. In terms of describing the ineffable appeal of this picture and looking for similar bit of entertainment I could point to, I came to the realization that it really is like one of the DOCTOR WHO anniversary specials. In that case, the Doctor is played by different individuals as the character “regenerates” into a new actor every time he or she perishes. But each actor brings their own approach to the role, and so the assorted Doctors are all quite different from one another, for all that they also all embody certain central tenets of the character that carry on. And the fun of those Anniversary stories is that they pull Doctors from all across history and feature them together, side-by-side with one another. It’s both the comfort of revisiting with old friends and also the novelty of seeing the different actors interpretations clash and bounce off each other. This is exactly what NO WAY HOME does, using the Multiverse conceit in lieu of Time Travel. In that same fashion, the three Spider-Men are all different, all unique, yet they share certain underlying and central traits, and it’s fun to experience them all interacting with one another, discussing their similarities and differences. Nothing other than DOCTOR WHO has done this in the past, to my knowledge, but NO WAY HOME executes in beautifully.
2. I’ve been in awe of the screenplay for AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR since the first time that I saw it, the manner in which that movie juggled an awesomely large and diverse cast and how it managed to give every participant some key momento or screen time, and executed a wonderful build across the whole of the film. (It never gets its entire cast all together in one place at one time either, leaving some room for AVENGERS: ENDGAME to go bigger still.) I’ve studied that thing, as a lesson in building Event stories and how to make our better. The screenplay for NO WAY HOME matches it. It’s an amazing clockwork construction that accomplishes so much in a relatively short period of time, and without the movie becoming bloated or sagging. The insane number of callbacks to the previous Spider-Man films is amazing, and even better, most of these callbacks are in the service of saying something new, something further, and not just hitting familiar notes for the fan service of it all. Every character gets an arc, and no matter who you may have come to that theater to see in this movie, you walk away satisfied. That alone is amazing.
3. I’m a big believer in the power of a signature score in films, particularly franchise movies like the Marvel ones. I believe that there’s nothing that heightens a particular moment for an audience more than the sounds of a familiar tune. It’s why we all know the music for STAR WARS or BACK TO THE FUTURE or SUPERMAN THE MOVIE or GHOSTBUSTERS. But in recent years, especially on super hero films, movie-makers have largely eschewed this approach. And you wonder why, given how much power Marvel has gotten out of, for example, using the AVENGERS march to heighten those movies’ biggest or most emotional moments. Any given film might have a particular motif for its lead character, but they were likely to not be used repeatedly picture after picture. So it was one of the things I was desperately hoping for in NO WAY HOME (I’m weird that way) and something that by itself was so satisfying to me: not only does Tom Holland keep and build on his own running musical theme, but all of the guest characters bring their own bits of the scores from their pictures along with them. I have to tell you, it weirdly got me when the strains of the Danny Elfman Spider-Man theme from 2002 would crop up. More use of music like this, please.
4. Along similar lines, the song selected for the end credits was unexpected and perfect. A brilliant little cherry on top, at least for viewers of my generation.
5. I wasn’t a big fan of the AMAZING SPIDER-MAN movies, finding them to be not terribly well scripted and having some very strange ideas about the character and his world. (Avi Arad had been interested in the bad comic book idea of Peter’s parents as secret agents pretty much from the start of the Spider-Man films.) But my god, Andrew Garfield was great in this picture. Who knew that he was capable of being so effortlessly funny? (When he apologizes to Max Dillon for not being black–!!) I was anticipating his rescue of MJ ever since footage showing her in peril started appearing in the trailers, but that moment–both in how it’s set up earlier and how Garfield reacts to it once it’s finished, is incredible, and one of the ones that elicited the loudest response from the audience I saw the movie with. Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy was still the best things about those AMAZING movies, but my estimation of Garfield as an actor and as a Spider-Man has gone up a few notches. He’s got a lot more range to him than just being the Emo-Spidey.
6. For all that the third act in particular splits the focus to give a lot of business to the to veteran Spider-Men, Tom Holland still owns the movie. He’s great, and he gets to show of an amazing range during the course of it. It would have been easy for him to get lost amidst Maguire and garfield and all of the nostalgic villains who have come back, but he doesn’t–the production remembers that this is his story all the way, and he makes the most of every interaction. And, man, he never looked younger than when he was atop that rooftop, speaking with his two alternates for the first time.
7. Tobey Maguire was Tobey Maguire. I know that sounds as if I’m dismissing his part, but I mean it in just the opposite way. Seeing him step through that portal was like having an emotional reunion with an old friend, and he slipped back into the character as though no time at all had gone by–his strange, quirky, very personal delivery as Peter Parker that somehow captured the essence of the John Romita era of the character. Him getting shivved was a wonderfully unexpected moment, but I’m also very happy that the team pulled back and didn’t have his Spider-Man die, as that would have altered the trajectory of the ending too much, and pulled focus away from Holland, the MCU Spidey. Those first two Sam Raimi SPIDER-MAN movies, for all that they’ve started to show their age a little bit, still hold up. (The less said about SPIDER-MAN 3, the better.)
8. The action sequences are fun and exhilarating and all, of course, but the main course (like in one of those DOCTOR WHO specials) is in seeing the three Spider-Men interact, and the production takes full advantage of having them all together (to the point where they all seem to take off their masks a Bendis amount of time. ) In particular, the rooftop conversation centering around every Spidey’s personal tragedies choked me up a bit, and the shared realization that the thing that binds all three of these incarnations of the same character together is that underlying principle of “With Great Power, There Must Also Come Great Responsibility.” On top of that, it was enjoyable just to see them all goofing around and having fun, working together side-by-side in the lab, or talking about their craziest enemies or how Tobey’s home-grown webbing works. The script performs an incredible balancing act of being able to take the piss out of the dopiest and most dated aspects of those earlier productions while at the same time holding them reverently. That isn’t an easy tightrope to walk. There’s always a feeling that, even when the characters are laughing about some absurd thing like Electro getting his powers from falling into a tank of electric eels, it’s laughing with the material and not at it.
9. He obviously gets overshadowed by everything to come, but how great is it to see Charlie Cox reprising his role as Matt Murdock in the MCU proper? And his one scene was terrific, for all that it was understated–in another movie, it would be all that anybody was talking about. Related to that, how about that coordination between the release of this movie and this week’s episode of HAWKEYE–each of which references the other. Given the number of times that release dates have shifted over the course of the pandemic, that had to be a miracle to pull off. (I cracked up on seeing a billboard for ROGERS pass by in the background as Holland web-races across the cityscape.)
10. The returning villains all gave masterful performances, none more so than Alfred Molina and Willem Dafoe. There were always the gold standard of Spider-Man enemies in film even before this, but they were on fire in this performance (everybody seemed to be–there was an energy to everyone’s performances that made it seem as though the entire cast was charged up by doing this.) Dafoe’s Green Goblin was perhaps the scariest villain we’ve yet seen in the MCU, and yet he was still able to keep an edge of sympathy to him. And Molina’s turn was well-earned and welcome, and his reunion at the end with his version of Peter Parker was a wonderful grace note. And Jamie Foxx was a revelation here. Given a better script to work with, he transformed his character from being a goofy 1960s BATMAN villain into an individual with personal desires and drives and nuance. Definitely the winner of the Most Improvement award. He was great! The Lizard and Sandman were again here largely non-entities, but I did like that the script remembered that Sandman was sympathetic to Spider-Man by the end of the original film and used that as a plot point when Holland first encounters him. And even though the performances were largely CGI again this time, it was nice to see both Thomas Haden Church and Rhys Ifans when their characters were cured.
11. I love that the whole of the story turns on the idea that Spider-Man cannot let even these bad guys simply go back to their own universes to die if he might be able to do something to prevent it. That’s such a Spider-Man idea, one of the things that separates him from so many other super heroes (Batman would have booted them back in a heartbeat, Wolverine wouldn’t have bothered and just stabbed them.) That essential goodness of the character shines through, even though it creates greater problems for both himself and others, even though the people around him are all telling him to give it up, and even when he himself has a crisis of faith, when the chips are down, Spider-Man does the right thing, again and again. Beautiful and perfect.
12. I tell you, when Kevin Feige walked us through the beats of the story two years previous, my one contentious takeaway was that killing off Aunt May was going to destroy this movie. It simply felt like too devastating a thing to allow for a swing back to lighter fare, as you’d get once the other two Spider-Men joined the party. I had visions of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 dancing through my mind, where the producers thought they could kill off Emma Stone and still have an upbeat ending–folly! But son of a gun if the filmmakers on NO WAY HOME didn’t pull it off! it’s still a devastating moment (and giving Marisa Tomei the “With Great Power…” speech before she passed was a master stroke) and it influences everything that comes afterwards, but it isn’t so devastating that any further joy seems unearned. Again here, I think that rooftop sequence allows for the emotional pivot that the movie needs, and it’s a credit to both the performers and the screenwriters that they were able to pull that turn off and make it palatable. A bold choice all around, but one that they were able to succeed with, even beyond my own expectations. Bravo!
13. J. K Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson remains perhaps the most perfect casting in Marvel film history, and he remains an absolute treasure in the role. Inevitably, we can expect Peter (or will it be Ben Reilly now?) to end up working for JJJ and the Bugle whenever we check in on the Spider-Man franchise next.
14. The new costume and the final swinging-through-New-York City sequence. Total fan service here, but a moment that the MCU Spidey films have largely avoided, and one that felt entirely earned by the end of the journey. Also appreciated was Peter getting his crappy apartment and studying for his GED (he’s going to be going by Ben Reilly from now on, right, given that nobody remembers Peter Parker?)
15. I said it online, but it bears repeating here: I feel bad for everybody who is working on that FLASH movie. Because from everything I’ve seen, NO WAY HOME did everything that it’s proposing to do, and it did it about as well as it could be done. Doesn’t mean that FLASH won’t be good, but it’s certainly not going to be as innovative and mold-breaking. (And honestly, there is something that I find bothersome about the idea that their team seems to feel that they need a myriad of former Batmen in order to sell a FLASH movie. if that’s the case, then you’re really not doing it right.) As a longtime Flash fan, I hope that I’m wrong here and that their movie shines. But I suspect this weekend has been difficult for anybody working on that production…
And hell, I didn’t even mention poor ol’ Doctor Strange, or that wickedly funny Venom cameo at the end, or, or, or…