REVIEW – Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021)

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An amazing, spectacular, and thrilling adventure with plenty of humour and sweet moments, as well as a few emotional swings. And yet, despite all the fun and great moments, I was left ever so mildly unsatisfied as not everything sticks the landing.

Before I go any further, let me say that I had a great time and a lot of fun with Spider-Man: No Way Home, just as I thought I would. It is a legit thrill-ride and enjoyable time and it’s nice to see these characters again. While it does lean into a lot of nostalgia for past incarnations, there is a self-awareness about said past and an ability to address it that I find impressive. My dissatisfaction is more to do with the execution of all these great ideas, because not every one of them properly sticks the landing for me. I still highly recommend seeing it as soon as you can (as long as it’s safe for you to do so).

POTENTIALLY MINOR SPOILERS FROM THIS POINT FORWARD

Kicking off exactly where Far From Home left us, Peter now has to navigate a world that knows his secret, how it affects his life, and how it affects those around him. While trying to correct this with the help of Doctor Strange, the spell they cast goes wrong and now Parker has to deal with threats from other universes, threats many of us will be familiar with.

Not only is this the third Spider-Man film as part of Disney/Marvel Studios’ and Sony’s collaboration for the MCU, this is the third Sony-related or Sony-adjacent film property this year to fall back upon nostalgia and past incarnations. If memory serves, the first was No Time to Die, which (as well as relying on references to Casino Royale) was the most traditional Bond movie of the recent era that began as not wanting to be traditional. The second was Ghostbusters: Afterlife, which was a love letter to fans of the original.

I have little to no attachment to the previous Spider-Man movies, I enjoyed the Tobey Maguire films just fine but they haven’t stayed with me and I actually dislike the Andrew Garfield movies even though I liked the actor. So again, I had my concerns going into this film, which wasn’t helped by the marketing that basically resembled “REMEMBER THIS?” For the most part, the film itself isn’t necessarily doing fan service for the sake of it. Sure, there are throwaway references and gags here and there, however, one of the reasons for the inclusion of these characters from previous cinematic versions of Spider-Man, is to help propel and continue the MCU Spider-Man’s struggle with what it means to be a hero.

Whether Peter’s a slow learner or that’s just his lot in life (my limited knowledge of the comics suggests the latter), the themes of these three films have revolved around the concepts of the responsibilities having such powers (or access to them), but also the struggle of balancing said responsibilities with the desire to have a normal life. In No Way Home it moves into the area of how does this all affects the people he cares about. It also raises the question, what does a hero actually do to help?

And that of course becomes the driving factor of the rest of the movie.

The story is a lot of fun, full of humour and exciting action, with amazing visual effects (you expect such when Doctor Strange is around), as well as a few personal revelations and gut-punching dramatic turns. Even if not every joke landed, I appreciate the levity for such a film because it prevents it from being too unnecessarily dour and when things do take a turn they have much more of an impact (it’s a bigger drop). Because these films have focussed on high schoolers, they’ve normally had a generally lighter tone than certain other parts of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Homecoming had a somewhat “John Hughes” vibe to it while Far From Home dabbled in the tropes of “European Vacation” films. As I type, I saw No Way Home less than 12 hours ago at a midnight screening and I am currently struggling to pinpoint the genre it’s aping this time. In any case, the young leads have unsurprisingly made these films appeal to a “young adult” audience, which I guess is a genre in itself.

I liked most of the performances. MJ (Zendaya) continues to grow into a brave, no-nonsense, hard-arse who’s slowly learning to open up to others, Ned (Jacob Batalon) as always is the sweet and affable best friend, who this time gets to do some very cool stuff and lovely to see some Filipino being spoken on screen too. And Peter (Tom Holland) is still struggling to balance his two personas even if the world knows who he is. Some of my favourite moments are the interactions between this trio, the “I’m still a teenager” stuff works well for me more so than most other 20-somethings attempting same (including the banter). And when they’re thrown into the deep end (again) their reactions in dealing with that feel convincing. Mind you, they may have that seemingly diminutive state in relation to the calibre and number of older and veteran actors they’re surrounded by this time.

I find it odd that there are folks out there who think Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is acting out of character when he agrees to Peter’s request. Steven Strange has an ego on him, which is pretty much his origin story and he continues to display aspects of that “confidence” of an elder throughout. And Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) is a wonderfully strong and loving surrogate mother to Peter and continues to reshape my preconceptions of what it means to be in their 50s (I mean WOW).

We already know most of the villains featured so my commenting on their roles is not a spoiler. It was great to see Jamie Foxx’s Electro given a second chance and a proper go after the mess that was The Amazing Spider-Man 2. You could see his brain ticking as he considered his choices and next move and just relishing in the action moments. Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock has long been considered one of the better villain turns from the Sam Raimi trilogy but it was also refreshing to see Octavius get a slightly more sympathetic outing. And of course there’s the wonderfully gurning Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin… good god that man can be terrifying without the mask (as if he ever needed it). Despite my lack of attachment to them, the familiarity was welcome and fun. This is how you do “Sinister Six” without doing “Sinister Six”. If anything it’s them dipping the toe into the water of the idea after Sony failed so hard to even get it off the ground last time.

More importantly, we get to see these past/legacy characters get a taste of the “MCU effect.”

Marvel Studios’ success has been based around the ability to distil what works from the original comics, not what’s popular, not necessarily what’s iconic, but what works in regards to telling a good and compelling story. So we get a glimpse of how these characters would play slightly differently in the MCU but without completely disregarding their past characterisations. Even the lesser remembered/reviled villains get more to do and say this time around. The aesthetics are secondary but they’re present too, from the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot of Electro’s “mask” to a more comic-familiar look to Norman Osborn’s alter-ego.

While we’re talking re-imaginings, JK Simmons’ welcome return as the blustering J Jonah Jameson is a pitch-perfect re-interpretation of the Daily Bugle editor-in-chief as a right-wing grifter and blow-hard who thrives on outrage bait. Even down to the dodgy supplements aimed at the “alpha male” nonsense.

No Way Home wants to have its cake and eat it too: On the one hand, it brings back all these characters as a means of playing into the cinematic nostalgia of the franchise and the kids who grew up on those earlier movies (my midnight screenings were predominantly teens who could drive and 20-somethings). On the other hand, it makes legit improvements and tweaks that show an awareness of the flaws of said characters and even gives a few of them redemptive moments or opportunities to shine.

As I’ve been writing, I’ve been trying to process what about this movie feels so unsatisfying to me. I’ll do the easy stuff first… the first act not only rushes through the fallout from the end of Far From Home but it almost handwaves a solution. A mate and I have made comparisons to The Rise of Skywalker in that regard but unlike JJ Abrams, director John Watts and the writers are a tad better at setting aside plot points instead of outright ignoring them (BOOM! There’s my overdue monthly dig at Abrams!). Not perfect but at least an explanation was given?

I’m happy to attribute this to the obstacles of filming during a pandemic but certain scenes felt awkwardly shot. That’s not to say they shouldn’t be commended for producing something still great under those conditions but you could sense the disparity. One pivotal scene felt more like an SNL sketch not because of the humour (it was rightly hilarious) but how in unfolded. Actually, that may also have affected how certain moments played out onscreen. While I like and/or loved every idea put forward, I’m not certain I completely went in for how they were presented or executed. I’m not saying that these things are bad or didn’t work, it’s just some some things felt like a 6 instead of an 8, if you get my meaning. I love the plot development but why do it that way? “Not sticking the landing” may be inaccurate a metaphor… every free throw goes in but not every shot is a swish. Some bounce a few too many times before dropping and of course the points still count.

Having said that, not since Endgame have I seen an Aussie audience cheer so loudly. Like I said, the points still count.

Possibly my biggest annoying nitpick requires another movie comparison and this time it is a potential spoiler for anyone that knows the film:

Skyfall.

Not only is it the third movie in the current incarnation of the character and shares many major plot elements and tropes I won’t go into, but it also tries to reshuffle the pieces in a manner that sets up a more traditional depiction of these stories as opposed to the fresh contemporary take of its two immediate preceding films. And that fills me with minor hesitation of where things go from here.

Don’t get me wrong, I liked the solution for the ending but it takes us a different direction to what already worked. Again, it’s The Rise of Skywalker sydrome.

Although it should be a testament to the action and writing holding my attention, despite the nearly 2 and a half hour run time, the third act climactic battle felt somewhat short. There was the build up, quiet before the storm, and then the fight, and then that was kind of it. I can only guess a lot of the fat was trimmed to focus on the important beats (especially the emotional ones) of course but it may have felt a tad too trim for my tastes.

One final not-quite-nitpick… Can you tell the same story without relying so heavily on the nostalgia bait?

There is are mid-credits and post-credits scenes (only three people walked out before seeing them this time so that was a new record). I don’t like one of scenes however if you’re going to insist on that then okay fine, that’s a tolerable way to do it.

I had a lot of fun with Spider-Man: No Way Home, heaps of laughs and plenty of emotional beats to anchor the characters to and motivate them. It’s a great film, a certain crowd pleaser, and a great way for the Marvel Cinematic Universe to further introduce the multiverse. It’s just an overall great time but I just wish it had a bit more oomph, a bit more kick, a bit more spice, a bit more seasoning to it.

Definitely go check this one out if you love the Marvel movies or just our friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man, however, I do suggest wearing the waterproof makeup.


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