The smashing success of Marvel’s latest superhero vehicle, Spider-Man: No Way Home, had two of our critics curious: Is it actually any good?
Turns out, they vehemently disagreed. But sometimes that’s more fun, right?
Below, Shannon Keating and Elamin Abdelmahmoud hash it all out: Is Tom Holland’s Homecoming trilogy a welcome expansion upon the existing Spidey-verse, or just a depressing cash grab? What can millennial nostalgia tell us about the Tobey Maguire-helmed series, which kicked off nearly 20 years ago? Does the deployment of the multiverse in No Way Home actually make any sense? And, finally, should you see it?
Elamin Abdelmahmoud: In Toronto, where I live, new COVID restrictions due to the spread of Omicron require movie theaters to refrain from selling popcorn, candy, and drinks. Which is to say: They require movie theaters to refrain from selling joy. So what would make anyone go to the theater under such unfulfilling conditions? This weekend, the answer was Spider-Man: No Way Home. Audiences turned up in droves for the movie, helping it pull in the third-biggest opening weekend of all time worldwide, and the second-biggest of all time in the US. That’s not a pandemic-era record. It’s an all-time record. I was among these people. I put on a fresh KN95 and settled in for what I was sure would be a lesser movie experience. But it was not.
No Way Home, reportedly the conclusion of Tom Holland’s tenure as Spider-Man (or…is it?), is one of the most satisfying entries into the franchise, perhaps second only to Into the Spiderverse. That’s because of its sheer scale and ambitious plot — in No Way Home, Holland’s Peter Parker attempts to fix the consequences of his actions through a time spell from Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), but his plan goes terribly wrong when the spell becomes unstable and starts pulling in Peter Parkers/Spider-Men from alternate universes (aka Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man and Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Man) and all the villains they’ve fought, too.
Describing a film as “satisfying” can read like shorthand for “fan service,” which has become a lazy way for franchises with big, passionate fandoms to elicit excitement without putting in the effort to write films that offer something unique. No Way Home does deliver big fan-servicey moments — when Garfield showed up, there were audible gasps in the theater — but the devastating emotional center of the film makes it far more than a simple play on nostalgia.
In this iteration, after Holland’s Peter suffers a catastrophic loss, the multiverse Spider-Men show up not just to help him on his quest but to redeem themselves, too. By the time we meet Maguire’s Peter, he’s a Spider-Elder who has reckoned with his Spider-Doubts and found purpose. Meanwhile, Garfield’s Peter is rudderless and lonely, having lost himself in his Spider-Duties. These two Spider-Men share touching moments (“No, you are amazing, and I need to hear you say it,” Maguire’s Peter says to Garfield’s; Garfield’s Peter can’t quite get there, but he’s overwhelmed with gratitude to be seen). Together, all three Peters unite to resolve the central question that the previous movies have been circling but not quite answering, which is: What is Spider-Man for? Ultimately, the answer is a poignant and simple one: to help us understand and better deal with grief. That’s why No Way Home is good, actually. Shannon, what do you think?
Shannon Keating: Totally agree that Spider-Man is about understanding and dealing with grief! But I’m not sure I agree about how well No Way Home deals with those themes.
After watching No Way Home this weekend (in Mexico City, where COVID cases are currently decreasing), I went home and binged the three Tobey Maguire iterations. The first, Spider-Man, came out in 2002 (!!!!) when I was 10 years old. Almost 20 years ago. Wild. Those movies are obviously big millennial touchpoints; Maguire will always be my Spider-Man, I think. There’s a certain grittiness to the trilogy that I appreciated even as a kid.
Spidey’s origin story is a dark one, but before my rewatches, I had forgotten just how dark. In Spider-Man, when Peter holds his murdered Uncle Ben’s hand, it’s not a beautiful or poetic moment; Ben is grimacing with pain and anguish. It’s pretty horrible. Then we have all of James Franco’s daddy issues with the incredible Willem Dafoe — my introduction to both actors were their roles as Green Goblin and son Harry Osborn — and the unhealthy and eventually murderous ways Harry channels his confusion and his grief.
The Maguire movies are also lovely tributes to New York City. Spider-Man doesn’t just save New Yorkers; New Yorkers have his back, too. In the first movie, a proud and rowdy group rains detritus upon the Green Goblin when he’s trying to kill Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane and a cable car full of people, one of them yelling, “You mess with one of us, you mess with all of us!” In Spider-Man 2, after Spider-Man stops Doc Ock (Alfred Molina) from plunging a subway train into the river, he passes out from exhaustion and the passengers gently lift him into their arms, set him down, and promise not to reveal his identity — his mask had come off during the fight.
This is all to say that I didn’t get a lot of those big, emotional beats from No Way Home, even with that one significant and sad death. I’m sure my millennial nostalgia is a part of that — an unwillingness to accept this new version of an old, beloved character. But I don’t know, man.
First off, No Way Home is just…doing a lot. The multiverse is a fun concept, and it’s cute to see all these different Spider-Men united in brotherhood, but I think I preferred it when Spider-Man hewed closer to that gritty New York realism. No Way Home, though it does have its darkness, feels very Disney: shiny, wholesome, sexless.
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