blogging by Andrew Wickliffe

Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021, Jon Watts)

Spider-Man: No Way Home’s got a very appropriate title. There’s just no way to bring this one home, not for any of the things it tries to do. Though “tries” might be stretching it, No Way Home’s script feels like it’s four different ideas strung together with plot points dependent on the latest Academy Award-nominated or winning actor they managed to convince to come back for it.

But as Tom Holland’s Spider-Man seeming comes to its end—and, no spoilers (which I’m going to try hard to maintain), one way or another, something definitely ends here. No Way Home is a very particular collaboration between Disney and Sony; Disney owns Spider-Man: The Character and Sony owns Spider-Man: The Movie Rights. They weren’t even going to make this movie until Holland called the Disney head honcho and pleaded they go back to the table to make a deal. Disney was ready to leave it hanging on the previous entry’s cliffhanger.

So, while the producers are doing press rounds saying Holland’s not done… it’d be “okay” if he were done. No one in the MCU proper will be missing Spider-Man after No Way Home.

The film brings back major stars from all Sony’s previous Spider-Man franchises, though it never really gives them enough time. No Way Home’s set up to be Holland’s movie, but he loses it in the second half, and when it’s time to hand it back to him, they’ve broken it. They give him the pieces and send him on his way, the numerous epilogues just showcasing how noncommittal anyone wants to be about there ever being another Tom Holland Spider-Man movie again. It’s also a bummer for Zendaya and Jacob Batalan, who get to play sidekicks to a much fuller degree in this outing. No Way Home’s most consistently successful, non-gimmick moments are the ones playing off the trio. The movie does noticeably avoid giving Zendaya anything to do but play the damsel—and not just for Holland—while Batalan gets a potential spin-off setup.

To be clear, Batalan’s delightful, but some of that delightfulness is at Zendaya’s expense.

So the movie fails Holland and his Home trilogy sidekicks (it is nice to see Zendaya get to do more in this one, even if it’s just filler), it fails Holland as the MCU Spider-Man, but it also doesn’t really do anything for the returning Sony Spider-Man franchise participants either. I mean, it also really fails director Watts, who’s stuck directing actors in caricatures of former performances. Spider-Man: No Way Home is groundbreaking but only as a force of commercial will. There’s never been anything like it. And probably can’t be anything like it again; some of the actors look so miserable in this outing, it’s hard to imagine them returning.

It’s a movie without stakes for anyone involved, except potentially guest star Benedict Cumberbatch, who’s worried new boss Benedict Wong will find out how badly the guest star spot is going. All Holland wanted was for everyone to forget last movie’s big twist ending, and instead, he and Cumberbatch break the Spider-Verse. Sorry, multiverse. There’s no Spider-Verse crossover, which is the film’s most obvious miss. Well, the movie’s fourth story’s most obvious miss. There are obvious misses in the three stories preceding it, too, possibly four when you remember there’s not actually a supervillain team-up, just supervillain coincidences. Like it’s an old Godzilla movie, and all the kaiju show up somewhere because otherwise you don’t have a fight, and otherwise you don’t have a Godzilla movie.

Is a Spider-Man movie just a set piece with a bunch of swinging and thwapping action? No, but No Way Home would sure like to get away with one.

Most unfortunately, the film fails Holland as an actor. After single-handedly being the most important addition to the MCU since its inception, his (latest) potential finale turns all his character drama into a multiverse detail gimmick. It then drains any of the remaining resonance in the epilogues. No Way Home is just a graceful out for his Spider-career, which is easily the longest in the movies (six real appearances, one pseudo-cameo), and second only to Nicholas Hammond in live-action appearances. And Hammond was doing a TV show.

Holland’s emotional response to the events in the film—when they still matter to anyone—always get neatly wrapped into a Spider-Man lesson from previous participants from other franchises. The epilogues cheat Holland out of his character arc, just like the very tidy finale cheating all the guest stars out of their arcs. One of the significant developments in No Way Home is Marisa Tomei inspiring Holland not to give up even on the bad guys—especially the ones made bad by science mishaps—and it ends up being one of those stories to nowhere, taken off the stovetop for the next surprise guest star.

It’d be easy to blame the whole thing on screenwriters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, but it’s obviously not their fault—not to mention the movie shot during Rona, so there were more factors than the Brinks truck not being full enough. Instead, No Way Home is just a series of gimmicks competently realized with a $200 million price tag.

There are some good performances. Holland’s strong despite the material, ditto Zendaya. Cumberbatch is fun. Jon Favreau seems like he’s trapped in a contract. Marisa Tomei’s got shockingly little despite being in the movie a bunch; she does get one kind of funny flirting scene straight out of the comics. Sort of.

Some of the bad acting is just… the whole caricatures of previous performances thing. It’s like looping an entire performance and not just the dialogue. The standout amongst returning villains is easily Alfred Molina, who’s also in it the most and has the closest thing to a character arc.

And some of the previous performance caricatures work. Just not as much for the villains; it seems like if you’re a bad guy and you’re not bringing anything new, it’s a fail, but if you’re a good guy… it can work.

There are also just plain bad performances like Arian Moayed, the federal agent out for Holland’s hide. That story—the resolution to last movie’s cliffhanger—is all busywork, relying on real surprise (and welcome) cameos and then some decent jokes. There will be okay jokes later on, but they’re just funny and not actually good. Kind of like the movie itself: even when it’s not failing, it’s never truly succeeding.

No Way Home doesn’t quite prove truncated franchises are better than unimaginatively completed ones, but it comes real close.

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