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Gods don’t have to choose. We take.

Spider-Man: No Way Home

(SPOILERS) The ultimate superhero crowd-pleaser? I think so, pretty much. It’s everyone’s favourite superhero – well, aside from those who prefer Bats, who are, of course, nuts – and it’s replete with by-and-large, the right kind of fan service, fan service that pays off far more than it drops the ball. Nevertheless, Spider-Man: No Way Home still isn’t the best Spider-Man movie. It might only be the second-best Tom Holland Spider-Man movie. It gets what it gets right really right: all those multiverse past Spidey characters. Well, except for the one(s) who were rubbish anyway. But the side effect is the parts that made MCU Spidey so successful previously – MJ, Ned, Happy – too often feels like it's dragging the pace and purpose down. No Way Home is, at times, overstuffed, trying to cater to its MCU when what it really wants to do is have fun with its new box of old toys.

Doctor Strange: And they shot an episode of The Equalizer here during the eighties.

Indeed, I suspect it’s a corollary of being reminded so overtly of earlier iterations – well, perhaps not so much the Garfield one – that you’re more conscious of the things the MCU is doing that now grate, and the way that, while far from perfect, the Raimi Spidey offered a strong stylistic sensibility and attitude, and didn’t resort to a baseline of homogenous quipster characterisation and storytelling (let’s call it Whedon-esque, if we must). In Homecoming, that approach worked like gangbusters, with a fresh cast and all-round chemistry. Far From Home markedly less so. In No Way Home, Holland’s constant perky/sincere eagerness – and then getting it wrong – is becoming an irritatingly circular shtick, along with MJ’s Ally Sheedy grisly deadpan and Ned’s loveable over-oafishness (he’s back to being an overweight virgin after getting the hot girl last time).

So there are definite casualties here. Ironically, the most major may be another character I’d credited as working pretty well, both in his solo outing and as part of an ensemble, despite some obvious issues. The terrible accent for one. And a certain ubiquity on part of the actor that made his casting less an inspiration than a “Well, what isn’t he playing?” Yes, it’s the Cumberland Sausage himself. He gets the awkward “trying to be warm but failing” aspect of Strange to a tee, but through Watts’ indifferent gaze, there’s no depth involved. There’s not much of anything; Doctor Strange’s Scott Derrickson was a regular auteur by MCU standards (let’s hope all those Raimi reshoots on the sequel don’t bode ill for his customary flair). Watts is perhaps their most accomplished journeyman, utterly without personality but never less than competent (I mean, as these things go, I’m a fan. But only as they go).

So Strange being entirely bereft of wisdom or insight that would befit one of his developing stature rather grates; he should be lifting Peter up, rather than being dragged down to his level. Returning writers Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers rather know this, that it’s a move of convenience rather than likelihood – and the “hilarious” “Peter ruins the spell” is not only daft, but also succeeds only in making Strange appear more recklessly culpable. So he’s there, basically, to mess up, to be hoodwinked by Peter (math is so much better than magic!) to be shown as not that masterful where it counts (Ned gets the hang of portals very quickly), to be conveniently incapacitated by the kids, and when he does show up, it’s for that kind of bland “wrestle with distraught skies” spellcasting that’s really rather naff and no indication of smarts on the writers’ parts. And oh, his jokes, Scooby and all, are lousy. Cumberbatch can’t handle delivering a bad accent and a bad gag.

But, but, but. Multiverse! So yeah, I’m sure the success of No Way Home will have anyone and everyone scratching their heads for ways to cash in themselves. Obviously, The Flash is already going there for the DCEU. I’m not sure there are many other opportunities. More movies have just gone the retcon route, and generally there simply aren’t enough cases of reboots to make this sort of thing viable (although, revealing the entirety of nu-Who as a horrid alt-universe is a “and not before time” waiting to happen – throw in the McCoy era and McGann while they’re at it).

First things first. The de-aging on Alfred Molina (Doc Ock) and Willem Dafoe (Norman Osborn) is first rate. And again, it makes one instantly go to the “money laundering scam” explanation for the appalling results The Irishman achieved at enormous expense. Both actors are legends, of course, and both actors get to observe some nice variations within the limits of the movie: Octavius can become the nice guy, while Norman’s also has his place in the sun as meek and well meaning.

There are detractions from this, such as highlighting just how similar the “good scientist gone bad by stuff” premises were in both cases, along with both characters having returns to redemptive goodness before their deaths. Which kind of messes with the arcs here. Nice as this idea is, we’ve already seen them repent their sins. And what happens now? Do they return to the point before they die and still die in the melee of events they engineered, or somehow extract themselves? It’s probably best not to ask. They probably simply return to a newly splintered universe or some such. Don’t ask me.

There’s another accompanying element to the positive-negative of the revisiting past glories. Many of the jokes land, but reducing these characters to the butts of Whedon-esque witticisms… Well, it isn’t demeaning, exactly, but putting them all in cages for the gag writers’ entertainment is overtly what it is. And you can’t help but notice how, however many favourite lines he exhumes, the Goblin never scales the heights of maniacal FUN Raimi’s lunacy took him to. Because Watts simply isn’t off the leash; he doesn’t even need a leash. He’s a good dog. It’s the same reason that, as sterling as JK Simmons (always) is, and great to see him, a movie without Raimi’s corresponding gusto simply can’t service him as satisfyingly.

Thomas Haden Church doesn’t fare quite as well those two as Sandman, simply because his very limited motivation is that he just wants to get home. Electro wasn’t much cop anyway, but at least Jamie Foxx’s jabbering loon performance, straight out of Norbert, was memorable (I mean, it was). Here, he’s utterly forgettable, aside from his inevitable-in-hindsight black Spider-Man line (poor Garfield really can’t catch a break; the lack of wokeness is his fault too).

In contrast, Rhys Ifans, as the much better redesigned lizard, gets an unqualified upvote (now, they should have had him meet Dylan Baker). Most unforgiveable is the cheat of promising Venom and annexing him to the credits scene; they had BETTER capitalise on that sliver of symbiote at some point. On the positive cameos note, though, I gave up on Daredevil somewhere around Season 2, but Charlie Cox’s Matt Murdock in the bona fide MCU – “I’m a really good lawyer” – made me genuinely want to see how’s treated by Disney when they’re paying attention.

Going back to the problem with Holland’s Peter, the return of Tobey Maguire’s Peter – looking like a “youth pastor” – made me want to spend more time with this more reflective, mature and considered version. Of course, Maguire always had the ability to play the nicest guy, when all reports suggest – including Michael Cera playing him in Molly’s Game, and the Pussy Posse – he was anything but (and maybe, just maybe, he has reflected on his past form in his time away from the big screen. Or maybe not). His Peter (Peter-Two) makes for the movie’s moral core, and brings some genuine emotional substance to his scenes, something the glibness of Peter-One, along with the cynicism of killing off Aunt May – you know, to give him that burden of guilt the fans complained he lacked – fails to distil.

Poor Andrew Garfield is still the gangly third-wheel here, sportingly taking the meta-commentary, that his Peter-Three (he even comes last there!) believes he’s rubbish and how his character went to a dark place, on the chin. Nice as his saving MJ is to atone for losing Gwen, it can only really carry so much resonance when no one cared in the first place. Elsewhere, however, the writers reduce the returnees to the level of a spider-tingle (which was funny the first time, and maybe the second, but three films in…) with much play made of Peter-Two’s jizzy organic web shooters. Like those jokes didn’t get a full airing twenty years ago? Have they come back round, fresh for a new generation? But their inability to tell each other apart during the third act is admittedly a nice reflection of anticipated audience response. And Peter-Three cracking Peter-Two’s back is as close as the MCU gets to Alien: Covenant’s fingering scene.

Mostly, McKenna and Sommers do what they need to in this situation, serve their smorgasbord of characters with a medley of choice beats, without ever feeling too much like they’re standing around impressed with themselves. Occasionally, No Way Home stays too long on an exchange, or has insufficient idea of what to do with someone (Electro), and you notice it spinning its wheels, waiting for inspiration to land but instead spying tumbleweeds. There’s also a nagging feeling there was a much more imaginative way of achieving all this – oh I know, we’ve already seen it: Into the Spider-Verse! – but mostly, it’s having the aforementioned right kind of fun: infectious fun.

So what is there here in the way of Peter Parker predictive programming, pray? After all, outside of Nolan, this is Hollywood’s widest guaranteed audience, and thus opportunity for messaging at TPTB’s disposal. To be honest, I found the experience too much of a battering of nostalgic referentiality – which may be the end in itself, one of distraction – to have my antennae fully extended. There are various intimations of the limits of our realm, of skies torn asunder and the seeping in of other, invasive entities (which some would posit is the root cause of our current pickle, an environment that was very different a mere three hundred or so years ago, before it was rewritten, or retconned).

Then there’s the rehabilitation of villains. Peter rejects Strange’s staunchly utilitarian pose outright, and he’s shown to be… correct? Or get the answer he wants, at any rate, through being young, impetuous, emotional and full of heart. Whether that means he’s correct is moot. In theory, we should get a Wrath of Khan moment down the line, where he discovers he wasn’t. After all, Peter needs to start making mature decisions at some point, even if Holland’s destined to resemble a twelve-year-old, five-foot dwarf into his mid-thirties, no matter how buff he remains in the meantime.

What’s the underlying message? That those with great power should not be punished to the max for misusing their great responsibility? You know, like the ones summarily lying, conditioning and issuing mandates in order to get as many of the unwashed injected before the game is up. Of course, in the Spider-Verse, none of these guys were evil to start out with, and rather than being corrupted by ambition, most were crippled by jabs, concoctions or corruption of their DNA… Hmmm.

Notably too, the world is saved by the Peters administering “cures” to all afflicted parties. And then there’s the early part of the movie, where those who doubt Peter is a good guy are decried as “conspiracy theorists” (so are, by implication, the bad guys, the Flash Thompson types). You know, rather than being the ones who doubt the MSM as represent by J Jonah (who, despite everyone watching him, has been reinvented as an Alex Jones type, complete with brand health drink).

And then there’s Strange’s reset. I’m not sure how much logistical sense it makes re MJ et al, but that’s the way magic moves, I guess (as to why Venom even shows up initially, having no knowledge of Peter’s identity, is anyone’s guess). The first reset fails, of course – erasing memories of Peter’s identity – and unleashes upheaval. The last actual reset, managed to conceal the identities of those pulling the strings, and has been one long range of planned waves of upheaval. The second reset causes all to forget Peter’s existence. Such a manoeuvre is feasible, if you wipe out swathes of those with memories (while the rest, they’re gullibly none the wiser). Doctor Strange is hardly Klaus Schwab, of course, so his measures are initially, at least, much more robust.

Peter-One: Wait, you don’t have the Avengers?
Peter-Three: Is that a band? Are you in a band?

Yeah, I’m sure there’s more. Mostly, barring a moronic shuttering of cinemas, No Way Home counts for persuading punters to countermand “common sense” and flock to see something special, despite all those paramount “dangers”. Note too, there’s precious little one might construe as knee-jerk woke here, certainly not in the manner of Disney-Marvel’s last trio, perhaps because Kevin Feige is unable to be quite so express in his sway on a Sony co-production. Suddenly, it’s Sony looking like they’re holding the cards this year, since both their spider-pictures have outperformed the fully MCU efforts. Also, nominally, Spider-Man: No Way Home is a Christmas movie, although that only really counts as background atmosphere. For all its faults, however, it’s undoubtedly a spreader of good cheer.

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