Friday Flotsam: Thoughts on ‘No Way Home’

1. It being New Year’s Eve, I suppose standard practice would be to give some kind of a retrospective of the year gone by or speculations of the one to come. But we have more important things to talk about today; namely Spider-Man!

I’d thought I was done with the MCU, but the word-of-mouth on No Way Home was so good that I couldn’t resist checking it out. And, well, add my mouth to the word, because yeah, it is really good. I think, on reflection, that I’d still rank Spider-Man 2 above it as the best live-action Spidey flick, but this is a pretty clear second-placer (though, full disclosure, I haven’t seen Far From Home or the two Amazing Spider-Man films…which kind of renders the above meaningless, as that’s nearly half the candidates right there. All I’ll say is that I haven’t seen anyone saying anything that would challenge it).

So, there will be some spoilers, but not really anything you didn’t see in the trailers.

2. I don’t want to go into the plot too much; the short version here is that a plot device courtesy of Dr. Strange brings several classic Spider-Man villains into the MCU from other universes, not to mention two alternate versions of Peter Parker: Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield. Meaning that we have all three live-action Spider-Mans working together against five classic bad guys.

But the thing that makes the film work is the fact that they don’t just trot these characters out for cheap nostalgia. The writers clearly took the time to sit down and consider where each character is in his respective journey, what he wants, and why he is the way he is. The result is that they actually manage to build on the returning characters, bringing out new dimensions and reaching new conclusions. To put it another way, these aren’t just fan-baiting props trotted out to make the audience squeal (e.g. most of the stuff in the Star Wars sequels), the writers treat them as actual characters with arcs and motivations.

3. The one exception is, unfortunately, my personal favorite Spidey rogue, Sandman. He has some good moments, but his motivations and actions really don’t make sense by the end of the film: he has no reason whatever to side with the villains given his history and motives (which the film alludes to). Of course, if Sandman were on the heroes’s side, the baddies wouldn’t stand a chance, but it’s still something the writers are clearly hoping you’ll just go with.

4. On the other hand, Willem Dafoe knocks it out of the park as the Green Goblin, reminding us that, no it’s not just nostalgia talking: he really was and is that good in the role. If anything, he’s even more vile, dangerous, and downright frightening than he was before, and he recaptures the creepy ambiguity of the split personality as if he’d played the role yesterday. Plus he features in some of the most restrained, yet brutal fights in the MCU between him and Peter (apparently still doing many of his own stunts).

Alfred Molina likewise is just as good as ever as Doctor Octopus, every bit as commanding, arrogant, and yet tragic as he was before (there’s a downright beautiful moment between him and Tobey Maguire near the end). Again, like Dafoe it really feels as though he stepped straight from the earlier film into this one.

Props also to Jamie Foxx as Electro. I remember when I found out he was cast in the role way back when I was interested; he’s a very good actor and I thought he’d be a great fit (an instance of race swapping where it doesn’t really matter). But from all I can tell, he unfortunately wasn’t given much to work with. Here, though, he really goes to town in the role: power hungry and with a definitely dangerous edge even when he seems to be calm and helpful. And, of course, I’m delighted they worked in the character’s trademark ‘star-shaped head of electricity’ image.

5. But good as it is to see the baddies again, the real story is the three Peters. Tobey Maguire is, of course, the oldest and in many ways the most important of the three, and he comes across as definitely a more mature, wiser Peter than when we saw him last. Andrew Garfield, meanwhile, almost steals the whole show as a Peter still haunted by his failure to save Gwen Stacey, but also the one who seems most excited to be meeting the others (“I always wanted brothers,” he says at one point, which is kind of perfect). Though he also has his share of fun moments, like when he reluctantly proves his identity upon first joining the cast.

(Garfield is so good, in fact, that he does the impossible: he makes me want to see the Amazing Spider-Man films)

These three actors have spectacular chemistry, and their interactions all feel pitch-perfect as they support one another, compare notes, share hard-earned wisdom, and so on. Each one of them contributes something, some unique experience or perspective. And again, the story actually develops on builds on their characters from the previous films, especially Garfield, who gets a wonderful redemptive moment in the final act, bringing some closure to his character. Though, fittingly, the biggest moment of ‘what it means to be Spider-Man’ goes to Tobey Maguire.

That’s another thing, I love how positive the film is regarding its cast. There’s no effort to tear down one or another of the three Peters or to take pot-shots at earlier versions of the story. The three men get along well, like each other, and appreciate each other. Even a brief, reactionary fight between Maguire and Garfield when they first meet is both very quick and ends with mutual respect and admiration rather than insults. It all feels, well, very nice.

(Oh, and I very much appreciated it that, though Kirsten Dunst doesn’t appear, Maguire’s Peter confirms that yes, they got their happy ever after and made it work. See, that’s what we want when a hero returns to the screen after a long absence: to know that all his struggles and adventures were not in vain after all).

In a word, the returning cast are treated as people, real characters with motivations and histories, not just walk-on fan-bait.

6. Besides all that, it’s just a really good Spider-Man story; one that really gets the core of the character as a normal man trying to balance his great power and responsibility, who is a hero because it’s the right thing to do and who doesn’t receive any reward for it. Tom Holland, I feel, really grows into the role here, being forced to make real sacrifices and come to terms with real consequences as he struggles to do the right thing.

It also gracefully corrects course on some of the baggage of the previous films (well, Homecoming at least: again, haven’t see the other one). As in, MJ and Ned actually act like human beings and are legitimately likable this time around! Both the romance and the three-way friendship actually worked and I found myself genuinely invested in them! I still don’t like the race and name swapping on Mary Jane at all, but they work with what they have and they made the lemonade!

7. There are some other problems with regards to how the whole multiverse concept works and the rules of who goes through and why, not to mention some, ah, timing issues regarding the villains (can’t say more without spoilers). Oh, and I thought the after credits scenes were a missed opportunity (though the first one is admittedly funny).

But my biggest concern is just that this is going to be the next gimmick; pulling older, beloved versions of franchises into new ones in order to shore up viewership. It’s well done here, but I’d hate to see it become a standardized gimmick the way the MCU crossover cameos did. Expanding the crossover and nostalgia train ever further outwards until everything interacts with everything else.

There is also something I felt just seeing the trailers: that sense of admitted defeat. As if the current overseers of the franchise were throwing up their hands and saying ‘yeah, we can’t do it. We can’t make characters the way that Sam Raimi or even Marc Webb did. We just need to use what was built before in order to make our version work.’ Like the natives in ‘King Kong’, dependent on the wall that they could never have built themselves, but can only maintain.

8. Well, that’s a topic for another day. For now, I’m going to focus on the positive: I actually went to the theater to see a new movie and enjoyed myself again. It really did feel like, for those two and a half hours (which went by remarkably fast, by the way), I was back in the days of Sam Raimi, or even the early days of the MCU; just happy to be entertained by the creativity, hard work, and good will before me on the screen. Contrary to the title, it felt a little like coming home again.

It felt good.

You know, I’m not so sure that this wasn’t a suitable piece for New Years. It makes me think that at least some of what’s ahead might actually be as good as what has been.

Happy New Year, everyone.

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