The one good idea that the Tom Holland–starring Spider-Man films had was a simple, obvious one: They really did make Peter Parker a kid. Tobey Maguire had been 27 at the time of his first turn as the high-school-age superhero, while Andrew Garfield had been 29. It’s not so much that those actors were too old for the material; it’s that the material could never fully utilize the character’s youth and inexperience because we as humans have a visceral resistance to watching people who clearly aren’t kids making childish decisions. Holland, by contrast, was 21 when Spider-Man: Homecoming premiered in 2017, and he looked even younger. As a result, the filmmakers for this latest Spidey cycle, including director Jon Watts and screenwriters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, have been able to sell us on some of Peter’s dodgier choices. They’ve also managed to mine the age gap between him and other characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe for humor as well as one meme-worthy moment of genuine pathos. (“Mr. Stark, I don’t feel so good.”)
But in most other respects, Watts’s Spider-Man films have been black holes of imagination. (The first entry featured a huge set piece at the Washington Monument — an inspired idea on paper — and did absolutely nothing interesting with it. The setting might as well have been an office building in suburban Atlanta. It probably was at some point.) This is a particular shame when it comes to Spider-Man, since previous attempts at the character, even at their worst, have often been visually spectacular. It does take a unique brand of corporate cynicism to drain any and all grandeur from the sight of Spidey swinging through the canyons of Manhattan; trapping the most cinematic of all superheroes in nondescript swirls of CGI sludge feels like its own act of villainy.
In other respects, too, these movies’ Spider shtick is starting to get old. They continue to treat Peter Parker as a child, and the ultrabuff, grown-up Holland now looks increasingly out of place. The new film begins with Peter Parker unmasked and publicly castigated and shamed for killing the previous entry’s villain, Mysterio. Among the real-life consequences of Parker’s cancellation is MIT’s rejection of his and his friends MJ (Zendaya) and Ned’s (Jacob Batalon) college applications. Determined to fix this problem, Parker goes to Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and asks him — I am not making this up — to cast a spell making the rest of the world forget that Peter Parker is Spider-Man so that his friends can get into the college of their choice. And Doctor Strange — again, I am not making this up — agrees to do so. Holland is a fine actor, but I’m not sure any actor could survive the sheer idiocy of this character’s decisions here. Peter might be a teenager, but I don’t recall him ever being this stupid, either in the comics or the movies. Anyway, hocus-pocus, things go wrong, portal into other dimensions, flashing lights, blah, blah, blah. The magic goes awry, and Potter Peter finds himself face-to-face with a whole new set of problems. It’s all so pro forma that even Cumberbatch’s Strange, called on to convey rage at how his young colleague’s dumb request has prompted him to tear a hole in the fabric of the universe, merely musters some mild annoyance.
The initial big revelations of the new film have already been shown in trailers, so I’ll discuss those first. When Strange’s magic opens a gateway to different realities, once-dead villains from previous Spidey movies suddenly return, including Spider-Man’s Norman Osborn, a.k.a. the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), Spider-Man 2’s Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), and The Amazing Spider-Man 2’s Electro (Jamie Foxx). Again, a potentially promising idea. And judging from the cheers these veteran bad guys’ mere emergence got at my screening, perhaps it was of secondary importance that they be given, you know, something interesting to do. But aside from Dafoe, who once again gets to have some modest fun with his character’s divided self, there’s not much going on here. Why bring back an actor like Molina, who brought so much heartbreak and sneering rage to Doc Ock in Spider-Man 2, only to give him no sense of inner life or any good lines? The same goes for Foxx’s Electro, whose transformation from oddball engineer to blustery supervillain in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was one of that (admittedly dreadful) film’s few highlights. Here, he’s just a tired wisecrack machine. That the action scenes involving these characters are so insipid just adds insult to injury: Watching Doctor Octopus dutifully toss weightless, computer-generated concrete pipes at our hero, it’s hard not to think back on Sam Raimi’s eye-poppingly imaginative action sequences in Spider-Man 2 featuring these same two characters and maybe even shed a tear for what has been lost.
It’s not just the action and the magic that flop. Even the film’s more intimate moments fall flat. One early domestic comedy scene involving Peter, MJ, Aunt May (Marisa Tomei, mostly wasted here), and Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) has the camera whip-panning and roaming the spaces of their apartment in a pastiche of handheld indie filmmaking, but none of the humor feels organic or earned or even all that funny. It doesn’t build or make any emotional sense. Like almost everything else in the movie, it’s just another put-on. Making Peter more of a child does allow you to play up his sincerity and naïveté, which should ideally be a breath of fresh air in a universe filled with cynical, world-weary superheroes. But for all their alleged earnestness, these last three Spider-Man films have never had any kind of identity to call their own.
And now for the heavy spoilers, which I’m not supposed to talk about … but forgive me, it’s impossible to discuss this picture’s highs and lows without doing so. So, fair warning. Seriously.
Here, I’ll even give you an extra paragraph break to click away before finding out what happens next in the movie. (Even if it’s destined to become common knowledge within a few days.)
As the infinitely superior Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse already taught us, opening up doors to the metaverse means that you might also discover other iterations of Spider-Man. So sure enough, Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire return to the franchise that once helped make them stars, and the three Peters Parker now work together to try and handle this cavalcade of villains. And a film that was already engorged with fan service positively erupts with it.
That’s not such a bad thing, at least at first. It’s certainly nice to see Maguire again, and Garfield is a genuine delight. The latter’s previous turn as Spidey was a wildly uneven one. His slightly hapless, rom-com variation on Peter Parker made the first outing quite fun, but by the second entry, he had become twitchy, whiny, annoying. Here, almost as if he’s been given a second chance (a running theme in the film), he gets the goofiness just right. A scene where the denizens of this world ask Garfield’s Parker to prove he has Spider powers offers a charming bit of slapstick, and his uncertainty and insecurity pop up at opportune moments during the big climax. But this also reveals a bigger problem. Because as we watch Garfield act literal circles around everybody else, we are reminded of how lifeless and wanting the rest of the picture is. It’s like getting a new pair of glasses and realizing that your world has been a blur for the past few months. Except that whenever Garfield is off the screen, you’re forced to put your old glasses back on, which just makes everything look that much worse.
The Tom Holland Spider-Man films have been so eager to please that one does feel like a bit of a crank criticizing them. Nobody should enjoy kicking puppies. At the same time, along with the oft-rebooted Batman, Spider-Man is the one superhero franchise for which we do have proofs of concept for different approaches. And while the previous Holland films have been mediocre in modest ways, No Way Home feels downright aggressive in its mediocrity, bringing back better actors from better movies and calling back to an endlessly inventive and moving masterpiece like Spider-Verse. Is it an attempt to try and gain residual luster from associating with better work? Or is it something more cynical, an attempt to bring that better work under the big tent of its blandness? If I didn’t know any better, I’d think that No Way Home was trying to make us forget that a better Spider-Man movie is possible.
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