Spider-Man: No Way Home opened with promise. Taking off immediately where its predecessor ended, with Peter Parker’s secret identity revealed to the world, it was an energetic start – and an intriguing one. How will Peter Parker cope? Will he pull a Tony Stark and plunge headfirst into the role of famous superhero? Unlikely, but the predicament was engaging and, if nothing else, a promising premise for a film.
Instead of wrestling with this question, exploring the effect this has on Peter Parker’s life and psychology, this iteration of Spider-Man goes for the nuclear option – or in this case, the Doctor Strange option. It is a casualty of the ever-expanding cinematic universe that had us all so hooked – instead of wrestling with his moral compass, and weighing his power against his great responsibility, sorcery is the answer. Has Marvel finally jumped the shark?
At this point, we have come to expect cosmic problems and solutions from Marvel films. In Spider-Man No Way Home, it feels out of place. Spider-Man’s problem is simple: everyone knows who he is and everyone (except his friends) hates his guts (thanks to J.K. Simmons’s take on J. Jonah Jameson – an Alex Jones-type TV personality who rants about Spider-Man between sales pitches for his supplements). After this results in Peter and his friends’ rejection by MIT (oh, tragedy of tragedies), he decides to call on the Sorcerer Supreme to intervene. This is all fine until Peter Parker talks over the spell, somehow changing it and unleashing the villains of previous films. Why Doctor Strange didn’t discuss what Peter wanted more precisely, to begin with, is anyone’s guess.
Not only is this hard to buy, but it feels contrived, like the plot of the film is subordinate to wheeling out celebrity cameos. Was rejection from MIT really the best crisis the screenwriters could come up with? Why did Doctor Strange not clarify his spell with Peter first? For someone we are expected to view as a likeable genius, Peter Parker ends up coming across as foolish and annoying. This speaks to a larger problem: Spider-Man No Way Home feels like it privileges quick moments of joy and fan-pleasing over character or plot.
The film does have some redeeming qualities. Its best moments involve Willem Dafoe and Alfred Molina who reprise their roles as Doctor Octopus and Green Goblin. Both are excellent in their roles and their scenes are amongst the best of the film. Yet like most of the good aspects of the film, they remain just that – brief moments of excellence in a larger, disconnected whole.
Despite these great performances, the focus of the film isn’t character, and it certainly isn’t plot. Instead, it is fan-fodder, intended to produce cheers at the right moments (the audience dutifully obliges) and quick thrills in between. Martin Scorsese once dubbed Marvel Films ‘theme park rides’. That is an oversimplification. However, whilst it does not apply to all Marvel films, in this case, they may have a point.
At its best moments, Tom Holland’s third outing as Spider-Man reminds its fans of previous films – the glory days – and some of their superb villains. Perhaps, then, a better idea would be to revisit those films – and leave their coming-together to your imagination. The story you come up with might well make more sense.
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