NOTES: On Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021)

Green Goblin Gets an Upgrade in New Spider-Man: No Way Home Spot


And so we come at last to Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021). I did an entire retrospective of all live-action film reviews leading to NWH. The most discussed movie on the planet over the last year has finally landed. WARNING: I am not going to discuss anything in the second or third act but I will discuss and touch on stuff in the first act, so there’s going to be light spoilers. I will do a spoiler-full discussion in the coming week. My tags have focused on the elements announced in the promotion and trailers and don’t cover everything in the film. This review will likewise not be as long and detailed as the Retrospective series. That’s why I’ve marked it as “NOTES”.

TL;DR. I am not a fan of this film. I don’t know what to think of the film, and while that can be a compliment, here it’s very much not.

The Pandemic created this weird situation for No Way Home.

  • It delayed the film’s release and affected its film production which had to shut down and adjust for COVID preparations.

  • Had there been no COVID, there would of course be several hundred thousand more moviegoers and commenters; many of whom likely died without knowing if their fan theories and guesses were ever to be confirmed or disproven (we should keep them in mind before kvetching online about how your hoped for fan theory got crushed).

  • If there had been no COVID, it’s likely that the marketing of No Way Home would have had, let’s say, an easier time of it. Since way too many people were locked home and being made to work at home, it created logistics issues and a wider public of online active people to disseminate stuff.

  • Perhaps the film itself would be different. More crowded let’s say. It’s a movie whose New York City backgrounds are strangely sparse for a film of its size and its premise, where most everything relies around common core characters in interiors and studio controlled CGI sets, looking like a more expensive Disney Plus show than an epic film.

It’s a mystery if NWH as it’s made fully realized the film-makers intentions. It must also be said that the delay in release dates and schedules have also primed No Way Home to be the most anticipated film of the year. Those expectations have led to new highs of pre-release ticket sales, and set the film up for sky-high hopes via fan theories online and offline. Before release, NWH was an event marked in the calendar. Now that it’s here it must take the normal life of a movie.

Maybe the real Spider-Man: No Way Home was the friends we made along the way.

OPENING MOVES

NWH starts right after FFH, making it an immediate sequel. Yet after a quick series of scenes and montage, the movie settles in a day-to-day rhythm until Dr. Strange enters. There is one really neat scene where after Peter/MJ enter May’s home sneak in by the window, the camera follows May and Happy Hogan entering the apartment and we have an extended take following them inside, seeing an awkward confusing moment between Peter/MJ and bits of comedy followed by Peter trying to close the windows as everyone gathers by the living room TV. It’s the most deftly staged scene in the entire movie.

The movie then touches on a weird issue in 616 Spider-Man comics and adaptation. In Marvel Comics, in 616, because all characters are in New York, everyone attends the fictional Empire State University (ESU) which is modeled on Columbia University. Everyone from Reed Richards to Peter Parker to others attended ESU, despite all being mega-scientists. In the real world, NYC is a great (and expensive) city for education but it doesn’t really boast the top tech colleges that the 616 Marvel Continuity presumes it does. In reality, the top tech colleges are on the West Coast (Silicon Valley) or Boston (Harvard, MIT etc). In NWH, college admissions come up as a casualty for Peter’s identity being outed to the world, and Peter aspires to study at MIT leaving New York City.

I find it a little unbelievable that a school like MIT is being casually talked up by three teenagers, as a cinch of a choice without the myriad issues involved for lower-to-middle income students to get in. The main issue solely seems to be Peter’s identity which implies that college admissions are otherwise a true meritocracy (which lol). And while I understand all three of them (Peter, Ned. MJ) would want to go to the same college together, with the age of smartphones and social media and so on, I don’t know why this would be an absolute barrier as in an analog era.

WORLDBUILDING ISSUES: SECRET IDENTITY

The problems of the identity reveal in the MCU strike me as more than a little forced in the context of the fiction of that world:

  • I don’t buy that the surviving veterans of Endgame still active and alive on Earth, would see the public pillorying of one of their own and not do a thing, to provide moral support, endorsements, and a safety net. The nature of the film, is to pretend the shared universe doesn’t exist all of a sudden.

  • Spider-Man’s identity reveal making him “the most famous person in the world” strikes me as even more forced. The MCU established the fiction that Spider-Man is in his early career is just starting out and a minor superhero compared to The Avengers. It’s weird to me that Spider-Man’s identity being Peter Parker would be a big deal at the outset of NWH or that this would net him celebrity on the level we see. Realistically, I expect Peter’s identity reveal to be news for a bit and then the public moves on, based on the context of stuff set-up.

  • To be frank, that would also likely be the realistic version of Peter’s identity reveal in the comics, but the comics established a long list of bad guys who Spider-Man has crossed over a while, and that is not at all an issue that comes up here. The opening 20 minutes transpires over months, and the movie drives home the social consequences but nothing like revenge or retributive actions are brought up, mostly because MCU Spider-Man hasn’t really done enough to build a street cred.

MCU JONAH

MCU Jonah gave me bad vibes at the end of Far From Home. I felt that visually in terms of presentation, context and the decision to have J. K. Simmons look nothing like he did in the Raimi films, was a case of the producers performing a poor interpretation of the character. I did hold out hope that the film would overcome this and that surely that nobody would go through the trouble of bringing Simmons back to a role he defined if they didn’t have a chance to do something substantially new, such as have him go through better material than the caricature comic relief he had been reduced to by the end of Spider-Man 3.

As it turned out, my misgivings were more than proven right.

MCU Jonah is absolutely the weakest version of Jameson I have chanced upon in years, to the point of outright subtracting the virtue of Simmons’ casting. I would much rather not see Simmons play Jameson ever again if he has to play a version of the character like this going forward. Jameson in NWH is just a purely negative character without any charm. The alt-right Alex Jones coding robs all the charm that the character had in the comics, removes all nuance, and results in zero subtlety. I mentioned that one of the reasons Jameson had a love-to-hate quality was that he was more than a little remote from the kind of issues that Peter faced from real bullying. In the movie, Jameson is absolutely tied to that and the result is a guy who might as well not be Jameson. There’s also the worldbuilding aspect. Framing Jameson as a “conspiracy theorist” for buying Mysterio’s video when the latter’s technology was sophisticated to fool Skrulls. The movies makes it that one has to be crazy to believe Mysterio’s narrative when there’s plenty of in-universe reasons to take it at face value by neutral sources.

Tom Holland himself never has personal meetings or encounters with Jameson, so the stuff that one anticipated in Part 1 isn’t in this film. There’s a mention of legal proceedings and charges that are done away with off-screen but it would have been cool if they had Jameson and Peter face off in trial.

ULTIMATE SIX

It was announced by the trailers that the movie would have five villains: Green Goblin, Doctor Octopus, The Sandman, Electro, The Lizard. Many wondered if there was a sixth member to form the Sinister Six.

Well to quote a line from a Brian Michael Bendis’ miniseries: “Peter makes Six”. The same line-up from Ultimate Six, barring Kraven (replaced by Lizard) show up in No Way Home.

As in the trailers, Peter goes to Strange to magically make everyone forget his identity. Strange does a complex spell but Peter botches the spell because there are many people he would rather let know about his double life. The result of this spell getting botched is multiverse “incursions” (the Hickman term isn’t used but it works the same way) and the villains from the Raimi films and the Webb films show up.

Peter learns that some of them die in a variety of ways and he seeks to help them meet a better fate and doesn’t wish for them to die and so he decides to help them by bringing them over to his side, in effect aligning himself with them. So yeah “Ultimate Six” and Peter’s one of them.

Of the returning villains:

  • Molina’s Doctor Octopus is a disappointment imo. The de-aging for me don’t look at all convincing. The decision to replace his glasses with a new style bothers me to no end. The movie doesn’t bother making prop and costume continuity with the Raimi films, and for me if you are going to go through this trouble, these messes aren’t nitpicks, they are substantial flaws in their project. Aside from that, Doctor Octopus gets the action scene we see in the trailers and nothing else. For most of the rest of the film, he’s essentially peripheral.

  • Jamie Foxx’ Electro though is obviously enjoying his second chance as the character with a new look, removing the all-blue design from the TASM movies that felt wrong. His Electro is quite funny in several moments (including making fun of the Lizard’s “master plan” from TASM) and also having a dramatic arc in liking the new lease on life and power in the MCU. He’s by far the example of a returning version improved greatly.

  • I won’t say more about Green Goblin aside from this: Willem Dafoe’ is going to go down as the actor who got to be both Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger for his character. He really owns that role and after defining Goblin in SM1, he comes back 20 years later to define him a second time.

In terms of worldbuilding issues, a major problem I have with continuity is that Otto recognizes Green Goblin as Osborn. Norman Osborn being Green Goblin was a secret in the fiction of the Spider-Man films. It had never been made public and certainly not at any time in Spider-Man 2. It’s more than plausible for Norman and Otto as fellow scientists to have known each other in backstory before Spider-Man 1 but it’s not plausible for Otto to know that Green Goblin was Osborn. This isn’t a minor continuity issue, it’s a major beat of the film that Octopus recognizes Goblin and for me, if you are joining and merging NWH with the previous films, if you don’t honor the continuity, then you are not doing the best version of this film.

UNSPOKEN RELIGIOSITY

The most unforgettable scene in No Way Home is by Marisa Tomei’s Aunt May. The character in the context of NWH and the wider MCU feels extremely odd by the end of the movie in various ways. But Tomei’s performance and her commitment is incredible.

At the same time, I’m not giving points to the film for seemingly addressing my complaints about her characterization in Homecoming. Because I feel that the MCU movies have fallen into this bizarre idea that characters get their dramatic importance by means of hierarchy and convenience and not be imbued with it from the start. This is a trend in contemporary bad screenwriting and across franchise storytelling and it’s not something commendable. The movie confirms my contention that Tomei was an excellent performer and was wasted in the previous films. And because she was wasted in the previous films, the film’s hurry to make her dramatic here feels rushed from a writing perspective. That scene is carried entirely by the performer and not by the writers and director.

There’s also most strangely a religious subtext. While the film secularizes the language, the impression that Tomei conveys is of raising Peter by a kind of Christian teaching, based on redemption and turning the other cheek. The words are not used but that’s what the impression is. Tomei makes Aunt May radiate with fervor in those scenes and she’s kinda scary and awesome but it also comes completely out of nowhere from the previous films. It’s used to generate and explain the film’s moral dilemmas but it feels weird. It’s been joked by fans that the Spider-Man comics frame “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility” with religious notions but the movie takes that joke and plays it straight by attaching it to the subtext of actual religious morality. Tomei gives her heart and soul in those scenes and as acting it’s impressive but I’m honestly not sure what I can make of it.

“With Great Power…”, which yes is uttered in the film, always struck me as working best in the secular ethical sphere. The phrase has always been vague when taken out of the context of AF#15 and let’s never forget the original phrase was uttered during the French Revolution by the folks who believed in guillotining for the greater good, so the phrase by itself is vague enough to justify anything and isn’t anything like a moral precept for all times that makes clear sense.

The quasi-religious idea of pacifism that sustains this film, since it’s about Spider-Man wanting to give the villains who died a second chance and not have them die even if it’s their fate, feels really unfitting in the MCU. Tom Holland’s Peter kills Ebony Maw in Infinity War by coming up with the plan to hurl him out of the airlock, he then used Insta-Kill Mode on Thanos minions in Endgame. He also is an admirer of Iron Man, Captain America, and Avengers who frequently use, and have used lethal force in combat across all their films. For him to suddenly manifest this in the film without addressing the contradictions in the other films and the larger fiction, makes it unearned.

COSTUME DESIGNS

In general I’ve never been especially impressed with the costumes newly introduced for the MCU Spider-Man whether of the hero or the villain designs.

  • With regards to the Spider-Man costume, I don’t think any of them are as bad as the eyesores of TASM-1’s basketball leather ensemble. But also none of them are as good as TASM-2’s beautiful costume, leave alone the Raimi suit. There are quite a few costumes we see in NWH and none of them look especially good in my view. I think the expressive eyes (which was never in the Ditko comics) is more than a little forced and stilted, it makes the CGI emote rather than have Holland act inside the costume (the way Garfield did in the TASM movies who managed to express himself entirely in a suit with an expressive mask).

  • In the case of NWH, the villain designs and redesigns have just one major improvement : Jamie Foxx’s Electro. That’s the only standout design in the film from all characters. But that’s only because the TASM-design was so weak.

  • When the screens leaked of Norman Osborn’s updated costumes, the jokes online on twitter called him the “hobo-goblin” because of how grungy it looks. That joke is a bit truer than we all hoped. Norman on landing in the MCU does quickly become a hobo and homeless person because in the MCU – Oscorp and Osborn doesn’t already exist (!). To me, having a man whose entire concept oozes wealth framed in this manner doesn’t really work. The actual redesign of the costume while it adds a purple poncho-vest with hoodie, to make it more like the Ditko design, subtracts more than it adds to the Raimi suit.

SUPPORTING CAST

  • Zendaya is wonderful and it’s great she’s called “MJ Watson” multiple times. While I’d prefer that her name actually be Mary Jane instead of “Michelle Jones” (a cowardly marketing trick to hide a lame twist), at the very least the movie did confirm finally that her character is this universe’s Mary Jane, including overt confirmations many times. She’s absolutely a delight. Her romance with Tom Holland’s Peter in the previous films didn’t get as much attention as it deserved unfortunately, and that does weaken the story in NWH significantly, but again that’s the fault of the producers and writers and not hers.

  • The movie repeats the trope of whether MJ liked Peter because she knew he was Spider-Man or not, which Strange mentions when he and Peter hash out the spell deal. To me that does a disfavor to the film and the romance because it’s a fundamentally sexist concept applied dramatically.

  • I find it a little weird and sad and that Betty Brant (Angourie Rice) who had a romance with Ned in FFH (though they broke up by the end but are going to be friends) kind of fades away. Rice’s Brant was a delight and I thought that she might become the Luna Lovegood of the the MCU trio, or the “fourth musketeer”. It’s a little odd to see her on screens pile on Peter over his identity exposure as if she was not friends with him, Ned and MJ.

  • Tony Revolori is perhaps the best actor of all the young cast in MCU, having won his stripes in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. It baffled me that the MCU wasted him in a minor role. FFH hinted that there was more to Flash than this film but NWH shortchanges him and he’s back to being a complete jerk. It’s a total regression.

  • The big plot is of course the multiverse stuff. Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange is fine and dandy but for me it’s a little off that Peter didn’t bring up Strange sacrificing Tony Stark’s life in Infinity War/Endgame given all the discussions they have over the course of the film over “fate” and “free will”. It feels like the film-makers internalized the (absolutely justified) criticism of “Iron Man Jr.” and decided to avoid bringing up Tony whenever possible, but in the process lost the only bit of gold in that well.

HOLLAND’S PETER PARKER

Tom Holland’s Spider-Man has his fans and it’s certainly the case that he gets more moments in NWH to show he can “act” and do big scenes, and he accomplishes that well. But he’s never the most impressive actor on screen, whether it’s Cumberbatch, Tomei, Dafoe, Molina, Foxx, Zendaya, Batalon, he always seems reduced by comparison. All that orbit him are more engaging.

At the same time, I do feel bad for Mr. Holland because I think that the movies never really allowed him a chance to come to his own, the can is always kicked further down the road, and that applies with NWH as well. He doesn’t have a fixed psychology the way that the previous actors of Spider-Man had. Maguire’s version of Peter as a passive introvert shut-in isn’t any more accurate to the comics than Holland but at least it was psychologically cohesive and explained the character we saw on-screen. Whereas the actions of Holland’s Peter never make sense to me as a character, based on the earlier films or what the movie shows and tells.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

The marketing for Spider-Man: No Way Home is going to be looked and puzzled over for years. How is it, that a movie whose marketing was filled with ugly posters, bad graphics, unappealing costume changes, and a total reliance on extra-diegetic knowledge from movies going to 2002 resulted in a movie that’s poised to break many opening week records? The speculations spinning out of this movie alone, the series of “is it a true leak or a false leak” online which has dominated the online conversation for months is really the true marketing campaign. It saddens me that so many people were suckered to market this film for free, while the marketing people despite doing none of the usual things they are supposed to be doing (come up with good posters and cut decent trailers) get to merit a large check and pocket money on everyone’s behalf. And this despite not really doing their job in terms of hiding the film before release.

It’s a textbook case of ‘failing upwards’.

Spider-Man: No Way Home doesn’t feel fun despite having a fun premise and some fun moments. It’s both too long and not long enough. Spends too much time giving character work to characters who were never well written to start with. And who in NWH, feel especially threadbare and weak to carry the “attempt at big defining statement of character” thing the movie wants to do.

As I said, maybe the real Spider-Man: No Way Home was the friends we made along the way.

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