When we last left Peter Parker, our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, he’d just watched footage of his battle in London with Quentin Beck, a.k.a. the charlatan savior Mysterio, being broadcast throughout the greater Manhattan area. Then J. Jonah Jameson, a man who never met a webslinger he didn’t want to string up, outs Parker as the man behind the mask. When your face is plastered over a million giant midtown screens and Pat Kiernan is announcing that some whiz kid from Queens is the vigilante who “killed” a “hero,” little things like a secret identity, personal safety and getting into a top-tier college are now considered bygone luxuries.
That was how 2019’s Spider-Man: Far From Home ended — but you knew that already, because we have all seen these movies, every last one of them, we have no choice, resistance is futile. It’s not a spoiler to say that, when we meet up with him again at the beginning of Spider-Man: No Way Home, seconds after this revelation, many tons of feces have just hit a battalion of fans. Parker (Tom Holland) and MJ (Zendaya) find themselves in the middle of a mob scene. Helicopters hover over the outer-borough apartment of Aunt May (Marisa Tomei). Both Parker’s girlfriend and his best friend, Ned (Jacob Batalon), are suffering the consequences of standing by their man. Supporters praise him, conspiracy theorists hound him, bricks get thrown this his window and everyone knows his name.
Luckily, Parker has an ace up his web-covered sleeve: He’s acquainted with a really good sorcerer. Call him Strange, or rather, Doctor Strange. The guy didn’t go to medical school for eight years, become a world-renowned surgeon, wander the remote areas of the far east in an existential funk and then train as a master of mystic arts to just have you call him Stephen, for fuck’s sake. Show the goateed gentleman and his extremely manic cape some respect.
Peter has a favor to ask Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch). You know how to make elaborate hand gestures and open portals to other dimensions, Doc. Can you reverse time and change the course of history, just like they did with Thanos and the “blip,” so that the whole Parker-is-Spider-Man thing never happened? Strange has some runes and a spell he thinks he can cast that will help make people forget the revelation. Peter keeps asking for caveats and revisions. Because of that, the spell ends up going sideways. It’s shortly after that botched fix that our young hero encounters a strange villain wreaking havoc on a bridge. Parker has never met this bad guy before. But we have. It’s been about 17 years or so, but this is definitely not the first time we’ve seen those mechanical, writing tentacles….
We’re not sure what sort of backroom deals were struck to get Alfred Molina to reprise his Doctor Octopus from Spider-Man 2 (2004), still considered by many to be one of the greatest superhero movies ever, but his appearance signals what will be an onslaught of blasts from the Spider-past. As the trailers and much-debated posters have hinted for months now, a host of different supervillains from the various Spider-franchises and Spider-reboots have somehow made their way into the Holland-aise–sauced corner of the Spiderverse, ready to terrorize the former Avengers cohort even if they themselves have no idea what an Avenger is. Molina’s Doc Ock and Willem Dafoe’s Norman Osborn, better known as the Green Goblin, hail from the Sam Raimi movies that spanned 2002 to 2007; Jamie Foxx’s Electro, who also joins the fray, took on the webslinger in the Marc Webb Amazing Spider-Man era from 2012 to 2014. If you know both of these series, you’ll recognize some of the other enemies who show up to make life hell for this Spidey. Make sure you keep a scorecard on hand. You’ll also see some familiar, and a few unexpected, faces from the Marvel Cinematic Universe drop by as well, just for kicks. Maybe you’ve heard a lot of rumors about this movie. Maybe the rumors are true and maybe they are not.
What we can say is this: No Way Home is a perfectly fine superhero movie. It has a couple of great set pieces — the initial fight between Ock and Holland’s Spider-Man is proof that director Jon Watts has gotten increasingly better at staging these kinds of things; there’s a dizzying chase through Escher-like cityscapes that echo a similar sequences in the first Doctor Strange movie, yet still feels inventive — plus some tragedy, some sacrifices, Easter eggs for the heads (someone’s been tagging graffiti under the name Ditko), a battle royale, post-credits sequences and the feeling that this has been a set-up for the next film, which will set up the film after that, on and on ad infinitum. Holland still frets over balancing world-saving with teen angst, still takes on bad guys and tries taking MJ out on dates. This is, in so many ways, business as usual, just another typical Spider-Man story filled with typical Spider-mannerisms, another chapter in the ongoing, ever-morphing, never-ending Marvel saga that’s more addictive than cocaine-laced M&M’s.
But when the movie decides to detour into cracked, buddy-comedy territory — that’s when the fun begins. Humor has always been a part of the Spider-Man movies; even the dourest Spidey story has jokes about the notion of a kid shooting sticky web out of his wrists. Yet there’s a specifically anarchic spirit here that enlivens things with an Electro-level jolt compared to some of No Way Home‘s companion pieces, one which plays off nostalgia and the poignancy’s of Parker’s continual dilemma (be regular or be heroic), the losses and gains inherent in daring to make the world a better place no matter the cost. With great power…well, you know the rest. Whether you grew up shuddering at Dafoe’s Goblin cackle or being thrilled by Foxx’s livewire act, much less being a consumer re: the current slate of Sony/Marvel collaborations, there’s a button for you that’s being pushed. Fan service is being performed here, as with most modern superhero movies, but it now spans generations of fans. Why have one Marvel Cinematic Universe, the film coyly asks, when you can have several?
Those who remember those first few Spider-Man movies also remember a completely different blockbuster ecosphere, and how, along with the first X-Men film, they made you see the possibilities of translating dynamic panels on a page into moving pictures on a screen. By the time the second wave of webslinging movies hit multiplexes, we were already in the throes of what the late James Rocchi called “the Marvel-Industrial Complex.” Once upon a time, you were lucky to get a trilogy! Now, you’re chapter 14 in a 23-film/TV show cycle, one tiny speck in a studio-run “phase.” Thanks to some horsetrading between Sony and Marvel, we got Spider-Man interacting with the Avengers in a Captain America entry, Iron Man showing up in a Spidey movie, a whole crosscurrent of mutually owned I.P. Multiverses are set to be the next big narrative frontier, and not just for the MCU — though they’re poised to make the most of the mix-and-match concept. You can never go home again, not really. But No Way Home reminds us that, if you’re a Galactus with mouse ears, you can definitely retcon things enough to make someone feel, for one quick moment, like they’ve returned right back to where you started.