Dir: Jon Watts. Starring: Tom Holland, Zendaya, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jacob Batalon, Jon Favreau, Marisa Tomei. 12A, 148 minutes
Nostalgia is Hollywood’s most effective con. The right series of familiar images, the exact combination of familiar words, and it’s like time travel – right back to the point in your life where you were free from angst and responsibility. It is both personal and irrational. One part of your brain can tell that you’re being played. The other can decide not to care.
That leads us to the cross-generational pollination of Spider-Man: No Way Home, a film that has a finger in all three of Sony’s live-action, web-slinger pies – Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy, with Tobey Maguire; the Andrew Garfield-starring Amazing Spider-Man films; and the current Marvel Cinematic Universe, where the character is played by Tom Holland. A distinct part of No Way Home feels like a confidence trick played on behalf of Sony and Disney, whose uneasy and much-reported on alliance has allowed Spider-Man to exist within the MCU since 2016. But it’s also very, very good at knowing how to instantly melt the heart of a lifelong Spidey fan. It reaches a point at which the division between sincerity and cynicism doesn’t seem to matter much anymore – it will work for the right people. And that is an art in itself.
The very concept of a crossover was, initially, intended to be top secret. Then actor Alfred Molina was spotted in Atlanta, where the film production was based, and the studio was forced to let the cat out of the bag – he’s returned as Doc Ock, the tentacled villain of Spider-Man 2 (2004). So have several other key villains: Willem Dafoe’s the Green Goblin from Spider-Man (2002), Thomas Haden Church’s the Sandman from Spider-Man 3 (2007), Rhys Ifans’s The Lizard from The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), and Jamie Foxx’s Electro from The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014).
Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers are happy to tie their script up into knots as long as each of their story beats has an emotional or thematic reason to exist – which seems a far more important thing to be concerned about at this point in the franchise than something as flimsy as basic logic. Spider-Man did only recently defeat a thumb-headed, purple-skinned gem collector, after all. It begins exactly at the point at which Far From Home ends, with the now-deceased Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) having broadcast Spider-Man’s civilian identity, Peter Parker, to the entire world.
The MCU’s own J Jonah Jameson (JK Simmons reprising his role from the Raimi trilogy, but as a basement-dwelling conspiracy theorist) has branded Peter a menace to society. The helicopters won’t stop circling his home, where he lives with his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei). His best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) and girlfriend MJ (Zendaya) may not get into college merely because of their association with him.
Desperate, he calls on Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), who offers to cast a spell that will cause the entire world to forget that he was ever Spider-Man. It backfires. Suddenly, Doc Ock is rampaging through New York City. Connect the dots. Considering this version of Spider-Man was first introduced battling Avengers on a bit of airport tarmac in Germany, the subsequent three solo films have been given the tough task of retroactively convincing audiences that Peter was once just an ordinary kid from Queens. No Way Home does the best job of the lot, by finding a way to ground so much of the film’s tension in the simple insecurity he feels about potentially losing those closest to him. On a relatable level, college can spell disaster for even the most rock-solid of high school relationships. On a less relatable level, Strange’s spell is about to wipe away the one secret that’s bonded all of them together.
Holland’s best moments as Spider-Man have always tapped into that ingrained desperation to be seen and loved – and there are plenty of those moments to be found here. But having him tussle here with phantoms of past franchises also puts him and the film at a constant disadvantage. No Way Home has no idea what to do with the villains from the ill-remembered Amazing Spider-Man films (Foxx’s performance is so detached from what he did before, he might as well be playing a different character). It also reaches for, and fails to acquire, the baroque tragedy of Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 and its thrillingly executed action pieces. The battles here are inventive, certainly, but visually characterless.
No Way Home ends up suspended somewhere between the two extremes of quality seen in its predecessors – with the added misfortune of repeating the same multiverse conceit as Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which managed to pull both a talking pig and noir detective voiced by Nicolas Cage out of its back pocket. There’s nothing here quite as new or exciting as that, but No Way Home at least doesn’t hold any pretensions about itself. Most of the callbacks are played for light humour, not self-importance. Yes, it’s easy to tell you’re being manipulated. But it’s just as easy to respond with: so what?