Monday May 16, 2022
Movie Review: Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021)
I’m curious what I would’ve thought if I’d seen it opening night, with a crowd gasping and cheering and applauding—and if I didn’t already know about the multiverse and the supervillains and the return of Andrew Garfield and Toby Maguire as Spider-Man 1 and 2. I’m sure I would’ve been blown away. The concept itself is great. It means anything and anyone might come back. You could do this with the Hulk and bring back Ed Norton and Eric Bana. You could do this with Fantastic Four and bring back Miles Teller (from the disastrous 2015 film) and Jessica Alba (from the disastrous 2005 and ’07 films), and—dare I say it—Alex Hyde-White and Jay Underwood (from the uber-disastrous, super low budget 1994 film). Which reminds me: Did they consider reaching back to Nicholas Hammond for this one? Probably not. But either way I like it. I like anything that makes our culture less throwaway.
Except I didn’t see it opening night; I saw it several months later, when I knew most of the above. And while most of the movie still works, and the meeting of the Spider-Men is sweet and poignant, something kind of ruined the movie for me.
Aunt May’s dumbshit argument
It opens as “Spider-Man: Far From Home” closed: with J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons), a kind of Bill O’Reilly/Roger Ailes amalgamation on the Daily Bugle Network, broadcasting the final message from Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal), who accuses Spider-Man (Tom Holland) of the terrorist attack on London and then reveals his secret identity: Spider-Man is … Peter Parker!
And all hell breaks loose. Crowds gather around MJ (Zendaya), he swoops down to rescue her, then swoops them away because the crowd is celeb-crazy—or just crazy. It’s like a Twitter feed writ large. And suddenly there’s nowhere where they’re safe: Manhattan, Queens, anywhere. The FBI bursts in. Why does the agent in charge (Arian Moayed) bug me so much? Oh right, he played that asshole on “Succession.” Anyway, our heroes lawyer up with Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox), the alter-ego of Daredevil from the Netflix series. So they’re bringing him in? That’s pretty cool. Talk about a multiverse. Can Vincent D’Onofrio’s Kingpin be far behind?
But this particular storyline doesn’t last long: the state has no case, and to get away from the crowds Peter and Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) simply move to one of the Stark Industry safe houses. (Gotta say: Given its power in the world, Stark Industries, in the person of Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), is fairly unhelpful throughout.) The world is still crazy, of course. Half love Peter/Spidey too much, the other half—spurred by Bugle/Fox News—think he’s a monster. First day of senior year does not go well, so Peter, MJ and Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalan) escape to the roof. And soon the focus of the movie becomes something else entirely:
Where are they going for college?
All three want MIT, but all three are rejected. Not because of grades, etc., but because they’re under FBI investigation. I guess you could say that everything that happens afterward is the fault of MIT.
Upset by the disappointment of his friends, Peter gets the bright idea to visit Avengers ally Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to see if he can’t do something about it. And he can! He can cast a spell to make the world forget that Peter Parker is Spider-Man. But when he’s casting the spell Peter keeps interrupting with “Oh, MJ should still know, and Ned Leeds, and Aunt May…” until Strange has to break off and contain the spell before it goes kabloowy. Except it’s already begun going kabloowy. That is, people who knew Peter Parker is Spider-Man from other universes begin entering ours.
The first is the best, Doc Ock (Alfred Molina), from “Spider-Man 2,” who battles Spidey spectacularly on a Manhattan bridge. Then the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) from the original “Spider-Man” arrives, tossing pumpkin bombs. And just as suddenly, Ock and Peter are transported to the “undercroft” of Doctor Strange’s “Sanctum Sanctorum” in Greenwich Village, where Strange lets him know what’s happening, and how others are sneaking through, too: The Lizard (Rhys Ifans), whom Strange caught, and Electro (Jamie Foxx), who’s causing havoc in the woods somewhere. Spidey goes there, subdues him, transports him to the cells Strange has constructed. Strange also has a cool-looking box, the Macchina di Kadavus, which houses the contained spell; and he’s finally figured out “the proper ritual” to reverse it and send everyone back to their own universes.
Wait, question: Do they have to be in Strange’s undercroft for the the ritual to work? If not, why send Peter out to subdue anyone? And if so, couldn’t there be a lot of people from other universes left in ours when Strange reverses the corrupt spell?
Anyway, that’s not the thing that ruined the movie for me. No, what ruined the movie for me is the reason Peter prevents Doctor Strange from reversing the spell—the thing that keeps the movie going for another 90 minutes. Aunt May convinces him to rehabilitate all the supervillains from all the other universes before sending them back. And that happens because Norman Osborn shows up at her homeless shelter, lost, babbling, and she pulls Peter aside:
May: He needs help. Maybe they all do.
Peter: Wait, you don’t mean... No, May. This isn't my problem.
May: Peter, not your problem? Hmm?
Peter: May, their chance of getting help is way better back where they came from. Sending them home, that's the best thing we can do for them.
May: For them? Or for yourself?
It’s the dumbest conversation, and the dumbest plot device, I’ve heard in an otherwise standout superhero film.
When May suggests that sending them back to their own universes is only best for Peter, that he’s somehow being selfish rather than altruistic like her, there’s a very easy response he could make: Sorry, Aunt May, but this is best for the universe. For all the universes. For the entirety of creation, which is now unstable, because I asked Strange to help me get into MIT. I love you, Aunt May, but you don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.
Instead, May’s dumbshit argument wins the day, and Peter actually fights Doctor Strange for control of the box so he can rehabilitate the supervillains before sending them back to…
Wait. Since they’ve all been pulled into this universe the moment before they die, is Peter/May sending them back to simply die rehabilitated? That seems unfair. Or will the rehabilitation change their trajectory so they don’t die? And if so, how does that change the course of events in those universes? I mean, if Norman Osborn’s rehab prevents “Spider-Man 2” I’m going to be pretty pissed. On the other hand, if it prevents the Hitler hair and “Saturday Night Fever” strut in “3,” count me in.
More immediately, in the universe of this movie, the rehab goes as poorly as anyone would expect. Osborn’s Goblin personality returns, he rallies the others, and they all but destroy the Stark-Industry safehouse. Then the Green Goblin actually kills Aunt May, who dies in Peter’s arms telling him that with great power comes great responsibility. A sad moment. It should be a poignant moment. But it’s not, because of her earlier dumbshit argument. And because we all saw it coming.
After that, distraught, Peter disappears, so Ned uses Doctor Strange’s ring to find “Peter Parker,” but he winds up finding PP2 (Andrew Garfield) and PP1 (Toby Maguire) instead. I have to admit, it’s great seeing them again. And these Peter Parkers, with MJ, figure out how to find our Peter Parker, and all three Spider-Men agree to contact Doctor Strange to send back the supervillains without rehabbing them because c’mon, hasn’t enough damage been done?
Kidding. They work up chemical formulas to cure the supervillains and lure them out for a fight. And not to sound like J.J.J., but hey why not fight supervillains at an irreplaceable landmark like the Statue of Liberty? Give me your tired, your poor, your superpowered sociopathic… It’s a good battle anyway, and I like the interplay and bonding between all the Spideys. These lonely kids find out they’re not so alone. And in a poignant moment, Maguire’s Spidey stops Holland’s Spidey from killing the Green Goblin; and in the movie’s most poignant moment, Garfield’s Spidey saves Holland’s MJ the way he could not save his own Gwen in “Amazing Spider-Man 2.” Afterwards he asks, “Are you OK?” and she nods, shook, then notices how much he’s tearing up. “Are you OK?” she asks. Perfect. I teared up myself.
But by this point the Goblin has unleashed Doctor Strange’s original contained, corrupt spell, and now more people are being pulled into this universe, and Strange can’t stop it. So our Peter, who had tried to make every little detail perfect, offers a great sacrifice: What if everyone just forgets Peter Parker? It would mean his best friend won’t remember him and the love of his life won’t remember him. It would mean, after bonding with the Spideys, after finding out he’s not alone in the multiverse, he becomes wholly, truly alone in his own—a man with no connections to anybody. But that’s the spell that Strange concocts that saves everything.
And it’s all the fault of MIT, which wouldn’t give these kids a fair chance at the beginning.
No. Well, kinda. But it's mostly the fault of Aunt May and her dumbshit argument. I’m sorry she’s dead, but she almost destroyed the fabric of the universe. Instead, she merely ruined Peter’s life forever.
Easy way home
OK, some mop-up stuff.
I’m curious if it’s just our universe that forgets Peter Parker or if it’s all the universes. Does Tobey Maguire go back and Kirsten Dunst is all “Who are you? Get the hell out of my apartment!” And if she does that, can’t he just point to the mantle and say, “I’m the guy in all those photos with you.”
That’s another thing: Does Strange’s final spell also destroy the historical record—newspaper headlines and YouTube videos and tweets and Tik-Toks and Flash Thompson’s self-aggrandizing book? Think about it: For a time, Peter was the most famous man on the planet. So either people can’t see that part of the historical record anymore, or a lot of the historical record has been expunged. And if neither of those, won’t people come across it and go, “What’s this ‘Peter Parker is Spider-Man’ video? Who’s Peter Parker? Hey MJ, you see all these photos of you with a guy named Peter Parker who’s supposed to be Spider-Man?”
It is interesting to think that Holland’s Spidey never had an Uncle Ben tragedy. He was introed in, what, “Captain America: Civil War,” back in 2016, with Tony Stark showing up at their pad in Queens, and I’d assumed, and I assume everyone assumed, that they’d just skipped over the whole Uncle Ben tragedy, since we’d already seen it in 2002 and 2012. No need to revisit. But it never happened. Which means his raison d’etre never happened.
God, the ways Hollywood screwed up the Uncle Ben tragedy—surely the most poignant of all superhero origin stories. In the original, they actually improved upon it, making Peter’s refusal to stop the thief who would later kill Uncle Ben not the act of a selfish jerk—as it was in Amazing Fantasy #15—but a tit-for-tat. Peter gets to throw the crooked wrestling promoter’s line back at him: “I missed the part where that’s my problem.” We laugh. He’s us here. Thus when the horrible lesson is imparted, it’s imparted to us, too. But in “3,” they blow it completely, saying that the petty thief didn’t even kill Uncle Ben; Flint Marko did. Peter never could have stopped it, so he has no reason to feel guilty about it, so he has no reason to do good and fight crime. It’s as if Bruce Wayne found out his parents died of heart attacks. Guess I’ll become a doctor then.
And in the 2012 version? Pete never avenges Uncle Ben’s death. He never gets the guy. He gets distracted. The movie gets distracted.
And now no Uncle Ben at all. Did May never marry? Maybe not. She was too busy saving the world.
Kudos, by the way, to J.K. Simmons. I know, they included his J.J.J. in this universe before they figured out the whole multiverse angle, but he’s still the only actor to play the same role in more than one universe. An Oscar’s a No Prize next to that.
“Spider-Man: No Way Home” is certainly acclaimed. On Rotten Tomatoes it’s got a 93% critics rating and a 98% audience score. And even though it was released in the midst of Omicron part of the pandemic, it opened in the U.S. at $260 million (2nd all-time), grossed $804 million (3rd all-time), and earned $1.9 billion at the global box office (6th all-time). It’s the biggest movie of the 2020s. By far. It’s inventive and panoramic and a helluva roller coaster ride.
But the title is a lie. There was actually a very easy way home. You just had to let Doctor Strange do his job.