Reviewed by Tim Robins
For the first time in the cinematic history of Spider-Man, our friendly neighbourhood hero is unmasked and no longer able to separate his normal life from the high-stakes of being a Super Hero. When he asks for help from Doctor Strange, the stakes become even more dangerous, forcing him to discover what it truly means to be Spider-Man.
Spider-Man: No Way Home completes the trilogy spanning “origin” of Tom Holland’s Spider-Man, although I’m not precluding the possibility of future titles such as Spider-Man: Home Alone, Home Sweet Home or Home on the Range. The new movie pulls together Sony’s back catalogue of Spider-Man movies, integrating them into a story that revolves around different kinds of redemption.
Some critics have described the film as a mess. It isn’t but it is broken backed in tone. The film begins much like every Marvel Comics Universe movie, with forced quips and smart-alecky jokes such as Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) revealing that his secret caves beneath his Sanctum Sanctorum were used for location filming of an episode of The Equalizer. Ha, Ha, I guess.
When Doc Ock (Alfred Molina) turns up in Strange’s lair, Peter Parker and his friends laugh at his name, Otto Octavious. That was done better in Sam Rami’s Spider-Man 2. Here, it just undercuts the character’s menace and the bigger threat of the multiverse coming apart at the seams.
However, there’s a turning point where the film takes on a darker, tragic tone that brings the MCU’s Spider-Man arc closer to that of his predecessors (Tobey Mguire and Andrew Garfield). The humour improves, but it still has a detrimental impact on scenes we are supposed to take seriously. During a Peter Parker Pity Party atop a bridge, for example, I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to shed tears of sorrow or laughter. When Doctor Strange tells Peter and pals to “Scooby-Doo this crap”, the quip gets a laugh, but it also draws attention to the way the script descended to the level of a Hanna-Barbera cartoon. (That said, I do think the director missed the opportunity to pastiche the meme of doppelganger Spider-Men pointing at each other from the limited TV animation series).
The plot picks up where Spider-Man: Far from Home left off. Mysterio has revealed that Peter Parker is Spider-Man and that the hero allowed Stark Industry drones to kill him. As one of the trailers suggests, Peter wants to be forgotten but for altruistic reasons – his new found infamy is ruining the career aspirations of his best friends, Ned Leeds (Jacob Batal)and MJ (Zendaya). Turning to Doctor Strange for help, Peter’s indecision during a spell of forgetting causes villains from across the Spider-Man cinematic universes to manifest themselves in the MCU, a development later greeted with wild applause from the audience, particularly when Holland’s spider-suited predecessors steps into the MCU through a magical portal.
Seeing The Green Goblin, Doc Ock, The Sandman, The Lizard and Electro return, Holland’s Peter Parker is faced with another task – to “cure” and redeem the villains, before they return to their universes and face otherwise certain death at the hands of their respective Spider-Men, who come along to provide moral and intellectual support. I notice that no fanboy critics are talking about the “uncanny valley” created by the various ways in which this trio of Super Spider people is achieved. Marvel’s obsession with CGI-ing over motion caption suits does no favours for the characters and just draws attention to the line where the costume meets their necks.
As for the villains, The Sandman is the least well realised, and only looks his best when the film is drawing on the CGI effects of Spider-Man 3 – and looks worse when the film animates him as a humanoid CGI cinder block. A ‘deep faked’ Doc Ock looks better than the trailer suggests, but sometimes it looks as if Molina’s face is caked in make-up. Electro (Jamie Foxx) is given yellow lightning flashes that make the character look more like his comic book counterpart, although the film makes reference to Electro’s somewhat comedic origin in Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014), falling into a vat of electric eels. Here, Foxx’s character is portrayed as a genuine bad-ass.
IIt is Willem Defoe who steals the show. There has long been a controversy over the Green Goblin mask in Spider-Man (2002). Some feel the metal mask made The Green Goblin’s scenes with Spider-Man sound like two people talking through buckets and robbed us of an important part of the actor’s performance – their facial expressions. A full-on ‘Evil Dead’ style latex Goblin mask was considered as an alternative at the time. But neither of these choices were as good as the one made here. The latest film just uses Dafoe’s own expressive features and the actor treats us to a tour de force performance and never has The Green Goblin seemed so menacing.
As for Holland’s Spider-Man, the film sources computer games and animation to deliver some exhilarating web slinging scenes. His performance has a lot of emotional depth, whether it is mourning the loss of those close to him or playing the guileless teen who just wants to put the universe right.
Spider-Man: No Way Home is a lot of fun but I don’t think it is a good idea to see in the cinema. Socially distanced seating seems to have been abandoned and mask guidance allows you to not wear one when eating or drinking (as if the virus cares about such niceties). Without further strictures, I can see no way the new movie won’t be a decidedly unfriendly series of spectacular neighborhood super-spreader events.
• Spider-Man: No Way Home in cinemas now
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