At this point, movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have sort of a unique task. They not only have to work as standalone movies, or installments in their individual franchise, but they also need to feel as though they contribute to the greater narrative of the MCU. They’ve struggled with that a bit this year. Black Widow wasn’t a bad movie, but it felt like an extended deleted scene with backstory they forgot to include to set up what’s coming next. Shang-Chi was a great standalone adventure film, but the elements that connected it to the larger MCU felt somewhat forced. Eternals… well, I haven’t actually seen Eternals yet.
But then there was Spider-Man: No Way Home, a film that had the unenviable task of advancing the MCU, closing off the first Tom Holland Spider-Man trilogy, and providing a sense of closure for the entire Spider-Man movie franchise to date. It sounds almost impossible. But it succeeded almost flawlessly.
First, the MCU stuff, since that’s quickest. Since WandaVision, Loki and What If? worked to solidify the concept of the Multiverse, and since we know that’s where the next MCU movie (Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness) is going, this film feels like a crucial element. It shows us the consequences of messing around with this stuff, shows us how dangerous it can be, and that’s necessary for what we know is coming, especially since the show that previously drove this point home the most (What If?) is probably the one that was viewed by the fewest people, as some snobs would dismiss it as “just a cartoon.”
I’ve been a fan of Tom Holland’s Spider-Man from his first appearance in Captain America: Civil War. He’s got a youthful energy that perfectly fits the character in his early days, and after the way the previous two iterations of the character both fizzled out, I was ready for a new take. And we got it – this was a novice Spider-Man in a world of seasoned superheroes, something we hadn’t seen before. We got Tony Stark to serve as a mentor, which made a logical sense, but also positioned Spider-man in a place unlike any other version of the character. And we got new versions of characters we’ve known for years that fit this new version. I was really glad, back then, that they did not see the need to start with yet another origin story. (We all know how it happens, people. There are three things I never need to see again: Krypton exploding, Thomas and Martha Wayne getting gunned down, and Peter Parker getting bitten by a spider.) With this installment though, I realize that we have gotten an origin story. Everything we’ve seen from this character so far has been about shaping and assembling the Spider-Man of the MCU into the person he truly must be.
Homecoming was about learning to be a hero. Peter had to accept who he was and learn that tools and powers are secondary to the person inside, that it’s the person who must be the hero and not the suit. Far From Home was about learning to be your own kind of hero. With Tony Stark dead, Peter struggled with this urge the universe seemed to have to use him as a replacement, before ultimately rejecting it and realizing he needed to be his own man.
No Way Home is about the cost of being a hero.
Spoilers begin here.If you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want it to be spoiled, stop reading secure in the knowledge that I thought this movie kicked ass.
After the events of Far From Home, Peter’s identity has been revealed to the world. In an effort to get that genie back into the bottle, he turns to Dr. Strange for help. Strange attempts to cast a spell to wipe the knowledge of Peter’s double identity from the world, but when Peter starts trying to pick and choose who gets to remember him, the spell is mangled and disrupted, allowing incursions from the multiverse of other people who knew Peter Parker is Spider-Man. It starts with villains who faced other versions of the hero in the Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield films, and it’s here that the film really starts to shine.
I won’t get super detailed here, since if you kept reading past the spoiler warning I’m going to assume you already saw this movie and know what I’m talking about. The best thing with the villains was Alfred Molina’s Dr. Octopus. Back in Spider-Man 2, he was painted as a tragic villain, a good person corrupted by technology gone wrong. In this film, Peter not only repairs the damage, but allows the good man that was Otto Octavius to return and redeem himself. Jamie Foxx’s Electro similarly gets an arc – not exactly one of redemption, but of realization that he sorely needed. Sandman and Lizard don’t get as much development, but each is at least afforded an opportunity to go home as normal humans and potentially live normal lives.
Willem DaFoe’s Green Goblin remains the nastiest, bloodthirstiest villain in any Spider-Man movie, and is responsible for the most sincerely shocking moment of the film: the death of May Parker. While presumably this universe still had a Ben Parker (there are moments in the previous films that allude to a tragedy that we have to assume was his death), it is May who grounds Peter and gives him that famous lesson that Stan Lee first wrote back in 1962. (You know which one, I’m not gonna repeat it here… but it’s worth pointing out that this is the first time that they actually got the wording right). It’s May’s heart and compassion that fuels Peter Parker. And it is May’s death at the hands of the Goblin that sets up the magnificent ending of this film and this trilogy.
We’ll come back to Tom Holland, but let’s not forget our other two heroes: Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield. Maguire’s series ended relatively peacefully: he and Mary Jane were together and the villains were defeated. This film blessedly chooses not to hit the reset button on this: although things haven’t always been easy, Tobey/Peter tells us that they’ve managed to make it work. His moment of redemption comes when he saves his younger counterpart, Tom/Peter, from killing Norman Osborn. Tobey/Peter has failed twice to save someone from dying on the point of that damned Goblin Glider, and in preventing Norman’s death this time, he gets the closure he needs.
Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Man, however, ended at a point of anguish, trying to get back in the saddle after the death of Gwen Stacy, a death he blames himself for. Since his last film he’s grown darker, he tells us he “stopped pulling punches” and doesn’t have time for “Peter Parker stuff” anymore. In the scenes where the three Peters interact (which, by the way, are some of the most wonderfully comedic, heartfelt, and sincere scenes in the entire film) it’s Andrew/Peter who is the most self-deprecating, but in a way that feels like he’s truly torturing himself instead of just cracking wise like he did in his own films.
But he, too, is saved by this movie. When the MCU MJ topples from the Statue of Liberty and the Goblin stops Tom/Peter from saving her, it’s almost exactly the same thing that killed Gwen, it’s the death he caused, it was all his fault… but where before Andrew/Peter suffered the most tragic moment of his life, this time he saves the day. The look on his face when he lands holding a living, breathing MJ instead of a dangling corpse says everything – the pain, the anguish, the self-hatred is finally being released. It’s magnificent, it’s a moment where you break down with joy because finally, finally, he can forgive himself.
Then there’s Tom Holland. His Peter Parker started all this because he was trying to have everything, trying to make his life perfect, and that’s not possible. After suffering the most tragic loss of his life, he accepts his mistake and makes the greatest sacrifice – wiping the knowledge of Peter Parker from everybody. MJ, Ned, Happy Hogan, Nick Fury, the Avengers, even Dr. Strange who is casting the spell now has no memory of Peter Parker. He is utterly, completely alone, There is literally “no way home.” And he knows this before he makes the call, because it’s the only way to save everyone.
“Because that’s what we do.”
This movie hits almost every beat. The performances are great, the dialogue is witty, the themes are strong and the construction is magnificent. And somehow, despite the tragedy, it ends on a point of hope, with Peter making his own suit – not one whipped up by Stark Tech or upgraded by Otto Octavius – but a simple suit that takes cues from his “brothers” and, consequently, is the single most comic book-accurate Spider-Man costume ever used in a live action film, finally showing us who he is. No more apprenticeship, no more Stark tech, no more relying on other people. He may be all alone now, but his adventure is just beginning.
And my goodness, we can’t wait to see where it goes.
Blake M. Petit is a writer, teacher, and dad from Ama, Louisiana. His current writing project is the superhero adventure series Other People’s Heroes: Little Stars, a new episode of which is available every Wednesday on Amazon’s Kindle Vella platform. He is not, strictly speaking, capable of doing “whatever a spider can,” but he DID learn how to reheat french fries in his air fryer.