“It’s not what a movie is about. It’s how it is about it.” So quoted the legendary Roger Ebert, a mantra which he often attributed to his longtime friend and fellow film critic Gene Siskel. The quote is straightforward enough – what’s in a movie doesn’t matter so much to its overall quality as how the material or “content” it includes helps to tell the story. The better the story, the less added dressing is needed to keep it afloat, and no matter how much fan service or surface-level enjoyment, a story badly told will always be a bad story. Such is the attitude I took (and, I believe, that everyone should take) going into my first viewing of Spider-Man: No Way Home, the 27th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the third produced by Sony and Pascal Pictures, and the MCU’s first multi-versal story outside of the incredibly successful Disney+ series Loki.
The film is quite good, and puts the MCU back on track in a big way after Eternals failed to connect the way it was probably meant to, although audiences seemed not to mind how strange and different that turned out to be. No Way Home, by contrast, seems destined to have folks clamoring to show others its inevitably high Rotten Tomatoes score as proof that it’s “the best Spider-Man movie ever,” but it seems too often that the ambition of its scope keeps getting in the story’s way. (Also, that’s not how Rotten Tomatoes works, but that’s a whole other piece.) To put it another way, I’ve already seen many sing its praises as perfect or near-perfect not because of how the story is told, but because of what is or isn’t in it. In some cases, it seems people had already decided how they would feel about the movie before it came out – amazing if it delivered the fan service they wanted, or a disappointment if it didn’t. But I’m not here only to deliberate on the meritocracy of storytelling vs. fan expectations.
Without spoiling anything, what works most about the movie is the immense heart it wears on its sleeve and its intense commitment to telling this story at a grand scale. No, this isn’t a scale at the level of Dune or even the most epic of Spider-Man films in terms of pure scope, but its ambition is so monstrous, one wonders how the film never collapses under all that weight – of expectations, of story pursuits, of everything it’s carrying. It stumbles a few times, to be sure, and there are certainly moments where the heart of it is sacrificed for the sake of another MCU-style joke (you know the kind), but when it really swings for the emotions, it somehow manages to squeeze them out of you, regardless of whether you know you’re being emotionally manipulated or not. The performances are all swell as well, though I could have done with some of Alfred Molina’s Spider-Man 2 uber-sincerity sneaking its way into the Doc Ock character here; he’s good in the film, but the writing for him is too snarky, whereas the character in the original films was more ponderous with his dialogue.
On the other hand, there is quite a bit that holds the movie back from being a truly great MCU movie, even if it’s already solidified itself as one of the better Spider-Man outings. For starters, its ambition forces the story to stretch itself a bit thin, and while the fan service in the movie mostly works, it doesn’t have much of a purpose in contributing to this story apart from serving as distraction when the story can’t quite figure out what to do with itself. As for how it doesn’t contribute much under its surface, it’s difficult to say without spoiling some plot elements, so I’ll save that for the Spoiler Review in a few days.
Another thing that doesn’t quite work are some story threads being picked up and then dropped as if they were never addressed; whether these threads appear for the sake of a joke or a cool dramatic moment depends on which thread one pulls, but a few of them are simply never brough up again, no matter how much sense it would have made to do so. This plays into what I mentioned earlier – undercutting heart with humor. It’s clear that Jon Watts and company love everything this character can do, and what he chooses to do, but occasionally it seems as if they’re not really sure who he is as a person, what drives him the most. There are sequences where he needs to make a tough decision, but others end up deciding for him, rather than him finding the solution himself. So often moments that could easily be the small, heartfelt ones are traded for jokes or fan service or for action beats (even if they’re really good action beats) enough that the moments of genuine emotion the audience is supposed to feel – even the ones they should feel the most – feel like afterthoughts to the film’s larger concerns of pleasing as many viewers as humanly possible.
And now it’s time to get to the thing that’s been my biggest issue with all three MCU Spidey movies, but I haven’t really addressed yet in any meaningful way: Spider-Man, the character, has had almost no tangible relationship to New York City for 3 MCU movies now. That’s not to say he doesn’t interact with New York at all (he does a little at the beginning of Homecoming), but the vibrant location so central to both the idea and mythos of Spider-Man is barely given any screen-time in Jon Watts’ films. It’s there, but it’s a background, an afterthought, a way for us to know where the movie is happening, but not why. NYC doesn’t really have any bearing on where the story goes or the decisions any characters make. Sam Raimi’s on-screen iterations of Spider-Man were thoroughly a part of NYC, and constantly engaged with the people in it. Even The Amazing Spider-Man has that fantastic crane sequence. NYC is just as much a part of Spider-Man as the suit itself or the powers, and relegating it to what is essentially a CGI treadmill just to get the title character from one place to another while doing “more important” things feels like a huge missed opportunity for this “Home” trilogy.
Perhaps with a tighter script and more sincerity, No Way Home could have been the best Spider-Man movie ever made, but the MCU and multi-verse of it all keep getting in the way of letting that happen, for one reason or another. It’s still a very good movie, don’t get me wrong, and I’ll have a lot more positive things to say when I can actually talk about why I liked them in greater detail in the spoiler review, but for now, that’s all I can really say. I certainly don’t begrudge people who genuinely love this and I wouldn’t dream of telling anyone not to go see it in theaters – lord knows those places could use the help right now – but I would encourage people to look past what’s in the movie, and instead judge it on how its contents are employed. You might find that the film even gets richer for it.
I’m giving “Spider-Man: No Way Home” a 7.8/10.
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time.