Peter Parker is made to suffer. As a character, his relatability as the “everyman” of superheroes relies on his constant struggle. He’s trying to juggle school and/or work with personal relationships but a lot of the time, he’s barely succeeding. It’s the fact that he’s willing to keep trying, despite all odds, that makes him Spider-Man. This element of the character has been noticeably lacking from his MCU interpretation, with billionaire Tony Stark providing all he could ever need. With Starks demise at the end of Avengers: Endgame, Peter was finally experiencing the grief he needed, although it relied on caring about Stark. By contrast, Spider-Man: No Way Home beats Peter beyond the point of submission.
The film opens precisely where Far From Home ended, with Peters identity as Spidey revealed to the world. In an attempt to regain his private life, as well as those of his best friend Ned and girlfriend MJ, he turns to former Sorcerer Supreme Dr. Stephen Strange for help. After messing up a spell that would have made the world forget that Peter is Spider-Man, he is confronted by various villains from across the multiverse, whom he hopes to “cure” before sending home. Where this premise could easily have failed was in relying purely on the nostalgia of these characters, instead of writing them as fleshed-out characters. Luckily, this isn’t the case, save for a couple of villains who don’t get treated with the respect that they should. They are accompanied by various classic musical motifs, as well as some design changes which CGI can afford.
The largest issue is that the ramifications are never fully explored. Dr Strange is never explicitly clear about how the spell works and it’s never explained how events in this universe will affect other universes going forward. By the end, it’s not fully clear how Peter will function as a character moving forward, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. This film strips him down to the bare essentials of the character and, for the first time in the MCU, Peter feels like he got the origin story that he should have had all along. Ironically, he now feels at home in this franchise.
With all of that said, there is so much more to unpack. There are returning villains, returning heroes, and more grief than Doc Ock can shake a tentacle at. From here on out, we are in full SPOILER territory so turn away now if you wish to remain in the dark.
For the most part, the villains are allowed to continue their characterisations from earlier projects without being adapted to fit the vibe of the MCU. Not only does it allow for the performances to be as good as they’ve always been but it makes them feel more otherworldly, as they should. Alfred Molina and Willem Defoe shine as Doc Ock and Green Goblin respectively whilst Jamie Foxx’s Electro is finally allowed to break free from the nerdy stereotype. The three of them are prime culprits in pushing the plot forward whilst going through their own miniature arcs. Once again, Doctor Otto Octavious is at the behest of his mechanical arms whilst Norman Osborne remains in battle with his alter-ego. Even Electro is figuring out whether or not he actually wants his powers. It’s these arcs, and the interactions between each villain, that make up the emotional core of the film, however the same cannot be said of The Lizard and Sandman. The latter reverts back to being evil seemingly on a whim whilst the former is the punchline to countless dinosaur jokes. This is especially upsetting given that Sandman had already been shafted in the theatrical version of Spider-Man 3 (The Editor’s Cut is much better). That particular installment of the Sam Raimi trilogy is especially prevalent here given the numerous claims that it was spoiled by having too many villains. This is a claim I’ve always refuted as the real issue is how those villains are used and in Now Way Home they almost all benefit the plot in a meaningful way. It’s possible that 5 villains is a bit much but getting 3 out of 5 right is no small feat.
With the appearance of previous villains and with the multiverse sucking in everybody who knows that Peter Parker is Spider-Man, it makes sense that some heroes should return too. After years of rumour, speculation, and leaked set photos, Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire return to the role of Peter Parker. Neither of them has lost a single beat and it’s evident that they’re both excited to be acting opposite each other. Their interactions with each other and with Tom Holland are the film’s highlights but their interactions with their respective villains provide the emotional core of the plot. Whether its Octavious asking his Spidey how he’s been or Electro being mildly upset that is Spidey is a white guy, these interactions are charged with years of emotional build-up.
Yes, No Way Home is an emotional rollercoaster, although if you’ve never fallen in love with Holland’s iteration of the Web Head, some of that may be lost. This doesn’t mean that the actors don’t sell every single scene they are in. It’s difficult not to feel for MCU Parker here. Having already ruined the lives of MJ and Ned by simply being friends with them, he makes matters worse by accidentally bringing a hoarde of dangerous villains to their universe. This ultimately leads to Green Goblin murdering Aunt May, which sends Peter into a vengeful rage where he nearly murders him. Finally, he resolves matters, but only by casting anthother spell which causes the world to forget that Peter Parker exists, including Ned and MJ. He is left with truely nothing as the film concludes but a clean slate is the best way forward for this character.
Finally, I would be remiss to not discuss the multiversal ramifications and implications. As the film opens, Peter is being charged with murder so the best course of action , as both May and MJ point out, is a lawyer. One is provided in the form of Matt Murdock, who may be better known by his alias Daredevil. The important aspect here is not his introduction to the MCU, rather that he is portrayed by Charlie Cox who portrayed him on the Netflix show Daredevil. This does not inheritly mean that this show is canon to the MCU, only that they have cast the same actor, but conversations around this topic are fun and exciting. But surely everything is canon in the multiverse? Well, yes but including all Marvel properties will lead to overcrowding, so I propose a solution.
It’s time to start using the term “MCM”, as in “Marvel Cinematic Multiverse”. This is not instead of the term MCU, rather it would sit alongside it, meaning that there is still one solid comprehensable timeline as well as a more general term. It would encapsulate films like the Raimi Spider-Man trilogy and the Ghost Rider duology as well as legacy television shows like Agents of SHIELD and Runaways. The MCU is canon to the MCM but the MCM does not have to be canon to the MCU.
Of course the notion of “canon” is an ongoing conversation, and one that I revel in. That will, perhaps, be the largest reprecussion from Spider-Man: No Way, although the film itself doesn’t seem to bothered by reprecussions. Rather, it never fully explains itself. What are the boundaries of either spell cast by Strange? With the villains cured, does this alter the timeline of their own universes? Why bring in Venom if you’re not going to use him? (I know it’s so they can have the symbiote, but that could have been introduced in-universe). Why didn’t Topher Grace’s Venom, Dane Dehann’s Hobgoblin or Peter’s alternate girlfriends come through? And, perhaps most importantly, what ever happened to the MCU’s Uncle Ben?
Hopefully, the answers to all these questions and more, lie waiting for us somewhere down the road.