As we get deeper and deeper into the Hollywood machinations that is superhero cinema, it’s become much more interesting to look back at all the early iterations of the comic book moneymakers; the smaller scope of the early Bryan Singer X-Men films; the chipper, childlike thrills of Richard Donner’s Superman. But it’s Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films that have grown to stand out even more; to watch them today is to stare into a whole other dimension of specifically eccentric comic-book adaptations. Among the various out-of-vogue pleasures of Raimi’s Spider-Man films (especially the first two) are wonderfully hammy villains played by top-notch actors. The VFX around them may now appear a little weak, but all the real practical effects of these early-‘00s blockbusters was and remains the scenery chewing: the cackle and crooked grin of an Oscar nominee, the tortured megalomania of a West End stage veteran refusing to be upstaged by his mechanical limbs.
In Spider-Man: No Way Home, Willem Dafoe and Alfred Molina reprise these iconic roles, returning to respectively portray the demented billionaire The Green Goblin and the multi-armed mad scientist Doctor Octopus. But they aren’t playing new versions of the big bads. In fact, they aren’t even playing older versions of them. Digital makeover aside, they are roughly as we remember them from the Raimi movies. That’s less a spoiler than the whole hook of this latest trip to the endlessly chugging Marvel Cinematic Universe: Having exhausted the Avengers novelty of mixing and matching characters from its own vast ensemble, the company is now plucking them from separate continuities. The Goblin and Doc Ock are only a portion of the rogues gallery Peter Parker (Tom Holland) squares off against in No Way Home. His problems also include an amorphous sandman (Thomas Haden Church), a talking reptile (Rhys Ifans), and the human battery Electro (Jamie Foxx). Those last two hail from yet another cinematic universe — the one that cast Andrew Garfield as Spider-Man, just a few years after Tobey Maguire hung up the spandex.
No Way Home begins where Far from Home left off, with Peter reeling from the public revel of his secret identity. The fallout has put a damper on not just his dreams of getting into MIT but also those of his best friend, Ned (Jacob Batalon), and his new girlfriend, MJ (Zendaya). For a while, the movie remains in the charmingly low-key register of Holland’s previous two solo adventures in the suit, which at their best played like teen comedies with some middling superhero action running in their margins. The stakes here are what comes with being an adolescent Avenger, where balancing college admission woes are as pressing as any Manhattan tussle. But it’s when Peter convinces the sorcerer Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to fix his problems with a spell — which of course goes horribly awry — that the movie begins yanking foes from defunct franchises into the fold. This is, again, just a new variation on the Marvel business model of extended universing. Which isn’t to deny some of the enjoyment No Way Home sometimes provides from the money-making strategy. Dafoe and Molina both look vaguely uncanny, their faces smoothed through the still-imperfect work of deaging technology. But maybe that’s fitting for how their villains are presented: as phantoms blinked from one reality to another at their moment of fatal defeat. But it’s nice to watch these two finely cooked hams bring back some of that old cartoon theatricality, even as the movie keeps its sinister five on a surprisingly tight leash.
No Way Home is messier than the average adventure off the MCU assembly line. It has a thing or two in common with Sam Rami’s Spider-Man 3, as things at times feel like there are as many movies competing for screentime here as there are villains, with returning director Jon Watts attempting the herculean task of balancing a large cast of old friends and family with a new roster of adversaries with whom the audience is assumed to be familiar. The tone veers all over the map, turning the supervillains into quippy frenemies one minute, plunging Peter into anguished darkness the next. The whole thing is pasted together with a volume of magical and scientific blather that’s high even by the standards of this extended franchise. And the movie will also still cause some to ponder the question of whether Tom Holland will ever get a Spider-Man movie that’s all his own? His run in the role has been categorized by looming mentor figures and larger MCU maintenance; if Spider-Man: Homecoming and, to a lesser extent, Far From Home doubled as Iron Man movies, this one feels like half a Doctor Strange story, adding a skirmish in the mirror-bending dimension to an already crowded two-and-a-half hours of plot and spectacle. But here, Holland’s winning coming-of-age arc is further overshadowed by the aspirations to essentially do a live-action Into the Spider-Verse, pulling in characters from different series. At least the script, by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, folds the borrowed baddies into a dilemma that feels catered to the earnest empathy of Holland’s version of Parker: Can he save these displaced monsters and mistakes from their grim destiny?
The paradoxical truth is that No Way Home’s extended exercise in fan service is at once an ominous precedent for future event movies and an at-times rather poignant gimmick. There’s something occasionally and oddly moving about the film’s attempts to tie up the loose ends of two aborted series that came before its own. The crass crowd-pleasing of Marvel dumping all these characters into the same playpen is partially redeemed by the emotional closure some of the returning cast members carve out for themselves… even those who seem to have forgotten exactly how to play the roles they occupied so many years earlier. Still though, No Way Home hits its hoot-and-holler beats about as skillfully as Avengers: Endgame did. There are moments here that will inspire comparable choruses of applause; by opening a wormhole into the multiverse of past Spider-Man movies, Marvel and Sony have made something like an all-purpose Spider-Man sequel, shrewdly designed to hit a whole range of nostalgic cores. Thankfully, that exploitation of IP and fond memories alike includes a platform for some fine character actors to get back into the malevolent mojo of their past contributions to the genre. If only the film lifted some of the oddball visual splendor of Raimi’s trilogy while it was rounding up its most memorable antagonists. But maybe we’ll get that soon. Hitting its rousing beats with enough pleasurable skill, Spider-Man: No Way Home in the end remains an enjoyably messy jumble because of its metatextual grapplings and understandings of the titular hero’s legacy.
Spider-Man: No Way Home is playing in Theaters nationwide