I was very excited this past summer when, during that period when things were starting to reopen and I was able to go back to the theater for the first time since Emma. way back in March 2020, to see Black Widow. I managed to see two others in theaters before the end of the year, when threats of Omicron (Persei 8) means that many of us are once again sworn off of the in-person theatrical experience, Nicole Kidman be damned. For the past two weeks, I’ve been trying to squeeze in a few last 2021 releases in order to soothe my conscience with regards to ensuring that my forthcoming end of the year list was sufficiently well rounded and informed, consistently texting Brandon that “I just need[ed] to finish Matrix Resurrections/The French Dispatch/etc. and then I [would] ‘call it.'” Many years ago, I wrote that no one could gaslight me like I could gaslight myself, and like Charles Boyer himself, I just kept moving those goalposts, until I think we are finally at an end, as I got the opportunity to see Spider-Man: No Way Home in a relatively safe environment courtesy of coincidental access to a GMC Terrain and Austin’s own Blue Starlite Drive In.
We open just where we left off in Far from Home, with our friendly neighborhood Spider-Twink (Tom Holland) having just had his secret identity as Peter Parker exposed by J. Jonah Jameson, once again played by J.K. Simmons, although this time instead of being an editorial-mad editor, he’s here running a Daily Bugle that, instead of being a decently respectable publication, is not-quite-InfoWars. Although no criminal charges associated with the accusation that he killed Mysterio manage to stick (thanks in no small part to Charlie Cox reprising his role as Matt “Daredevil” Murdock), the repercussions of the allegations ripple throughout his life. Peter and May have to move out of their apartment to avoid harassment from Mysterio truthers, and the controversy costs Peter and his friends the opportunity to go to MIT together. It’s the last of these that prompts Peter to seek out assistance from Dr. Strange to try and reverse the damage, but Peter’s second guessing causes the magic to go haywire, setting off a bizarre series of events.
As a result, everyone who knows Peter Parker is Spider-Man, even in other universes, begins to appear in New York. Doc Ock (Alfred Molina) from Spider-Man 2? Of course! Willem Dafoe’s hypnotic Sam Raimi-movies Green Goblin? You betcha! Electro (Jamie Foxx) from Amazing Spider-Man 2? Um, ok, yeah. Thomas Haden Church as Raimi’s Sandman and Rhys Ifans as Lizard? If, um, if you want, I guess. Aunt May (Rosemary Harris)?! Unfortunately, no, although I kept an eagle eye out for both her and Mageina Tovah. Peter manages to round up these accidental invaders with help from Ned (Jacob Batalon) and MJ (Zendaya), and Strange prepares to send them back. However, when each of them shares that the last thing that they remember are the moments leading up to what we the audience know are their deaths (give or take a Sandman), Peter decides that he can’t knowingly send them to their respective dooms without instead curing them so that they might live instead: repairing the broken interface between Octavius and his cybernetic arms, ridding Osbourne of the Goblin identity, delectrifying Electro, etc. It’s actually kind of nice, but of course, goblins gotta goblin, so it goes off the rails, which is where things start to get really interesting.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from this one. A few years back, the CW DC shows did a big multiverse crossover event that managed to incorporate a shocking number of appearances from “other universes” that were explicitly other media adaptations: Smallville, Doom Patrol, Titans, the 1990s Flash, Superman Returns, and even more esoteric examples like Lucifer. There were appearances from Huntress from the short-lived Birds of Prey series from 2002, Burt Ward reprising his role as Dick “Robin” Grayson from the 1960s, and having Kevin Conroy, who voiced Batman in the 1990s animated series (aka my Batman), appear in the flesh as Bruce Wayne for the first time. Watching it unfold was like a matryoshka doll of niche specificity; it was a much lower budget than this, obviously, but it was still fun. I knew Far from Home was planned as a big crossover, that would start off the multiverse thing, which was hinted at in WandaVision and would play a big role in the upcoming Doctor Strange and the Who Cares, blah blah blah. But following on the heels of the what narratively should (but obviously capitalistically never could) have been the finale of this whole enterprise with Endgame, I didn’t really think that another installment in the Disney money-printing machine would manage to elicit the same kind of emotional thrill that of four-color yesteryear.
And then it did, somehow. Maybe? There’s no Disney logo at the beginning; when the Sony logo came up, followed by Tristar, I thought it was another trailer, until the ending audio from Far from Home played. But I’m getting off track. Pre-release, it was impossible to avoid the rumors. Would Tobey Maguire come back? Surely not. The rights alone would make it all so complicated. But someone saw, or said they saw, or maybe heard from the PA that you met at a friend’s party that Andrew Garfield and his Tumblr-famous jiggly puffs were spotted back in the old spandex. And somehow, post-release, even after a couple of weeks, I assumed that it must not have happened, since no one on Twitter had spoiled it (for me) yet, but yeah, here they are. And, like, it’s impossible not to feel a swell of something warm inside when they all meet here.
It’s common to call reference-heavy, perhaps even fan service-y fare a “love letter to the fans.” I’m not usually a fan of that phrase since most of the things that are intended to be so—perhaps especially when it comes to my beloved Star Trek franchise—usually come out muddy at best and are frequently, sometimes infamously, bad. And this does run the risk of that, especially if one is too young to really remember or to have ever even seen the older films referenced herein. But sometimes, especially in trying times, maybe a little bit of nostalgia is all that you need. Sometimes, it’s more than enough. Spider-Man: Three Spider-Men wrang legitimate tears out of me, and not just because no one bothered, I assume, to see what Rosemary Harris was doing. After the two older Spider-Men recount to Gen-Z Peter how they respectively lost their Uncle Ben and/or Gwen Stacy, Amazing Spider-Man gets the opportunity to save a falling MJ here, and this time he succeeds where he failed before, and it’s genuinely one of the most emotionally satisfying things that this bombastic, bloated franchise has ever managed to affect.
And that’s just the bittersweet stuff; there’s still plenty of humor to go around, although obviously not on the level of Homecoming. I’ve spoiled enough of the drama that I’ll leave the comedy unrepeated so that there’s something for you to still discover if you haven’t already seen this one. If there’s one big quibble that I do have, it’s that Jameson as no-celebrities-were-harmed Alex Jones doesn’t quite work for me. Firstly, there’s no way that Marvel could ever let J.K. Simmons ever go full Jones; Disney might take a couple of potshots at him by having Jameson hawk not-quite-nootropics, but a film under their umbrella is never going to have Jameson get involved with Pizzagate or get taken to court for calling the Battle of New York survivors crisis actors. Although the film briefly touches on what the equivalent of our own real world conspiracy theorists would look like in the MCU, it’s pretty toothless. Going soft on Jones with a parody that neither sees him get his comeuppance nor push his pathological adherence to his outrageous beliefs past the line where his charisma fails to walk him back … you just wonder why they bothered.
I guess I should close by saying that although this was a lot of fun, it doesn’t really hook me on the franchise’s future at all. I didn’t stay for the post-credits scene, and although it’s true that I was, as stated, at a drive-in and that my bladder was full, I still simply couldn’t bring myself to care enough to stay. But, like, does that matter? Did it ever? Maybe. Probably not. As a capper on the Spider-Man series, this would also do, and it brings it all home.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond