From the moment the metallic tentacle first burst into frame in the teaser trailer for Spider-Man: No Way Home, superfans knew the third film from director Jon Watts promised something different.
Not just the emergence of a new villain, but rather the kind of corporate crossover never seen before.
The tentacle was connected to Alfred Molina as Doctor Octopus, a villain from 2004’s Spider-Man 2 starring Tobey Maguire. The teaser trailer for the new film, which opens Friday, also featured a green pumpkin bomb suggesting the return of the Green Goblin, from the original Spider-Man film of 2002.
To be clear, these aren’t new versions of old characters, but the original characters appearing in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where Tom Holland’s Spider-Man had never encountered them. (That first round of Spider-Man films predate today’s elaborate MCU.)
Soon fans were scouring every new trailer and poster for evidence of what was happening: Peter Parker a.k.a. Spider-Man battling a rogues’ gallery of opponents from previous films.
So how did we get here? Call it a combination of corporate synergy and comic book theory. Comic writers have long enjoyed exploring the idea of parallel Earths — where heroes’ stories played out differently. (In Marvel, there are a lot of them.)
What No Way Home refers to as “the multiverse” opens the door to an army of favourite foes, with the side benefit of fuelling a fan frenzy.
A cynical strategy aimed at leveraging the Sony Pictures library of content? Sure. But surprisingly, at the centre of this web of cameos and callbacks, is a story that returns Peter Parker to his emotional core.
No Way Home begins by building on the shocking events that capped off the previous film Spider-Man: Far From Home. Defeated and disgraced, the villain Mysterio, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, broadcast Spider-Man’s secret identity to the world — putting Peter Parker’s friends Ned, MJ and Aunt May in danger.
A grumpy wizard and a spell
Never one to have his friends suffer, Peter reaches out to a wizard to try to fix things. Luckily, Doctor Stephen Strange, as played by Benedict Cumberbatch, is just a few New York blocks away. But this time the Master of the Mystical Arts seems strangely ornery, if not downright dickish. Watching Strange bicker with his mystical colleague Wong while the Sanctum Sanctorum is plagued by an indoor snowstorm feels off. (Plus this look isn’t exactly mystical.)
While there’s no satisfying explanation to the smug Strange (although I have my suspicions) a spell to make his secret identity a secret again goes wrong, letting others with a connection to Peter slip through a crack in the cosmos.
While No Way Home starts slow, with Peter and friends trying to adjust to his newfound notoriety, the pace picks up as Spidey faces off against a gauntlet of villains from not one but two separate eras of Spider-Man films.
As mentioned, Molina returns as Doc Ock, clearly milking the mad scientist’s anger and arrogance for maximum enjoyment. From 2014’s The Amazing Spider-Man (starring Andrew Garfield) Jamie Foxx is also back as Max Dillon, a.k.a. Electro, with an upgrade — the dweeby comb-over replaced by a slick fade and new sense of swagger. But for sheer scene-shredding megawatts, no one comes close to the pleasure provided by Willem Dafoe as the Green Goblin.
As opposed to the 2002 version, the new Goblin is less reliant on his cumbersome green combat suit. Dafoe provides all the pyrotechnics with just a sinister look and that familiar cackle.
The bad guys also provide co-writers Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers a chance to poke fun how Marvel villains have evolved, with Parker and his gang giggling at Otto Octavius while pondering the return of another familiar foe they label “the dinosaur man.”
As the convergence of combatants pushes Spider-Man to the brink, it also gives Ned and MJ moments to shine. The formerly mopey MJ as played by Zendaya finds her relationship with Peter on stronger footing as he cautiously prods her into a more optimistic outlook. Jacob Batalon as his best friend Ned gets his own mini-arc as he graduates from being the so-called “guy in the chair” to playing a more critical role.
And then …
Well, true believers … I guess you’ll just have to watch the film to find out.
But let’s pause for a moment to appreciate what director Jon Watts has done with his three films.
Spider-Man: Homecoming. Spider-Man: Far From Home. Spider-Man: No Way Home
The payoff hidden behind those hyphens and colons is a version of the wallcrawler that returns to his roots. Back home if you will.
From his comic book beginnings Peter Parker has always been one of Marvel’s most relatable characters. A scrappy teen — just trying to juggle his life and responsibilities. As the Holland movie version of Spider-Man became a critical linchpin in the MCU, going to space, wrestling a demigod, teaming up with Tony Stark, he lost some of that everyman quality.
Humbled and broken, No Way Home forces the kid from Queens to make tough choices on the kind of hero he wants to be. Spider-Man has always been one of Marvel’s most moral super heroes and this is what Holland brings to the franchise. His kindness. He is a Spider-Man who helps.
What Watts and his writers have conjured with No Way Home isn’t a Spider-Man that’s Amazing, but earnest. For all the fan service the multiverse provides, it’s really a vehicle for Peter to reflect and recalibrate.
When the dust settles, the result is a hero closer to what creators Stan Lee and Steve Ditko originally envisioned. Friendly. Neighbourhood. Spider-Man.