The Parker Luck
If you’re a filmmaker tasked with adapting a comic book character to film, your initial thought might be, “How can I prevent the fans from having me drawn and quartered?” The first thing you should do is hire an Israeli security team because I hear they’re the best. The second is to be mindful of the core concepts in the character’s personality.*
Planning to make a Superman movie? He’s a guy compelled to help, and portraying him as a surly jerk is a fundamental misunderstanding of the character. Planning to adapt Thor? Whether you go serious or mythic, the God of Thunder has to have swagger. You can still play with the tone of your piece, but you have to remember that some characters have more flexibility than others. The Batman we see in the brooding The Dark Knight is still sort of the same guy who stars in the delightfully silly The LEGO Batman Movie. As a character, you can do more with Bats than you can with, say, Captain America.
That brings us to Peter Parker. Ask the average person, “Who is Spider-Man?” They’ll mostly tell you he’s a guy who wall-crawls and wears a bodysuit that doesn’t leave much to the imagination. That tells us what he does, but the core concept of who Spider-Man is is his galactically terrible luck. Spidey will get a cold while chasing down a mugger in the rain. He’ll ghost a woman he’s interested in because he’s busy getting punched in the face by The Vulture. He’ll lose his mask and have to fight crime wearing a paper bag over his head. Does The Flash have to deal with this stuff? Not so much.
The itsy-bitsy spider gets washed down the drain, then tries, again and again, to climb back up. So it is with Spider-Man. Sam Raimi’s mostly well-regarded trilogy remembered that. The Marvel Cinematic Universe mostly forgot it, until recently. As overstuffed and occasionally sloppy as the newest film, Spider-Man: No Way Home happens to be, it always remembers that Spider-Man is the most flawed and most human of all the citizens of the MCU
Things begin where they ended in Spider-Man: Far From Home, as master of illusion and scumbag extraordinaire Mysterio reveals Spider-Man’s identity of Peter Parker (Tom Holland) to, oh, pretty much the planet. This is not ideal for Peter, as the news media led by obnoxious vlogger J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons) is now crawling up his nose and law enforcement is itching to hit him with a bunch of charges. It’s also not ideal for Pete’s best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) and girlfriend MJ (Zendaya), since their association with him is torpedoing their potential college admission.**
Legally speaking, Peter is screwed. There’s pretty much nowhere on the planet he can go, and yet it occurs to him that his solution might not be on this plane of existence. So he knocks on the door of his…maybe not friend, but colleague Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch). The good doctor has a gift for lateral thinking and a predilection for the mystic arts. An obscure spell he knows would erase the memory of Peter’s alter ego from the memories of everyone in the world.
Naturally, Peter leaps at the idea, and naturally, the spell is almost immediately screwed up when Peter decides he actually wants MJ, Ned, his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), and presumably the rest of the surviving Avengers to know whose mug is under the webbed mask. Let’s take a moment to applaud Dr. Strange’s self-restraint for not immediately turning Peter inside-out or exiling him to a particularly unpleasant hell dimension.
Anyway, things get even more confusing with the arrival of a man on the Queensboro Bridge, a man with giant metal tentacles grafted to his body. This is Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), who was just in the middle of fighting…well, maybe not this Spider-Man, but a similar dude of the arachnid persuasion. He’s very angry with Peter, and he’s only the first of Peter’s problems.
The hype surrounding Spider-Man: No Way Home has been almost omnipresent, promising a cinematic experience that’s nothing short of transcendent. Is it the best Spidey movie ever made? Nope, that would be the face-meltingly awesome Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Along similar lines, the best Peter Parker movie ever made is Spider-Man 2. No Way Home doesn’t quite hit those heights, but director Jon Watts sure swings for the fences. He’s made a well-shot and sort-of-well-edited film designed to be a crowd-pleasing machine. While the first act starts up energetically, there’s more than a little bloat in the second act, bloat that the aforementioned Spider-Verse elegantly disposed of. Yet once I began thinking, “Geez, could we get on with it?” the third act stomps on the gas. It has high action, high emotion, and leaves the character of Spider-Man in an interesting place.
I’ll take a moment to promise that I won’t get into spoilers, and holy God in heaven are there a lot of spoilers. What I will say is that from a production standpoint, No Way Home is astounding. A number of things needed to happen, a number of elements needed to click into place just so, and most people would have confidently assured us that those could never happen. They did. Like the movie or not, it moved mountains.
What makes a good Spider-Man story? All you need is a single element, really. At some point, Peter needs to make a choice and both of his options need to suck. He can make his date or he can pursue the bad guy. In two out of his three Spider-Man movies, Sam Raimi fundamentally understood this. In both of his Spider-Man movies, Marc Webb did not understand this. It took a minute, but screenwriters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers*** get it. First, we see the old Parker luck. Sometimes Peter catches a bad break, yet more often he leaps before he looks and has to deal with the consequences. He’s a teenaged kid, though one with a high profile and superpowers, so his mistakes tend to be as big as his heroism.
McKenna and Sommers also shine more of a light on Peter’s compassion, a trait he’ll fall back on even if it’ll screw him later. Peter doesn’t want to kick bad guys in the head, he wants to help, and if he can do that with a conversation, he’s good with it. Compassion doesn’t appear too often in blockbusters, and I like that it’s prominently featured here. The screenplay doesn’t step on the emotion to lunge for a joke quite as much as past MCU projects, and it feels like a better balance is being reached.
Just like in the last two installments, the cast fires on all cylinders. I continue to enjoy Tom Holland as Peter. He’s someone who truly wants to do the right thing, and he’s learning that despite his intentions, his actions have consequences. While his Spider-Man isn’t quite the traditional wiseass that I enjoy, Holland gets this character. I was more impressed that a couple of old pros like Willem Dafoe and Alfred Molina got to take another crack at their iconic villain roles and found new sides to them. As the cackling maniac Norman Osborn, Dafoe isn’t exactly subtle, though he doesn’t need to be. He’s having great fun and his enthusiasm is infectious. Instead of pure evil, Molina’s Otto Octavius is fueled by rage and resentment (and some troublesome technology). As a theater guy, Molina knows how to go broad while staying smart, and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute he was on screen.
If the internet has taught us anything, it’s that any filmmaker who tries to bring a beloved comic book character to life risks incurring the wrath of rabid fans. Those same fans will eagerly give COVID the finger and stampede for the earliest showing of Spider-Man: No Way Home. I can’t blame them. Despite a lot of bloat, the film is a joyous cinematic celebration of a certain wall-crawler.
*That’s assuming the character is popular and has an active fan base. If you’re a comic book nerd, you’ve probably noticed that the cranky SpecOps guy in the MCU running around with a bow and arrow bears almost no resemblance to the lovable screwup in the comics. That’s because the character Hawkeye is not what I would call popular, and I say that as a fan of Hawkeye.
**Despite everything, the stakes are charmingly low at times. A different film would have had every crook, mobster, and ne’er-do-well in New York City coming out of the woodwork for a piece of Peter.
***Sommers and McKenna mostly got the hang of Peter in Homecoming, yet lost some of his character in Far From Home.