Be careful what you wish for, it might just come true. This classic refrain is a central theme of Spider-Man: No Way Home, the final in Jon Watts and Tom Holland’s MCU trilogy. Unintended consequences is such an important piece that Steven Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) even utters the line to Holland’s Peter Parker when the story tries to unravel. Beyond the screen though, it’s a warning for the fans who spent years desperately hoping for some of the things this film delivers.
**MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD FOR SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME**
It can be tough to remember the world before Iron-Man (2008) but at that time basically only 3 different superhero franchises with any individual staying power: Batman, Superman and Spider-Man. So much of the MCU has been built around interconnecting characters, but when Peter Parker joined the mix for his own solo film, the decision to lower the stakes significantly payed off. Homecoming was fun and insightful into the trials of a young kid coming to terms with power he didn’t yet know how to handle as he fought a local baddie with strong motivations. It even avoided the tiresome origin story tropes of other versions.
Watts took inspiration from classic John Hughes films (The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller) for Homecoming and expanded on the humor and breezy elements with Far From Home. Those films were as much about high school sweethearts as they were about saving the world, so the decision to cap out this trilogy with a multiversal madhouse of a film, packed with fan favorite characters and nostalgia seemed like an odd escalation from the start.
And nostalgia packed it was. Like a child who fills up on sweets before dinner, Spider-Man: No Way Home indulges in so much fan service that it loses any appetite for the narrative it should be pursuing. That narrative thread was in place too. Watts and the writers for the whole trilogy, Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, set themselves up at the end of Far From Home to finish their coming of age superhero story.
Picking up right where we left off at the end of Far From Home, No Way Home finds Peter scrambling in the aftermath of Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) revealing his secret identity to the world. Already suffering the loss of his mentor and father figure Tony Stark, Peter has now been betrayed by a man he thought could help fill Stark’s shoes as a mentor for the young hero. With his world crumbling around him, facing legal trouble over Mysterio’s death and the blacklisting of he and his friends from colleges, Peter turns to another potential mentor: Doctor Strange.
Peter is still facing his problems like a child, seeking to undo the damage rather than face up to it. He asks Strange to cast a spell that would erase the world’s memory of his being Spider-Man, but in a magical MacGuffin-y turn of events the spell backfires and draws in the web slinger’s most famous villains from across the Sony Spider-Verse.
At this point, it’s clear that intention number one for Spider-Man: No Way Home exists to satisfy a nostalgia kick. Alfred Molina, Jamie Foxx and Willem Dafoe (Doc Ock, Electro and Green Goblin, respectively) elevate most any movie they’re in, and do so here, but let’s not pretend like their acting prowess is the reason they show up. Even so, the inclusion of all these villains actually works for longer than could reasonably be expected. Each of them has competing motivations, avoiding the chaos of an all out 5 against 1 battle Peter can’t handle. Rather, he has the power to send the bad guys back to their respective universes to die but chooses to help them instead. For a brief, beautiful moment it appears as if Peter will finally become the hero he has so long sought out in others.
Alas, that is not what the fans wanted. Unsatisfied with, or perhaps spurred on by, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, the people demanded more Spider-Men. So powerful was the nostalgia of kids who grew up on the Sam Raimi and Marc Webb Spider-films that No Way Home sold more tickets in advance of its release than any film outside Avengers: Endgame.
Sony and Marvel did not disappoint in this regard. Essentially handing over control of the story to some Spider-Man subreddit, Watts and his team made a film that has no apparent purpose beyond providing big applause lines and reveals every few minutes. Everything the rabid fans online wanted happens with little suspense. Daredevil (Charlie Cox) makes a rather inoffensive cameo appearance as Peter’s lawyer, Miles Morales gets a shoutout, Venom (Tom Hardy) sort of enters the universe and, of course, Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire suit up alongside Tom Holland.
There’s nothing wrong with giving die hard fans something to be excited about, but it should be in service of the story at hand. Daredevil shows up in a throwaway scene to say that Peter’s legal troubles will go away and to catch a brick. Morales is the punchline of a joke. Worst of all though, the previous Spider-Men appear and hijack the whole film.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s entertaining in spurts to see these different iterations of the character joking around with one another. Andrew Garfield especially acquits himself nicely in a film more worthy of his talents, Tobey Maguire less so. Once the alternate Peters show up, No Way Home stops being about Tom Holland’s character fully actualize into a selfless hero and becomes about making amends for things that happened in a totally different universe of films. This is not Peter B. Parker teaching Miles Morales what it means to be a hero in Into the Spider-Verse.
Garfield finally gets to save the girl, Maguire gets to save his mentor turned nemesis. All great moments for people left cold by the way those franchises finished, but this all comes at the expense of Holland’s protagonist. Watts and his team so lose the plot that they put the hero of their film, the one who has spent three chapters growing into a noble warrior for good, in the position of sincerely attempting to kill Green Goblin. He has to be stopped by Maguire’s Spider-Man! All the growth this character has experienced handed thrown out to give a big moment to someone that had his own trilogy.
Everyone was excited to see the Spider-Man they grew up with back on screen. Nostalgia is powerful for a reason, but these characters had their moments on the big screen already. Peter Parker of the MCU got the short end of the stick throughout this film and doubly so in the conclusion. When it came time to send everyone home, this Peter didn’t even get the chance to live up to any growth he was supposed to have had. Another Dr. Strange magic MacGuffin forced the world to forget Peter Parker, robbing him of the conclusion to his arc mirroring Tony Stark. Instead of being forced to live as a hero under the scrutiny of the world, his identity known, the franchise essentially reset back to an anonymous Peter with no MJ. Much of the emotional work of the Watts trilogy swept aside.
Spider-Man: No Way Home, although not a Disney/Marvel film, is the distillation of the MCU ethos. Character building set aside for broader connections to other properties and set ups for sequels (Tom Holland isn’t going anywhere) and spinoffs. The mid and post credit scenes set up Venom in the MCU and reveal the first Doctor Strange: Multiverse of Madness trailer in full. It’s a frustrating let down for an iteration of this character that was ready to fully actualize. But hey, at least the fans got what they wished for: to see Tobey Maguire’s wooden portrayal of Spider-Man one more time. 5/10