written by Auden Chamberlain
Spider-Man: No Way Home has just recorded the second-largest opening weekend at the US box office of all time (behind only Avengers: Endgame). Within just eight days of release, it’s not only become the highest grossing Spider-Man film, but also Sony’s highest grossing film ever – in the midst of a pandemic.
Sony and Marvel Studios have a tumultuous relationship when it comes to the ownership of Spider-Man, and No Way Home somehow simultaneously feels like a both an epic resolution to those relationship problems whilst also monetary proof that those problems will never go away. Owning the film rights for Spider-Man, Sony brought massive universal box office appeal of superhero films into the 21st century with Sam Raimi’s trilogy starring Tobey Maguire. But there’s a singular honesty to those films that feel practically old fashioned today compared to the relentless machine that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and after Christopher Nolan revolutionised superhero filmmaking with the dark tone and more grounded nature of Batman Begins (2005), Raimi’s films were just too genuine to survive.
After the mixed reviews of Spider-Man 3 (2007) and growing issues in the creative partnership with Raimi, Sony made the decision to reboot the franchise, attempting to compete with the critical acclaim of Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy and the emerging box office behemoth of The Avengers. The result was The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), a re-tread of Raimi’s films but lacking any of the stylistic flair or dynamic character. The supposedly dark and grounded take on the character comes off dour and skittish with attempts to add some colour and fun in the 2014 sequel feeling inconsistent and ridiculous. Perhaps indicative of how director Marc Webb had only made the rom-com (500) Days Of Summer before signing on to make the $200 million+ film, he heavily leans on the chemistry between lead actors Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, an admittedly very watchable clutch that produced two mildly successful entries before Sony pulled the plug.
At this point Sony relented, with a new iteration of the character played by Tom Holland making his debut in Captain America: Civil War (2016) under the creative stewardship of Marvel Studios and Kevin Feige, leading to a collaborative effort between the studios to produce a highly successful new trilogy of films directed by Jon Watts within the Marvel Cinematic Universe culminating in No Way Home.
Sony still haven’t given up on their own separate Spider-Man related universe and have found massive success independently – Venom: Let There Be Carnage outgrossed all three Marvel Studios films this year. But with the character of Spider-Man it feels the studios are bound together now – a divorced couple forced to keep it civil for the sake of their child.
With No Way Home, the creative team use Spider-Man’s decidedly expansive and overcomplicated history on screen to their advantage. With a plot involving the limitless possibilities of the multiverse, villains from different timelines find themselves in the world of Tom Holland’s Peter Parker, leaving him with the difficult task of sending them back whilst also wrestling with his unmasking to the public at the end of the previous film. It’s a plot allowing for exploration of what it means to be the figure of Spider-Man, with more introspection than previous entries in Holland’s tenure, and the film can heavily focus on Peter as a character by utilising the cheat code of ready-made, previously developed villains.
There’s a self-awareness that no-one was going to top Alfred Molina as Doctor Octopus or Willem Dafoe as Green Goblin, so accepting that futility and bringing them back is simple but effective. Whilst the film is heavily relying on nostalgia and the character work of previous films, it still creates new layers and keeps them consistent to their previous appearances, with Dafoe in particular relishing the opportunity to add new levels of sadistic evil to his interpretation of the Green Goblin and cement his status as one of the great superhero villains.
Whilst there are arguably tiring elements to the relentless call-backs and references, there are worse things than watching something desperate to entertain and give you exactly what you want. It does perhaps feel a shame that the filmmakers didn’t feel the need to copy the more visually creative elements of the previous entries. There are some striking moments such as an anxiety inducing interpretation of the ‘spidey-sense’ that cleverly utilises SnorriCam rigging and deafened sound design, but it feels unforgivable that the final battle is a dark and muddy looking clash on some scaffolding.
The introductory bridge fight with Doctor Octopus in this film feels vastly inferior and less dynamic than the train set-piece in Spider-Man 2 which is almost 20 years old, and even an action scene in Doctor Strange’s mirror dimension feels decidedly lacking in magic.
In that way No Way Home feels indistinguishable from the colourless dirge that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and that lack of visual spark certainly feels like a barrier for the Holland films to truly make an impact, especially when compared to the bright comic-book excitement of Maguire and even the charismatic POV-Swinging of Garfield.
But the made-by-committee nature of the Marvel machine doesn’t take away from the superficial but undeniable and relentless entertainment value of this entry, and the bittersweet note it ends on leaves you intrigued and excited.
No Way Home certainly isn’t on the same distinguished level as Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 which explored similar themes, but it does successfully provide a massive spectacle of entertainment that somewhat ironically would not be possible without the silly and borderline embarrassing corporate studio wars behind the scenes. Where Sony and Marvel Studios relationship will take us next is yet to be revealed, but at the very least No Way Home ends on an exciting note for the future, but even if it all imploded now this feels like a fitting, all-encompassing conclusion.
Auden Chamberlain is a first-year Politics and Sociology student. As well as writing film reviews, he enjoys playing guitar and is secretary for Band and Gig Society. For more film related writing, you can follow him on Letterboxd: @arjchamberlain.