At just nineteen, Tom Holland became the first actor who actually was a teenager when Marvel Studios decided to explore the teen years of Peter Parker aka Spider-Man, with an initial appearance in Captain America: Civil War (2016) followed by Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017). The solo outing not only focused entirely on the High School years of ole web-head but was a tremendous success, both financially and as the first partnership between Marvel Studios and Sony/Columbia Pictures who had retained movie rights to the character since the nineties.
Now that Spidey was officially on loan to the MCU, he could interact with such legendary heroes as Iron Man, Captain America, The Avengers, The Guardians of the Galaxy and play a role in defending the Earth from the universal threat of Thanos in films like Avengers: Infinity War (2018). Homecoming was a charming effort, a lesson in humility for Peter Parker, keeping his head out of the clouds and his feet on the ground, back in the neighborhood. With success comes ambition and after being snapped back into existence with half of humanity in Avengers: Endgame (2019), Marvel took Spider-Man out of his hometown and on a world tour with a European class trip in Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019). That film saw our hero trust too easily in the enigmatic Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) and the end result was his secret identity exposed to the world.
The problem with Tom Holland’s Peter Parker is that he doesn’t seem to be learning anything. His character doesn’t appear to mature with each new film, making it difficult to identify or even sympathize with him. The filmmakers seem to be aware of this and have crafted a story where an irrevocable lapse in judgment results in the wake-up call he desperately needs. It’s a noble effort and an attempt to fashion a solid dramatic arc for the character, but it feels forced and the execution is poor.
The evil machinations of Mysterio at the conclusion of the last film not only revealed Spider-Man‘s identity but painted him as a hero and ole webhead as a villain. Though he has the friendship of Happy Hogan (John Favreau), the support of Aunt May (Marissa Tomei) and schoolmate Ned (Jacob Batalon), and the blossoming love of MJ (Zendaya), Peter still fears for his own safety and that of those close to him. In an act of desperation, he seeks out fellow New Yorker Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) in the hopes that the Sorcerer Supreme can erase the knowledge of his identity from the world. Strange obliges, performing a spell which Peter soon protests when he learns that those close to him will also forget he is Spider-Man. (As someone with a photographic memory and attention to minutiae, how the hell could Strange forget to mention such an important detail beforehand?) Peter’s protests inadvertently result in the spell causing a crack in the fabric of the multiverse. Soon after, familiar villains from Spider-Man films of the past begin to appear throughout the city.
If you’ve seen the trailers or promotions for the film then it’s not a spoiler that veteran actors like Alfred Molina, and Willem Dafoe return to their iconic roles from previous Spider-Man features. Those films featured other actors in the role of Spider-Man and were unrelated to each other and the MCU. Or so we thought. Through either make-up or digital de-aging, it’s remarkable how well this rogues gallery of villains pick up almost where they all left off. The strongest performances of course belong to Molina as Otto Octavius a.k.a. Doctor Octopus, who has succumbed to the “voices in his head”, the A.I. system that controls his four tentacles. And Dafoe’s Norman Osborne, a.k.a. The Green Goblin, a military scientist gone mad due to the effects of a strength-enhancing gas. With 2004’s Spiderman 2 considered to be one of the best superhero films ever made, Molina has always been the most sympathetic of Spidey’s foes theatrically. “Doc Ock” is not truly evil, just maniacally driven and obsessed with perfecting his inventions. And yet Molina manages to bring humor to the role, coming across as annoyed with the nuisance that is Spider-man. Dafoe actually takes his Green Goblin to even darker territory than he did in the original 2002 Spiderman film. His inclusion was almost a second chance for him to tweak his character to be more in line with the Goblin from the comics, methodical, sinister, and manipulative. It’s such manipulation that plays a role in Spider-man’s downfall, where trying to do the right thing results in tragedy.
There’s strong dramatic material to be found here, particularly how Peter tries to see the best in people and through the guidance of his Aunt May, save those who either don’t want to be saved or can’t. It’s his impulsive nature that is difficult to identify with. Repeatedly, characters throughout the film admit they keep forgetting he’s “just a kid”, but after playing a role in saving the neighborhood, the Earth, the Universe, has this kid learned anything? One of the best parts of Homecoming is where Robert Downey Jr. ‘s Tony Stark strips Spider-man of the enhanced suit he’s created for him, forcing this kid to rely on a homemade costume stitched from scraps but most importantly his wits. Yet in Far From Home, he decides to hand over lethal drone technology, inherited from Stark to Gyllenhaal’s Mysterio, because he seems like a good man. Well that “good man” not only caused destruction for personal gain and fame, but framed Peter for his murder. In No Way Home, the far more experienced Sorcerer Supreme tries to explain to Peter what needs to be done to rectify the developing problem they’ve created, yet again, this kid wants to do things his way.
Yes, Spider-Man is a flawed hero who’s made more than his fair share of mistakes in the comics, but the more time Holland spends portraying him, the more he looks like a complete dumbass. What’s worse is that the filmmakers punch too many holes in the dramatic groundwork they are trying to lay with too much humor. Returning as Electro from The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014), Jamie Foxx is given a chance to re-invent his villain who thrives on and manipulates electricity, but unfortunately, he’s here only to provide humor and not much menace. The slapstick comedy from Batalon’s Ned and Favreau’s Happy is a lot more unbearable this time around and although they’ve recently been revealed as a real-life couple, Zendaya and Holland have no on-screen chemistry. The awkwardness between them just isn’t cute anymore.
Where No Way Home does soar is an aspect of the film that would be a spoiler to reveal here. If you’ve been tracking this movie for the last few months then it would be no secret to you the surprises that arise in the second act. They are almost worth sitting through the 75-minutes of slapstick and melodrama that precedes them and come in like a breath of fresh air. A much-needed touch of the familiar. If only there were a lot more of these surprises and the film slowed down just a bit more to give us time to savor and enjoy them, before rushing off to a final battle. Like so many action-packed climaxes in so many Spider-Man films, why do the heroes and villains always have to battle at a vertical location high above ground? Yes, he is the world’s most famous wall-crawler, but every fight Iron Man engaged in wasn’t set in the sky despite the fact that he can fly. One notable and exciting action sequence is that of Doctor Strange confronting Spidey within the space and time-twisting realm of the mirror universe.
Despite what you may have read, it doesn’t look like Tom Holland is done with playing Spider-man or done with the MCU. Money talks, good or bad, this film looks to be the most anticipated of the year and perhaps the first to break $1 Billion at the box office during this new Covid era. Though this film has its shortcomings, Holland’s Spider-man is changed by its conclusion. Whether that’s good or bad, we won’t learn until the character’s next outing, but it could possibly be a promising one. Bring on “the College Years”.