Tom Holland and Benedict Cumberbatch in Spider-Man: No Way Home


[Author's note: Before venturing further, please please please back up and re-read the headline just to make sure you didn't mistake “Spoiler-Filled” for “Spoiler-Free.” I promise not to reveal particulars regarding character deaths (not that, er, there are any … ), but will most definitely discuss character returns, as well as specifics regarding the narrative. If you plan to catch this comic-book blockbuster but haven't yet, I'd suggest returning to the article later. Given the movie's $250-million-plus opening weekend – during a pandemic! – I'm betting most of you can safely forge ahead.]

What follows are opinions, rhetorical questions, and tangents inspired by Spider-Man: No Way Home - director Jon Watts' initially dreary, ultimately exhilarating love letter to Marvel fans - more or less in order of occurrence:

(1) I had heard that No Way Home would begin precisely where 2019's Far from Home ended, and it does, with Mysterio revealing to the world that Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is secretly Spider-Man. We get a brief clip of the villain's prerecorded announcement and I think Oh yeah … Jake Gyllenhaal was in that one! My levels of investment and recall in the Marvel Cinematic Universe are sadly evident from the start.

(2) Following some manic web-slinging through downtown Manhattan and some manic slapstick after everyone learns the truth about our hero's extracurricular activities, there's some manic interrogation of Peter's friends and family by (I'm not kidding) the Department of Damage Control. It's a gas seeing Arian Moayed – a.k.a. Stewy from Succession – as a sarcastic agent. But for the film's first half hour, there's an awful lot of mania, almost none of which is engaging, and even less of which is funny.

(3) Among other Far from Home factoids I'd apparently forgotten was that Peter's Aunt May was having a fling with Stark Industries' Harold “Happy” Hogan. They end things immediately, but while I tend to enjoy him in this role, picturing Jon Favreau romantically involved with Marisa Tomei makes me imagine the woman cast in her own version of an Annie Murphy dramedy: Happy Can F**k Himself.

(4) J.K. Simmons reprises his role as J. Jonah Jameson, who now hosts an InfoWars-style Web series that gets aired on billboard-sized screens in Times Square. It dawns on me that, with Being the Ricardos and National Champions playing in neighboring auditoriums, Simmons is currently appearing in three movies at the Davenport cineplex. Clearly, my attention has started to wander.

(5) My fellow patrons' surprised gasps and applause start early at my screening when Aunt May enlists the services of a blind lawyer. Holy crap – I actually know who this Marvel character is! I watched his Netflix show for a season-and-a-half before getting bored and giving up!

Tom Holland, Zendaya, and Jacob Batalon in Spider-Man: No Way Home

(6) The multiple charges against Peter get dropped. (That blind lawyer is good!). But the press is still everywhere, and Aunt Mary and Happy are sad, and worst of all, Peter, his girlfriend MJ (Zendaya), and his bestie Ned (Jacob Batalon) all get rejection letters from M.I.T. Clearly, there's only one thing for our hero to do: Visit Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and get the man to cast a spell making everyone forget that Peter Parker is Spider-Man. That's right. Peter wants Strange to alter the history of world events because he and his friends didn't get into the college of their choice. While instinctively feeling enormous sympathy for Lori Loughlin, I decide to give Pete a pass on his nitwit plan, because the kid is, after all, 17. It's the fully adult Stephen Strange who should be ashamed for agreeing to Peter's nitwit plan.

(7) Not for nothing, but between No Way Home and September's Shang-Chi, I have to ask: Is this Benedict Wong's new career? Showing up in Marvel movies for two minutes, scoring his requisite fan acknowledgment, and making a hasty inter-dimensional exit?

(8) Strange casts his global-amnesia spell, but Peter keeps changing his mind about what he wants from it, and the good doctor gets so distracted by the teen's nattering that he screws the whole thing up. (Obviously, the guy never taught high-school drama or managed a fast-food restaurant.) Now there are rips in the fabric of time and space, or something, and portals have opened to figures from alternate universes who are already aware of Spider-Man's secret identity. Bring on the multiverses!

(9) Much as I was hoping that Kirsten Dunst would show up, if only to get even with Cumberbatch for his treatment of her in The Power of the Dog, it appears, at first, that only bad guys are allowed to slip into this particular Spider-Verse. Consequently, in short order, we're reunited with Alfred Molina's Doctor Octopus, Willem Dafoe's Green Goblin, Jamie Foxx's Electro, Thomas Haden Church's Sandman, and Rhys Ifans' Lizard. Now the fun legitimately begins, even though I'm having a hard time remembering which Spider-Man movie those last three nemeses appeared in. (To be honest, I had forgotten about Lizard entirely.) It's a hoot watching them all employ their powers and gadgetry again, but I'm even more awed by the effects that I'm reasonably sure didn't involve any CGI whatsoever. How does Molina look exactly like he did 17 years ago? How does Dafoe look younger than he looked 19 years ago?!

Alfred Molina in Spider-Man: No Way Home

(10) Spidey and his pals eventually get all the villains contained in the doctor's dungeon, and Strange casts another spell that will return everyone to their respective universes, and he places that spell in a box. (I'm still not kidding.) Peter, however, realizes that most of them will die – again – if sent back, and argues that instead of effectively killing the bad guys, they should try to cure them. This is such a wonderfully sweet Tom Holland Spider-Man thing to want to do. So, naturally, Strange is against the plan. This dude's logic is truly all over the map.

(11) Spider-Man steals the box. Doctor Strange can't get it back. Yes: This superhero who can bend time and space to his will can't pry a box from the hands of a 17-year-old. Finally, Spidey traps Strange in a mirror dimension, and I think Love ya, Sherlock, but good riddance.

(12) Another tangential thought, as the Brits must have had occasional down time on the set together: Couldn't Molina have offered Cumberbatch a few lessons on replicating a decent American accent?

(13) Let's cure us some baddies! Doc Ock is first. And for the first (but hardly last) time in No Way Home, I'm getting teary-eyed, because Molina's expression as the hate and anger drain from his face constitutes some of the finest non-verbal acting any Marvel movie has yet produced. Suddenly, the notion of Holland's, Molina's, and the others' characters all stepping out for brunch sounds enormously appealing. Alas …

(14) … Dafoe has to go and be all asshole-y again. Lots of stuff happens. Lots of debris piles up. And by the end of the villains' massive assault, I'm now openly weeping, if not nearly as audibly as the patron sitting a row behind me who's muttering “No no no no no … .” Have I mentioned just how good the acting is in this thing? For audiences who exist primarily on a movie diet of Marvel flicks, at least they're generally getting stellar performances for their money, and what Holland and Tomei do in this sequence ranks up there with their best-ever screen work. That's saying something.

(15) Enough misery. This crowd deserves some relief! And shrieks of delight! And spontaneous ovations that bathe the auditorium in a joyous warmth I literally haven't felt at the cineplex in more than two years! Ladies and gentlemen … Andrew Garfield! (The rumors were true!) He's as Garfield-Peter-y as you remember, and maybe more so; the guy's exuberance suggests that he's going to launch into an upbeat tick … tick … Boom! solo any second now. But just when you think you're about as happy at a movie as you've ever been: Ladies and gentlemen …

(16) … Tobey Maguire!!! He looks older, of course, but not that much older, and the sight of him and Garfield together is more than enough to get my inner comics-geek turning cartwheels. If only Holland were around to make the magic complete.

(17) Hey, there he is! Our Spider-Men now need to round up some bad guys. But before they do – and God bless screenwriters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers for stopping their narrative cold for this conversation – Team Peter is allowed to spend a few minutes swapping life histories and tales from their respective universes … and Holland and Garfield need to grill Maguire about where exactly his sticky web-slinger goo is coming from. (It just shoots out like that? Does it fly outta anywhere besides his wrists?) In the comic-book-flick canon, this scene, I hope, is already legendary. It reminds you of how minutely specific performance choices can make even the broad concept of “heroic and adorable nerd” so vastly different for theoretically similar actors, and makes you want to immediately re-assess all of the previous Spider-Man films. Well … maybe not all of them.

Tom Holland in Spider-Man: No Way Home

(18) “I'm number three!” This agreeably resigned retort delivered with a slight head shake – basically the Tony winner's admission that he's always been a super-fan's least-favorite Peter Parker – might be the single most endearing throwaway of Andrew Garfield's career. And I'm including the actor's goofy little Caribbean Night dance in The Social Network.

(19) It's battle royale time. But in a smashing change of pace, this particular half-hour isn't at all dull. Partly, that's due to the kick of seeing three Spider-Men teaming up to fight five worthy opponents, all of whom are also worthy actors. Partly, it's because the Spider-Men sincerely don't want to hurt their adversaries – they just want to inject them with a serum, or something, that'll turn them nice. But mostly, it's because of the genuine affection you have for Holland, Garfield, and Maguire both individually and as a unit. We're always supposed to root for superheroes, but when was the last time an action-packed comic-book climax was prefaced by a three-way bro hug and someone saying, “I love you guys”? Go get 'em, Spideys!

(20) Garfield and Zendaya: “Are you okay?” / “Are you okay?” A callback to the most upsetting moment – and one of the most memorably staged – in any Spider-Man movie handled with subtly devastating emotion. The patron behind me is now practically keening. I'd roll my eyes if I wasn't close to keening myself.

(21) Watts' action choreography at the finale is swift and inventive, if also a little aggressively grandiose. Not sure we needed the Latin-sounding wailing chants on the soundtrack, as that style of singing always sends my mind to Team America: World Police. But by now I'm too enraptured to really care.

(22) An excellent shout-out to the animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse – as if there weren't plenty of those already! – when Electro expresses surprise that Peter Parker isn't Black, and says, wistfully, that maybe multiverses are expansive enough for a Black Spider-Man to actually exist somewhere. It's a charming, touching, funny moment … . But hang on. When Doctor Strange's spell went awry, didn't he say that the portal was opened only to people who knew Spider-Man's identity as Peter Parker? Because what Jamie Foxx is saying makes me think he doesn't know Peter at all! Eh. Best to ignore it. I've come this far.

(23) A fantastic ending. (Zendaya also belongs on that list of outrageously awesome Marvel actors.) And once I got over the hump of the prelude to the villains' arrival, a pretty freaking fantastic entertainment overall. I'd gladly watch Spider-Man: No Way Home again, and I don't say that about many MCU offerings. I hope you had as great a time as I did.

Wait. That's only 23 thoughts on a list of 25. What else is there to cover?

Oh ri-i-i-ight. The obligatory credit cookies.

(24) Boo! Venom ruins everything.

(25) Yay! Marvel hasn't forgotten about Rachel McAdams!

Rooney Mara and Bradley Cooper in Nightmare Alley


Another movie had the nerve to open in wide release against Spider-Man, and as a counter-programming move, Nightmare Alley seemed like an outstanding alternative for a grown-up's dollars. Consider its pedigree: The film is a remake of a much-admired 1947 noir that gave Tyrone Power one of his finest Hollywood leads. The director is Guillermo del Toro, who also co-wrote the script, and whose last film The Shape of Water snagged Academy Awards for Best Directing and Best Picture. The cast is headlined by eight-time Oscar nominee Bradley Cooper, with additional roles for fellow nominees and winners Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Toni Collette, Richard Jenkins, David Strathairn, Mary Steenburgen, and Willem Dafoe. (Hey – Dafoe's in the new Spider-Man, too! Take that, J.K. Simmons!) Plus, as its trailers promised, this dark-hearted dramatic thriller about a carny hustler turned charlatan mentalist is flooded with del Toro's trademark visual magnificence, boasting evocatively squalid and extravagantly regal sets and images so delectable that you'd consider eating them if you weren't certain you'd wind up with ptomaine poisoning. So how did Nightmare Alley ultimately fare opposite No Way Home? Let's just say that, on opening weekend, del Toro's domestic gross was roughly 1.2 percent of what the web-slinger raked in. And I'd certainly be more disheartened by that if del Toro's movie was good.

In my defense, or perhaps just my defensiveness, I wasn't really into The Shape of Water, either, or Pacific Rim, or Crimson Peak, or the Hellboys. (Sorry, comic-book fans.) Truthfully, the only del Toro movies I've genuinely enjoyed were the Mexican filmmaker's foreign-language Pan's Labyrinth and The Devil's Backbone, so maybe my problem isn't with del Toro, but with the guy's tin ear when his casts are speaking English. Because it's the weirdest thing: Del Toro releases always look spectacular, but they're generally inert when it comes time for them to actually tell a story. Nightmare Alley is arresting and alive when we're simply marveling at the 1937 circus re-creations and gawking at the rubber-band man or the geek who bites the heads off chickens. Yet most of the gifted performers don't seem appropriately period – their hesitancy and stilted line deliveries don't really suggest any period – and when someone does fully commit to the noir, as Blanchett absolutely does, the stylization feels phony and repetitive; whether the actors are giving too much or not enough, it becomes all too easy to tune out on the dialogue. Cooper, of course, is inherently charismatic, even if it's odd that the 46-year-old's scam artist, here, is continually called “kid” and “young buck,” and Strathairn and Jenkins have their moments. Del Toro's lethargic pacing and unusually drab compositions, though, dull your interest in even the expert contributions, and when some energy is finally generated via the director's penchant for ultra-violence, it's too little, too late. Nightmare Alley should've been a sharp, vicious blast. Running an obscenely protracted two-and-a-half hours, it's more like a bad yet boring dream you're eager to wake from.

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