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Spider-Man’s Arc Has Come Full Circle—and Also Back to Square One

A grand Sony-Disney crossover makes sense in the MCU’s multiverse, but ‘No Way Home’ still succumbs to the same approach that tanked Peter Parker’s first two franchises

Marvel/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

One of the biggest unwritten rules in Hollywood is that the best way for a sequel to live up to its predecessor is by doing more of everything. But while there have been some worthy sequels in this mold, bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better—the likes of Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgment Day are the exception rather than the rule. (And, frankly, proved that James “Ocean Master” Cameron is in a blockbuster league of his own.) Nevertheless, that approach has come to define superhero movies this century, practically by design—you can’t get to The Avengers without first laying the foundations of Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger.

Yet when it comes to Spider-Man movies, going bigger has historically bit the character—and not in the “radioactive spider imbuing a teenager with cool powers” type of way. Before Tom Holland’s Peter Parker came under the wing of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as part of an ongoing partnership with Sony Pictures—which still has rights to the character—Sony had two stabs at a Spider-Man franchise, and both fell apart in similar fashion.

The Sam Raimi trilogy, led by Tobey Maguire, got off to a promising start: 2002’s Spider-Man was a gripping origin story for Peter that also provided a worthy adversary in Willem Dafoe’s scenery-chewing turn as the Green Goblin. Its sequel, 2004’s Spider-Man 2, might be held in even higher regard—one of the rare big-budget sequels that does live up to the hype—thanks in large part to Alfred Molina’s affecting work as Doctor Octopus. (The terrifying scene where Doc Ock kills a group of surgeons was also a good reminder that Raimi cut his teeth making kickass horror movies.) Unfortunately, the Raimi trilogy fell apart with 2007’s Spider-Man 3, which overstuffed the film with too many villains—Green Goblin 2.0, the Sandman, Venom—and is mostly remembered for Peter’s infamous attempts at being “cool” while under the (symbiote) influence.

Raimi has been candid about how trying to raise the stakes “doomed” Spider-Man 3, which wasn’t helped by Sony’s reported push for Venom to be included in the movie against the filmmaker’s wishes. Yet the studio didn’t learn its lesson: After rebooting the Spidey IP with Andrew Garfield taking over as Peter, the franchise once again threw in several villains—Electro, Green Goblin, and Rhino—in 2014’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Without the plaudits or fanfare of Raimi’s trilogy to begin with, the Garfield-led series was canceled before it could reach a third film.

Why does this matter for the Tom Holland iteration of the character? Well, anyone with an internet connection should be aware of the intent behind the MCU’s latest Spider-Man entry, No Way Home. With the help of Doctor Strange, the film unleashes the multiverse, which is another way of saying Sony gets to re-live its greatest hits, bringing back Dafoe’s Green Goblin, Molina’s Doc Ock, and Thomas Haden Church’s Sandman from the Raimi trilogy, as well as Jamie Foxx’s Electro and Rhys Ifans’s Lizard from The Amazing Spider-Man series. Together, these villains make up five of the Sinister Six—Venom rounds out the group, but the latest version of the symbiote has more pressing concerns, like falling madly in love with its human host. But No Way Home’s callbacks don’t end with the Spidey villains of yore, as the movie—massive spoiler alert, though who didn’t see this coming?—also revives Maguire’s and Garfield’s Spider-Men ahead of its action-packed, star-studded climax.

That No Way Home can throw all these characters into one film may seem contrived, but to both Sony’s and the MCU’s credit, the crossover event actually makes some sense. The MCU’s Phase 4 is diving into all the mind-bending potential of the multiverse, and Peter’s role in the larger series is no exception. (When Peter asks Doctor Strange to cast a spell to make everyone forget that he’s Spider-Man, it’s very on-brand for an angsty teenager—why the good doctor agrees to this very dumb idea is beyond understanding.) As for what Sony gets out of this arrangement, the studio essentially re-creates the magic of its animated, Oscar-winning Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse—one of the best superhero films of all time—as a live-action blockbuster.

It’s a win-win-win for both studios as well as diehard Spider-Man fans. The affection for the character—an affable underdog who learns, over and over again, that great power comes with great responsibility—doesn’t just translate to ridiculous box office numbers in a pandemic, but widespread critical adoration that largely overlooks No Way Home’s flaws. That’s because, unlike Sony’s most recent blockbuster, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, the sentiment behind nostalgia for Spider-Man is that it feels earned in the context of the film.

But should it feel so earned? No Way Home effectively follows the same arc that undermined Sony’s previous Spider-Man franchises. The messy web of multiverse story lines gets an easy out only by throwing the other movies under the bus while also mining them for nostalgia. Once it’s established that Spidey villains from other universes have entered Peter’s world—and that, by sending them back, the characters are doomed to the fates laid out for them in the previous films—our hero decides that he’s going to reform them in order to break the cycle. (Eventually, Maguire’s and Garfield’s Peters join in on the action.) It’s an interesting idea, but since No Way Home is part of the MCU, it doesn’t meaningfully explore the tragic origins of these villains, instead using the characters as quippy punch lines to point out their flaws—and, by extension, the movies they were a part of. The effect is not unlike watching a snarky CinemaSins breakdown.

The overcrowded nature of the endeavor—with five villains, three Spider-Men, and one Strange doctor—helps explain why No Way Home is an unwieldy 148 minutes, but even that lengthy running time can’t service all the characters. Of the sinister quintet, the Green Goblin is the clear standout: Dafoe’s kinetic Jekyll-and-Hyde routine makes a compelling case that he belongs in the pantheon of superhero movie villains. (Even the MCU’s typically bland fight scenes have a raw and genuinely distressing energy when Dafoe is beating the shit out of Holland’s Peter with his bare hands.) But the rest of the villains fail to shine with a comparatively smaller spotlight; Sandman and Lizard are nothing more than footnotes, while Electro’s new look screams of Foxx not wanting to undergo a goofy makeover again. (Molina, meanwhile, said the quiet part out loud by jokingly explaining that returning as Doc Ock was “just about the money.”)

These aren’t fatal flaws, but they do underline that No Way Home’s déjà vu is caused by more than just returning characters: In the macro, it’s a studio (or, technically, two) trying to one-up itself by continually raising the stakes for Peter, thereby repeating the character’s arc from the previous franchises. No Way Home is unquestionably better than Spider-Man 3 or The Amazing Spider-Man 2, but held up against its MCU predecessors—Homecoming and Far From Home—it does feel like a step back. There’s an underdog charm to Spider-Man, and Holland’s previous entries excelled when they focused on Peter’s high school experiences conflicting with his responsibilities as a superhero. (If anything, Homecoming and Far From Home dragged when the MCU’s big-picture priorities came into view.)

For better or worse, No Way Home is mostly big moments: a collection of throwback villains and Peter Parkers wrapped in a warm blanket of nostalgic fan service. But as a love letter to Spider-Man, the film oddly lacks the very things that have made audiences fall for the character throughout this century—and this seems intentional. Why bother to create memorable moments (or memes) when events from the past can be constantly alluded to? And why satisfy emotional payoffs when characters can just trade one-liners with each other in an effort to afford ironic distance?

If No Way Home does work, it’s because of the groundwork laid by the previous Spider-Man franchises, and the adoration held for both Maguire’s and Garfield’s performances in the lead role. There’s certainly nothing wrong with succumbing to Spidey nostalgia—No Way Home’s box office numbers and near-universal acclaim speak for themselves. But the MCU’s smart decision to mine past affection for the character—and the Raimi trilogy in particular—isn’t a substitute for ingenuity. True to its ominous title, Holland’s Peter Parker can’t go home at the end of the film. But when it comes to Spider-Man as a piece of IP, the nearly 20-year history of the character on the big screen shows how easy it is to go back to square one.