Spoilers ahead, obviously!
I’m not sure younger people (oh man, I sound like that now) quite understand what the movie-going experience was like at the time when 2002’s Spider-Man and the following year’s Pirates of the Caribbean came on the scene. Yes, Star Wars and prior Spielberg films dominated the box office and generated a lot of buzz, but I think it’s fair to say that both of those aforementioned films were game-changers for the movie-going experience and the resulting box office receipts.
While 2002’s Spider-Man wasn’t a billion dollar film as we’ve come to expect from big blockbusters and particularly superhero films, I think it’s the forefather to the billion dollar film and other superhero films doing well.
Because you have to remember, films prior to 2002 and 2003 weren’t opening to those sorts of single-day and weekend numbers. It was a new phenomenon. Before then, a film would simply make a lot of money for many weeks at a time for a very long time and accrue a huge gross. Spider-Man, Pirates and others, changed the game: Now, the opening weekend … the opening day … the midnight screening became king.
For comparison’s sake of how much the game (and inflation) has changed, Spider-Man opened to a record-breaking $39.41 million on its opening day (broken by Spider-Man 2 two years later). That seems like chump change now. Spider-Man: No Way Home just opened to $121 million on a single day. Yes, $121 million. Even adjusting for the 2002’s record-breaking figure for inflation, that still represents only $61 million (rounding up).
Yeah, the movie-going experience and the resulting box office has changed enormously. I say all of this to say: Toby Maguire’s Spider-Man was my Spider-Man. He was the one my 11-year-old self and then my 13-year-old self and then my 16-year-old self was hyped for. I have distinct theater memories of the anticipation around Spider-Man 2 finally coming out and seeing it and loving it with my friends. I have distinct theater memories of finally seeing Spider-Man 3 and being disappointed about it with my friends, ha.
And when they re-cast the role only five years later, I thought, I don’t know about that. But I loved the 2012 and 2014 Amazing Spider-Man films and feel like Andrew Garfield was as perfect for the role of Peter Parker and Spider-Man as Maguire was. I think those two films are rather underrated now.
Then, they re-cast the role again to make Spider-Man part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which you can’t knock any move that would make Spider-Man part of the MCU and have him teaming up with the Avengers. Still, that’s a third man behind slinging the webs within one decade.
Yet, how you can not be in love with Tom Holland?! He plays both Parker and Spider-Man perfectly and perhaps nails the Parker side of it better than either of his predecessors. I think he best embodies the idea that Spider-Man really is just a teenager trying to do his best while juggling typical teenager problems, like in No Way Home, with college admissions and his girlfriend.
All of this wind-up makes sense, I promise, because the basic premise of the film, coming off the heels of 2019’s Spider-Man: Far From Home is that Parker has been outed as Spider-Man by Mysterio, and even worse, people think he murdered Mysterio.
So, to reverse course, Peter comes up with the idea that Doctor Strange could make everyone forget that he’s Spider-Man, but then he realizes, wait, I don’t want my girlfriend to forget me. Or my best friend Ned. Or my Aunt May. Or Happy. And before you know it, he’s messed up Doctor Strange’s spell and ripped the fabric of the multiverse (an idea explored in great detail by the MCU TV series Loki, which I previously reviewed), unleashing villains we’ve seen in prior Spider-Man films into this universe.
We get Norman Osborn/Green Goblin (played by the absolute legend and show-stealer, Willem Dafoe), who is the OG Spider-Man villain, Otto Octavius/Doctor Octopus (played by the returning Alfred Molina as well!) from the second Spider-Man film, Flint Marko/Sandman (played by Thomas Haden Church) from the third Spider-Man film, Dr. Curt Connors/Lizard (played by Rhys Ifans) from Amazing Spider-Man and Max Dillon/Electro (played by Jamie Foxx) from the second Amazing Spider-Man.
Doctor Strange thinks all of these villains from other universes ought to be sent back to their homes and be aligned with their fate, which is to die, rather than stay in this universe and mess things up further. Peter wants to help them, though. With the encouragement of Aunt May, Peter thinks he can cure them, so they aren’t resigned to a fate of death.
Instead, the Green Goblin ends up taking over Osborn again and killing Aunt May in a scene that gave Holland a chance to show off his acting chops and Mauro Fiore to show off his cinematography skills and Jon Watts his directorial skills when we get a beautiful, albeit heartbreaking, shot of Peter spent, crying and hurt watching the news of the destruction at the condo complex where Aunt May died.
At that point, Ned and MJ inadvertently bring in the other two Spider-Men (Spiders-Man?), who help this universe’s Peter to cure the villains and send them all back home. Still, Peter goes back to asking Strange to erase everyone’s memory of him as Peter Parker (which is even more grandiose than merely erasing memory of him as Spider-Man) and he does. Now, MJ and Ned (and Doctor Strange himself) don’t even remember who he is.
I’m just impressed, and I love movie-making for it, that the studios were able to bring everyone back and together for this film. Everyone reprised their roles and did it well. To boot, they also brought in Tom Hardy as Eddie Brock/Venom in a mid-credits scene and teased Matt Murdock/Daredevil (played by Charlie Cox from the Marvel series on Netflix).
And I’m greedy, but two things about the film left me wanting more (which is a good thing!): 1.) Why tease Daredevil, if he’s not going to help when a bunch of villains are unleashed on the city?! and 2.) I’m surprised with them exploring the multiverse here, they didn’t even hint at or tease Kang the Conquer, who is going to be the new big bad for this iteration of the MCU.
To be fair to the former, it didn’t seem like Daredevil and Spider-Man knew about the other.
And that said with the latter, they did tease that more problems await Doctor Strange for what he did in this film in a great teaser for his sequel film, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Heck yeah, let’s GO!
Also, if I’m nitpicking, I would argue that Spider-Man was a little misguided here! I understand and agree that Spider-Man would have an issue sending people, even villains, back to their homes knowing they would die, but also, can we really say these villains were cured? I mean, perhaps Osborn fits because he’s corrupted by the Green Goblin and Octavius because he was manipulated by the artificial intelligent mechanical tentacles fused to his body … maybe I’m arguing against myself. But what about the Lizard, Sandman and Electro? They chose to be bad! Even taking away their power doesn’t change the fact that they chose to do bad with their power. It’s not like Spider-Man has chosen to be bad with his power! With great power comes great responsibility, right?!
Overall, this nearly 2.5-hour film doesn’t even feel like it. It breezes by with heart, laughs, character and fun action sequences. And the geeking out that we get to see the three Spider-Men (Spiders-Men?) on the screen at the same time, and I will never get tired of Dafoe being the Goblin. He was born to play that role. He has the perfect voice and face for it.
We also get a lovely subversion of the MJ-in-danger-and-Spider-Man-saves-her trope when Spider-Man does save her, but it’s the Garfield version of Spider-Man and it almost makes him cry because he’s remembering how he couldn’t save Gwen in his universe.
I also loved the final end where we do get the usual trope of Spider-Man slinging around because we got him in a more traditional looking Spider-Man suit!
Sometimes the MCU can feel like it’s always setting up the next film, so you’re only seeing a chapter and it can feel incomplete. While yes, this film sets up a future film for Doctor Strange, it feels like it can comfortably exist in its own space and it feels complete. If we never got another sequel, I think leaving it with Peter not blaming himself for Aunt May’s death and being okay with MJ and Ned leading their lives without him is a rather poignant way to end. But also, if it doesn’t end, then there’s plenty more to explore, too.
Spider-Man will always work on the big screen. It’s just too great of a character for people not to lose their minds over and nearly 20 years after the first one, I’m glad to see Spider-Man continuing to break records and bring the fans out.
Heading into the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, this is the first film within the pandemic that felt like a pre-pandemic blockbuster. And it felt good.