Spider-Man: No Way Home and the Burden of Nostalgia
I've been trained my whole life to like this movie. My eyes have been bombarded with so much Spider-Man, all of it by choice, that it was impossible for me to not have a good time at Spider-Man: No Way Home. I feel like a CIA sleeper agent, and No Way Home was my activation phrase, that forces me to remember my training and complete my mission of supporting Sony. I feel like a dog in Pavlov's lab, whose mouth salivates whenever someone starts a sentence with "With Great Power..." I feel like someone who has grown up watching Tobey Maguire pretend to be a teenager, someone who spent days thinking about Andrew Garfield doing a handstand with one finger, someone who was filled with eager anticipation when Tom Holland's Spider-man first appeared in the trailer for Captain America: Civil War, someone who found himself at home in hundreds and hundreds of issues of Spider-Man comics. I was built to like this movie.
Why on earth is that an issue? Why am I so distressed about liking a superhero movie? Why can't I just sit down, shut up, and have a good time?
Because I'm very uneasy with the fact that I cannot tell you for certain if Spider-Man: No Way Home is a good movie.
I was so uninspired by the film's first 90 minutes that I thought this was the nail in the MCU coffin for me. The empty banter between the characters bored me, utterly without any chemistry or timing. I had zero investment in the film's core relationship, a trio I was constantly told should be my favourite. Events unfolded, and things kept happening, and Benedict Cumberbatch is there, doing his best American accent, which is a dramatic work in itself. And I am growing more disillusioned by the second.
Then it starts to happen. All the Spidey villains of my childhood are brought back, carrying along little pangs of joy. Who wouldn't be delighted to see Alfred Molina bless the screen again with his Shakespearean Dr. Octopus? Or Willem Defoe's maniacal grin? Or Jamie Foxx's... Something? (I don't remember a thing about his character.) They're not just brought back as empty vessels. No Way Home sets itself an ambitious goal: to resolve the narrative threads of every prior Spider-Man movie, by treating their villains with kindness. Because that's what Peter Parker would do, if his movies allowed. And so this instalment creates the space to do that, to give everyone a second chance.
It's a cool conceit, but with each successive villain's appearance, I couldn't fight the feeling of cannibalization. It's akin to the time travelling in Avengers: Endgame; at a certain point, Marvel is patting itself on the back, doing a victory lap as the only runner. It's the ouroboros, the snake eating its own tail just to give us more content. Will we like the content? Yes, probably. But when other movies, films that create their own stories, are shafted so we can revisit a character that has, through three separate iterations, dominated the box office? There's an impending cost for our nostalgia, across Hollywood, both within and without our movies.
Because past a certain point, nostalgia immerses me more in the past than the present. I become disconnected from the MCU, separated from the film I'm watching. Instead I'm thinking about the Raimi movies we didn't get, how Andrew Garfield says the Spider-Man movies broke his heart. I'm thinking about how much older Tobey Mcguire and Andrew Garfield look, and how that's loaded into their performances, how they're older Peters like Jake Johnson's Peter in Into the Spider-Verse. And then my mind moves past that. I'm thinking about the boy whose life felt forever changed watching Peter stop the runaway train, the boy changed by the passenger, who says about the maskless Spider-Man, that "he's just a kid", the boy who realized being young doesn't stop Peter Parker. The teen who read interviews with Andrew Garfield, talking about learning parkour to do justice to Peter Parker, and questioning whether MJ has to be white, or a woman. The slightly older boy, who read over a hundred issues of Ultimate Spider-Man in a single flight to JFK from his tiny screen, but stopped before the ending because he doesn't want to see Peter Parker die.
I'm sitting there watching No Way Home, hardly thinking about the movie I'm watching, and instead thinking about the time I've spent with Peter Parker.
Then our villains get their redemption, and Garfield and Maguire's aborted arcs are finally closed after years of limbo. All my reservations about cannibalization are forcefully dissolved in the flood of emotion. And with that, any thoughts I have about this being a good or bad movie are compromised. How can I comment on a movie that feels like it was made for me? It's like The New Yorker picking The French Dispatch as its movie of the year.
No Way Home was designed to break through my psychic wall of cynicism, to find the wide-eyed boy watching Tobey swing through Manhattan. And they got him. So I can't tell you if Spider-Man: No Way Home is a good or bad movie. All I can tell you is that it was a movie made for me, and millions of others like me. People, who for the last decade, have had their brains moulded by directors, writers, producers, so those neurons and receptors go firing off all at once when there're three Peter Parkers in a single room.
There's no way back from No Way Home. The Marvel machine will continue to spin, powered by its own fumes, with billions of dollars at stake. The Disney serpent will swallow its own tail, and we will be enclosed in that ring. But I don't think they'll be able to recreate this experience again. No Way Home works narratively because the other two Spider-Man series ended so unceremoniously. When Marvel attempts to bring back Chris Evans or Robert Downey Jr., they'll be empty cameos, their arcs already complete. And the power of Maguire and Garfield only reinforced for me how utterly disinterested I am with this phase of the MCU with Tom Holland's Peter Parker, its uniformity of tone, its uninspired villain performances. That's the problem with building your movie on nostalgia. Eventually, it just reminds you of the things you liked more than what you're actually seeing.
It reminded me of that kid, that without reservation, delighted at every appearance of Peter Parker onscreen. Without jadedness, without wondering if my brain chemistry has been irrevocably altered by seven (eight if you count Civil War) movies just to bring us here, without thinking about the impending Disney takeover and homogenization of all entertainment.
I'd love to sit down, shut up, and obey my programming. But now, I find myself like Garfield's Amazing Spider-Man. I am older, maybe wiser, and a little more cynical. I want to be the kid who would have told you this is the greatest movie ever. But I can't even tell you, without any doubt, that it's actually good.