Honestly, I am running out of ways of describing the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). It is not that I do not understand it. Like any loyal fan, I consume the content as it released. I have seen all the movies (some multiple times), viewed all the shows (even the seemingly forgotten/being brought back in Netflix series), but I cannot imagine much of this making a lick of sense to your casual moviegoer. There are aspects of this review that I am sure will leave some readers saying, “Huh?” “What?” I cannot imagine that to be an enjoyable experience. Then again, as many have told me over the years, I think too much while watching films. It is a hill I am willing to live and die on because I think it is important to take a critical approach to culture. I have based my entire career on this modus operandi. For those of you who are familiar, think about how this all began with a guy in a metal suit in Iron Man (2008). Thirteen years later, and we not only have aliens and magic, but there are also multiple dimensions. If it were meant to be something other than mere entertainment, you could reduce yourself to gibbering madness thinking about even a small portion of the implications of such concepts. Yet, in the mind of the MCU’s chief, er, instigator Kevin Feige, it all works together in some over-arching metanarrative. The first of the phases was completed with Avengers: Endgame (2019). Where this mishegoss goes next ultimately is an answer only Feige possesses. In the meantime, us mortals will have to settle for Spider-Man: No Way Home . . . and a metric ton of Easter eggs that we have to watch YouTube videos to fully understand.
Spider-Man: No Way Home picks up right after the events of Spider-Man: Far from Home (2019). Having trouble remembering that one under the crushing weight of the rest of the MCU content? It is not an absolute necessity to recall what happened then, but the long and short of it all is that The Daily Bugle’s J. Jonah Jameson (J. K. Simmons) reveals that Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is the now well-known web slinger Spider-Man. This is broadcast on a giant building in New York City with our hero in plain view of everyone, along with his girlfriend Michelle Jones-Watson (Zendaya), or MJ more familiarly. What most upsets everyone is a video that is released with this revelation claiming that Spider-Man murdered Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal), the villain from the last film that everyone believed a hero. After eluding the police, the authorities eventually catch up with them at the apartment he lives in with his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei). They are all taken in for questioning, along with Peter’s best friend Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalon), but eventually released when Peter explains what really happened with Mysterio. Still, the damage to Spider-Man’s reputation is done. This becomes a bigger problem with his application to the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which is rejected, as are MJ’s and Ned’s. The only thing that could seem to change their fate would be a magic spell. Luckily for Peter, he knows of a person with these kinds of abilities, somebody he had fought alongside the Avengers with: Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch). Somewhat reluctantly, Dr. Strange agrees to help Peter, though as the sorcerer begins to cast the spell designed to make the entire world forget Peter Parker, the young man begins to have a change of heart in regards to his friends and family. This results in Dr. Strange seemingly losing control of the incantation for a moment, before managing to contain it within a gem of some kind and kicking Peter out of his sanctum with instructions to go see the MIT admissions officer instead of resorting to witchcraft. When he finally does catch up with the college representative, it becomes apparent that the aborted spell had unintended consequences. From this point on, the film goes off the rails. You have to remember that there have been other, fairly recent cinematic versions of the famous wall crawler, each with the Marvel stamp of approval, and each with their own villains. It is the villains that Peter encounters first, and with Dr. Strange’s help, they manage to round them all up in order to be sent back to their own dimensions. Yes, dimensions. There is the MCU, and then everything else, including all those other Spider-Man movies, are from other dimensions. The one thread between their villains that Peter discovers is that they all came to his world just before dying while fighting Spider-Man. Dr. Strange’s main concern is getting them all back to their own dimensions and fixing the fractures in the multi-verse. Peter balks on this action because he does not want to see them die. To do so, he tricks Dr. Strange and manages to free all the villains, getting them to agree not to act out so that he can use his Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr., not pictured) technology to fix them all, the thinking being that if he can restore their good characters they will not die. This seems to work until Norman Osborn’s (Willem Dafoe) alter-ego, the Green Goblin, betrays them, leaving them behind in an explosion that kills Aunt May. Peter is devastated, and he blames himself because without his desire to use magic to solve his college dilemma, none of this would have happened. One happy accident of that debacle is that it brings the other two cinematic Spideys to this universe. For (hopeful/doubtful) clarity’s sake, I am going to use the actor’s names, Tobey Maguire and Andre Garfield. MJ and Ned are the first to find them, and they all meet atop Peter’s school. Tobey and Andrew know better than anyone what Peter is going through, having experienced similar tragedy themselves. They not only help Peter cope with the loss of Aunt May, but they help him come up with a plan that will “cure” all the villains before sending them back to their own dimensions. In the midst of this final showdown, Dr. Strange manages to break free of his temporary imprisonment by Peter, and arrives as the faulty spell is beginning to shatter existence and bring other enemies of Spider-Man from still more dimensions to this one. Dr. Strange is doing his best to contain it, but it is proving too little, too late. Hence, Peter comes to the conclusion that the only thing to save the situation is for Dr. Strange to perform the original spell as planned. It works. Everyone returns to where they came from, and they all forget Peter Parker, including MJ and Ned. The rest of the film is Peter adjusting to his newfound anonymity, content to have saved the world once more.
Hopefully you could understand that rendering of Spider-Man: No Way Home. I am also making it out to be a much worse film than what it is with your actual eyeballs on it. As I said in the introduction, if you have a reasonable working knowledge of the stories it references, it helps. If not, there is going to be a lot of dialog that will swoop by over your head somewhere in the stratosphere. If that is okay in your world, then there is much to enjoy in the film. Even if you do not get the majority of the banter between our three Spider-Mans (Spider-Men?), their interactions are fun. If you are an avid follower of these stories, the experience is that much richer.
There is a great deal of fodder in Spider-Man: No Way Home for this Catholic reviewer. From notions of fate and our ability to change it, to sacrifice and selflessness, Peter is truly a heroic character. That works in a narrative, non-Biblical sense as well, as Peter undergoes a hero’s journey that sees him presented with the challenge of the loss of Aunt May, which makes him question his morals. Though he succumbs to his desire for revenge when he nearly impales the Green Goblin, he is saved by Tobey. It is all a part of a maturation process that Peter undergoes, where he must learn that he cannot fix everything. The serenity prayer comes to mind here in having the wisdom to know when you can act, and when you cannot. At any rate, I am sure there is some form of these themes that I have covered in other reviews. Instead, I will focus on a line that MJ says when she says something to the effect that when you expect disappointment, you can never be disappointed. The Midwesterner in me would put that differently, saying “Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.” Either way, it speaks to a resignation to fate that is not theologically sound. Heroes act in critical moments because God gives them the ability to do so. What is perhaps more heroic is the ability to deal with the consequences, good or bad. Fate is a tricky thing because, no matter what soothsayers might tell you, it is not something we can know. Only God has such knowledge, and He can and does sometimes reveal it to us. Yet, these usually come in the form of something deeply personal to our relationship with God, though the Biblical prophets were able to foretell events on a grander scale. Nonetheless, their prophecies were not about knowing specific events, but rather eventualities. The point I am trying to make here is that while Peter’s desire to save others is admirable, the thing he most has to learn to deal with is loss, with accepting fate.
Despite Spider-Man: No Way Home being a fever dream of epic proportions, I still recommend it. There is much that I did not cover in this review that is worth the price of admission, such as the interplay between all the villains. There are also the post-credits scenes that, frankly, I do not know what to make of other than stating that they are obvious set-ups for future films. Such is the MCU’s style. It is mostly safe for all ages, though there are a couple course words in it. Overall, if you are feeling up to it, check it out.