I want to talk about the recent Spider Man Film, No Way Home, because there’s an aspect of it that’s super interesting to me. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and there are plenty of cool moments within – but the why of that is what I find so intriguing.
Before I get any further, as I always say, “Spoilers Ahead.” But unlike the usual warning, in this case I really mean no, really, pause for a second here and if you if you have some interest in this film and haven’t seen it yet then, for some of the very things I’ll talk about below, it is really best to watch the film before reading further.
If you have seen it, well, let’s swing in!
So here’s the thing that’s got me so fascinated about No Way Home (hereafter NWH): in its craft and crafting, it is a movie whose experience absolutely depends on the meta- and real-world context(s) that surrounds it. Especially, the context of us, the viewer. (Note, I am not talking about simple nostalgia here – there’s much more to it than just plain nostalgia.) Now, of course, all movies depend on that to a degree – we bring ourselves and our experiences and our views and our ways of being to the movies (or other stories we engage with). But NWH goes well beyond most movies and fully acknowledges that context and then incorporates it all into its story and storytelling.
Which is cool! This is my first encounter with a movie that does that or, at least, that does it to this strong and blatant degree. Note that the fact it is blatant is not a flaw or knock on the movie – again, the movie embraces it. More importantly, it embraces it with thought and care to create this richness of experience and emotions. (Without that care this instead could have gone quite poorly to create the much more typical shallow and cynical lump of “consumable product.”) There’s a lot of ways the movie uses this meta-context, and I don’t think there’s any compelling hierarchy to it, so I’ll just share what I noticed in a randomish order:
1 – It might be argued that NWH borrows a bit from Into the Spider-Verse (ITSV), insofar as there is a gaggle of spidys who arrive and act as mentors to the newest spiderman. But while ITSV worked (in numerous ways), what makes NHW superior in its effectiveness here is that we, the audience, have a history with and thus a connection to these other spidys. In ITSV, everyone is a new character. Even if it is hinted that some of the Peters are perhaps tied to the old movie franchises, they are not ‘really’ that Peter/Spiderman as they are new animated characters who do not look like any of the previous actors. But here, in NWH, we get those original actors, in their original roles. We know Toby and Andrew. We have a history with them. We love them. And for all those reasons, when we watch them on screen, especially when we watch them interact with Tom, they and those moments resonate with us in a way that the Peters (and Gwen and noir and the anime and the pig) in ITSV just could not. It feels more personal because, for us, it is more personal.
2 – NWH acknowledges and plays with the movie business and how the pervious movies themselves were produced and turned out. And it does so on a number of levels, including how both previous franchises/versions each just kinda ended. Unceremoniously. The Raimi SM trilogy (with Toby) ended on a whimper, with a film that tried to pack way too much into itself such that it was all a mush and none of its story beats really landed. Worse, the Webb ASM series simply dropped dead mid-stride. Both series left a lot hanging, which, in a pun fashion, might be appropriate for Spiderman, but really it meant that their endings, such as they were, left things unresolved and left us unsatisfied. NWH allows those characters we know and had been following to come forward once again and answer, to some degree, what happened after those unceremonious endings. They get to continue their story, grow some more, and, in some cases, even get some closure. This opportunity to allow the actors and the characters to come and have their final (Final? I hope not!) and proper curtain call and send off is delicious and places a nice punctuation mark on the dangling franchises that came before.
3 – And to continue the above while also bringing in point 1, because of the personal connection we have to those characters through those actors means that the continuation and closure for the characters is likewise personal for us. We’re instantly invested in their story and at the end we, too, also get some closure.
4 – The movie also acknowledges and incorporates how the fans viewed and reacted to the various incarnations of Peter and Spiderman. From what I understand, Toby has been considered the better incarnation of Peter, while Andrew has been considered the better incarnation of Spiderman. And that is how they arrive into NWH – Andrew is in his suit as Spidy, while Toby is out of costume as Peter. The movie also plays with how the Andrew films were not the best received, if only because they felt like a cheap corporate ploy/reboot. (Which, in a way, it was: Sony chose to not continue the Raimi movies and in order to not lose the rights to Spiderman they had to make another movie in something like 5.75 years, so they chose to reboot things. I myself fell into the trap and didn’t see the Andrew movies until recently because I was in the ”why would I want to see the same story, the same origin, the same thing again so soon?” camp.) The bit where Andrew Peter notes “I’m lame…” and is reminded “You are Amazing” (with a nice pun-nod to the title of the movies) is all about that. As are the jokes about where else Toby Peter’s webs might emerge from…
5 – Those referential bits above are also an example of how this movie shows how to do nostalgia/pandering to the base/fanservice (of the non-sexual variety) well. Because, no question, there’s not a small amount of that here. But! The key is that they are (mostly) fanservice IN SERVICE of the story. It is not just a series of BS things thrown together just because someone thought they might be “cool” or “exciting” and that the “fans would love this” (I’m looking at you, JJ). Instead, it’s crafting an arc with meaning and care for the main character by engaging with and using those fan-pleasing moments that, independently, are also crafting and arc with meaning and care for those supporting characters. It’s doing double duty. (Which, BTW, is why both Toby and Andrew signed on to this project. Toby said it explicitly in an interview, that he got onboard once he met with Amy and Kevin and saw that they weren’t just planning on having him there as a cheap cameo, but that they were approaching it with care and were deeply invested and moved by what was possible by having him be in the movie.)
5.5 – Furthermore, while there are moments of fanservice that feel gratuitous and a bit of a knowing wink, the ones that matter are played straight. Again, it honours the characters and what’s being created.
6 – One of the most exquisite moments that combines a bunch of all this is near the end, when Toby Peter jumps in to intercept Tom Peter from impaling Norman with the glider. It’s a phenomenal moment, loaded with great weight and character and theme and communication without a single piece of dialogue. Just Toby Peter being full of understanding and empathy, the very thing Peter Parker has always been known for, and what Toby, the actor, is known for being masterful at exuding through expression alone. (This, bar none, is my favourite scene/moment in the entire movie. It’s so. Damn. Good.)
7 – And then we come to the end, where Tom Peter moves into his dingy apartment and crafts his new suit that most closely mirrors the one from the comics, indicating what appears to be a soft-reboot and a return to the meta of the comics and their Friendly Neighbourhood scale of things (and thus a turn away from the Avengers-level scale). This culminates in the very last frame of the movie: as Spidy swings to the screen and as his mask fills the frame, the texture on the suit takes on the appearance of comic halftone dots. Rarely does the end of a trilogy create such excitement for what might be coming next, though, once again, here it is largely borne by the history we know it can live into.
Even though I’ve never read any of the comics, had only seen 2 of the 3 Toby Spidy films and none of the Andrew Spidy films, had only watched a smattering of the cartoon series decades ago, and mostly had a middling impression of the two previous Tom Spidy films… even though I’ve never been a “fan” of Spidy, as is probably obvious I very much was sucked into this movie. Furthermore, I got sucked in even though its premise is a bit of a hot mess, and despite that its storytelling is not particularly exquisite and in some cases ham handed.
But it is the movie’s heart, created expressly by leaning into these meta-aspects, that carries the movie and has it shine through. Doubly so because they are all in service of highlighting what makes Spiderman, the character, unusual in the genre: Spider man is a superhero who cares, a hero who engages the world and all he encounters (even the ‘villains’) with understanding and empathy.
And we can use more (super)heroes like that.
Postscript: One additional little meta-aspect that I find interesting that didn’t really fit with the overall thrust of the above is how there was almost no way you could have planned for all of this to work out this way (or to work out this well). The three franchises were an ‘accident’ – they didn’t set out to create these three different takes on the character, with each emphasizing different aspects of the mythos and capabilities and attitude and etc. It was purely borne from a business-led set of decisions. But due to those same decisions we got those three parallel versions which set the stage beautifully to bring them together in this fashion.
Postscript 2: On the other hand, it would be super interesting to talk to someone who saw this movie and who hadn’t seen any of the previous movies. I’d guess they’d have to be pretty young (maybe under 14 given that ASM2 came out 8 years ago and assuming that at 6yo is when they’d form connections to a movie character) or either someone who is generally not interested in superhero movies and got dragged to see this one (though then they’d also have a different experience that comes from not being interested in the genre). If you are that someone or know someone, I’d love to hear how it was for you/them!
Postscript 3: For fun, my favourite Toby Peter moments that are awesome character moments: 1) When Andrew Peter notes his preference for the Empire State bldg, Toby just replies/agrees, “It is a sweet view.” He feels no need to defend his preference or create some hierarchy or poop on another… he just validates it and Andrew Peter. 2) When Ned’s Lola gives him that little wave when he arrives, and he just graciously waves back… everyone loves Toby Peter! 3) His scene with Otto. “Trying to do better.” A lovely call-back and a lovely display of humility. 4) Of course, the scene with the glider. SO FREAKIN’ GOOD!
Postscript 4: My favourite bits with Andrew Peter: 1) When Toby Peter demonstrates his innate web capabilities, Andrew Peter’s reaction is hilarious, bending foreword to examine with amazement and confusion and awe… “How does that even…” 2) “You’re in so much pain, aren’t you?” “Yeah.” 3) “I love you guys!” (though I wish their reactions were less weirded out and more affirming/reciprocal) 4) When Tom Peter hugs Toby and Andrew Peter in the end before they glow away, Andrew’s face is in full 1000% happy mode, and it’s radiant.