There is something to be said for a film which entertains during its runtime, even if it leaves you with little afterwards. When No Way Home comes it its conclusion, it does all feel a bit pointless. It is one one hand far too self contained and on the other hand far too reliant on serving a wider universe, paradoxically so. The self contained issue is from a plot that introduces an overt narrative contrivance just so it can cleanly resolve it; the wider reliance is the realisation that everything you watched was an excuse to get a franchise to a certain point, in which only the last five minutes ultimately matter (and they only matter to set up future films). There’s a lot of smoke from Green Goblin bombs; there’s a lot of mirror dimension but, ultimately, it is merely smoke and mirrors: a film as a distracting façade while some business decisions happen in the background.
At points, this becomes all too apparent. An early scene includes a specific character, for no reason, other than to function as a kind of announcement. Their existence in the scene is very contrived and slightly beyond the realm of possibility, but that’s not the point. The point is that you see who it is and that the audience reacts to seeing them. This scene is also a great one to reference as it is a perfect example of the film on full smoke and mirrors mode. You see, the previous film (Far From Home) ended with a hell of a tease: Spider-Man’s identity has been revealed and he’s also being framed as a terrorist responsible for several murders. This worthwhile premise, and new direction for a cinematic Spider-Man, is ultimately just a catalyst. Also, the film only cares about the first part of this, when the second (the whole, Spider-Man is a suspected terrorist who needs to clear is name) is a much more interesting framework. This potential plot point is addressed in a throwaway line in the aforementioned scene. It is so painfully manufactured: the audience will be too busy responding to the fan-service to care. Smoke and mirrors.
This continues the whole way through, what seems ambitious and challenging boils down to easy solutions and underwhelming implementations. This is a multi-verse spanning adventure featuring characters from past iterations of the franchise in what promises to be a fresh and meta instalment. This promise is something the new Matrix pulls off, but something Spider-Man does not. It is great to have some of the returning faces (though some are really poorly used, or seem utterly redundant), but it exists as spectacle, as something flashy to happen. The ultimate story borders on thematic narrative about fate and consequence, and redemption, but doesn’t commit to any of this. There is a central idea about helping people, trying to save villains from themselves rather than just punching them to death. This implies a reflective stance, something more thoughtful. But, the movie is not this. The pieces may be different, but all the moves are the same. We build up to the same kind of climax, it’s just that the finishing moves are now ‘non-lethal’. Saving is boiled down to something as easy as defeating and, in the end, we’re just getting the same thing.
The foreground, then, ultimately disappoints. Luckily, the background is charming. This film inherits the high-school cast of the last two and they continue to be a highlight. Tom Holland is still great as Peter Parker, Zendaya is a great MJ and the film actually does lots of good stuff with Jacob Batalon’s Ned. These three are the charismatic heart of the film, they interact really nicely and lift up every scene they are in. Sadly, the foreground does start to impact the background. These characters compel because they feel real, and they deal with actual issues. A major plotline of the film is about them trying to get into college, and dealing with admissions and rejections. It is relatable stuff, important grounding material that allows the characters to express their humanity. But, while the film wants you to believe that Peter Parker needs to go to MIT (as a major plot beat is to do with his anxiety about getting in or not) we also see him as a super scientist. There is a two minute sequence in which Holland’s Peter Parker invents a piece of technology, just like that, that completely solves an issue that an entire previous movie dealt with. Yet we are also supposed to believe he’s a scrappy young kid that needs to get into college. The constant jumping between human stakes and sci-fi nonsense is incredibly jarring.
Sadly, too much of the film is in this second register. The plotting is poor, as the film constantly invents solutions to new problems and never invokes any real tension. We will always have ways to solve things: we will always have the machine that does the right thing, just there in the corner; we will always have the magic spell that actually sorts things out; we will always have the exposed Achilles heel at the most opportune moment. In this regard, the film is a complete failure. It also fails with its tone, the quippy Marvel dialogue being a persistent issue. This is shown at the very start, where we have a dramatic opening with real and shocking implications, and then we cut to Talking Heads’ I Zimbra on the soundtrack as we swing through New York: everything is quirky and fun. It’s a terrific song but it is used as a way of pushing the tone away from sincerity and into fun, always fun. It’s a five minute reminder that nothing actually matters here, that things will never get too serious.
In spite of all of this, I really enjoyed watching No Way Home. Nothing matters, things are pulled in from places with distinct tones (and voices) and these aren’t honoured. It is a homogenisation effort. But, it does provide base level thrills and the central cast are really strong. A few returning cast members are also excellent, sometimes in spite of writing; though, some are not… At all. But, disposable and flashy fun is still fun. There is a charm here, there is a nice core and it’s a well paced, shiny film that entertains even if it doesn’t enrich. It is a hollow satisfaction, one that lasts as long as the film, but it is still a decent way to spend 150 minutes. Yes, it’s smoke and mirrors, but the smoke is pretty cool and mirrors can dazzle.