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Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021) by Jon Watts - Movie Review

Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021) by Jon Watts - Movie Review

Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021) Directed by: Jon Watts Writers: Chris McKennaErik Sommers (screenplay) Stan LeeSteve Ditko (based on the Marvel comic book by) Stars: Tom Holland, Zendaya, Jacob Batalon, Marisa Tomei, Jon Favreau, Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield, Willem Dafoe, Alfred Molina, Jamie Foxx, Thomas Haden Church, Rhys Ifans, J.K. Simmons, Tony Revolori, Charlie Cox, Benedict WongBenedict Cumberbatch Run Time: 148 min Rated: PG (Canada) PG-13 (MPAA) for sequences of action/violence, some language and brief suggestive comments

Listen here for audio of radio interviews about films from a Christian perspective with Pastors Ted Giese and Todd Wilken on where Christianity meets culture. (This review contains some spoilers)

Your Friendly Multiverse Spider-Man

At the end of Jon Watts’ Spider-Man: Far from Home (2019) the villain Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) revealed to the world Spider-Man’s secret identity. Watts’ new film Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021) starts with Peter Parker (Tom Holland) dealing with the pressures of suddenly being known as Spider-Man and discovering that this newfound fame/infamy negatively impacts his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), his girlfriend MJ (Zendaya), and best friend Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalon). To fix the problem Parker appeals to the sorcery of Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) hoping to alter reality so no one remembers Peter Parker as Spider-Man. When the spell goes awry, Parker and his friends are left to fix a new problem: the magic has drawn into their world people from the multiverse who know Spider-Man’s true identity.

The multiverse is one of the main themes in Phase Four of the MARVEL Cinematic Universe (MCU) especially in the Disney+ TV series WandaVision (2021), Loki (2021) and What If...? (2021) and is the focus of the upcoming Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022). In Doctor Strange (2016) the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) describes the multiverse saying, “This universe is only one of an infinite number. Worlds without end. Some benevolent and life giving. Others filled with malice and hunger. Dark places where powers older than time lie ravenous…and waiting.” The MCU multiverse then is a term for the aggregate of an infinite number of universes, parallel universes, and dimensions where every unintentional change and intentional decision branches off and creates a new reality existing simultaneously.

How does this idea play out in the new Spider-Man? Since 2002 multiple actors have played Spider-Man/Peter Parker: Tobey Maguire in Sam Raimi’s trilogy (2002, 2004, 2007); Andrew Garfield in Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man 1 and 2 (2012, 2014); now Tom Holland first introduced as Spider-Man in the Russo brothers’ Captain America: Civil War (2016). Reboots and re-imaginings of characters are often presented to the audience in a linear manner where the new supersedes the old. However, No Way Home takes these different Spider-Man stories and makes them contemporary to each other although occurring in different universes within the multiverse. As the story of No Way Home unfolds Watts’ Spider-Man goes toe-to-toe with Raimi’s Doc Ock (Alfred Molina), Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) and Sandman (Thomas Haden Church), as well as Webb’s Dr. Curt Connors’ The Lizard (Rhys Ifans) and Electro (Jamie Foxx). These villains are pulled by Doctor Strange’s botched magic spell into Parker’s (Tom Holland) world because they know that Spider-Man is Peter Parker. But Peter Parker also knows he is Spider-Man so they (Tobey Maguire & Andrew Garfield) are also pulled into Parker’s (Tom Holland) world.

Confused? Don’t be. The film does a great job of sorting this out. That said, for those who watched the film without watching the previous Spider-Man films this may still be rather confusing. This film certainly rewards long-time Spider-Man franchise fans. The idea is not totally new however. In their Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018) Persichetti, Ramsey, and Rothman gave audiences a big screen animated film delving into the idea of multiple versions of Spider-Man (Spider-Woman and even Spider-Pig) scattered across multiple universes. Watts even gives a nod to that film during a brief interchange between Parker (Garfield) and Electro (Foxx) when Electro says he had expected Spider-Man to be African-American musing that, "There's gotta be a black Spider-Man out there somewhere." The central character in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is an African-American teenage boy.

Watching all these actors scattered over the last 30 years of Spider-Man come together on the big screen in No Way Home is sort of ‘magical’ in itself. Even casual fans will likely get swept up in the experience of seeing their Spider-Man or their favourite villain interacting with the assembled characters Watts brings together. After the excitement settles down viewers may be left with some big questions to chew on. Nerds and geeks have long mulled over the concept of parallel universes, time travel, mirror universes, pocket universes, and a variety of other related topics which now fall under the heading of multiverse but even the average person has sometimes wondered what their life would be like if they had done something different in the past. In this way No Way Home creates a story that invites viewers into thoughts about not just consequences but also regrets—not normally a topic served up for young viewers. The older wiser Peter Parker (Maguire) helps the younger less experienced Peter Parker (Holland) understand the dangers of ‘moral injury.’ Moral injury is when a person experiences trauma due to the violation of their moral compass, either by the hands of another or by their own actions or inactions. In Christian terms this would be described as sins committed against the person, or by the person, or the result of the person failing to act in a virtuous manner when it was necessary to do so. No Way Home also provides viewers an example of catharsis when (Garfield) Peter Parker succeeds in (Holland) Peter Parker’s universe where he had critically failed in his own.

No Way Home, with its strong emphasis on setting right what elsewhere had gone terribly wrong, is a film about second chances. In a twofold way the villains are given second chances too. Finding themselves in a new world they are presented with new opportunities and new chances to be rescued, saved, and repaired physically, mentally, and spiritually. The question is: do they want that? The actors playing these villains also get a second chance to reprise their roles. Did Molina, Haden Church, Ifans, or Foxx ever expect to play these characters again? Likely not. Dafoe’s Dr. Norman Osborn/Green Goblin is outstanding and mesmerizing; he truly gives a performance crackling with the expertise of a seasoned and experienced performer. Each actor makes the most of what the script gives them to put the finishing touches on their respective characters.           

Despite the sci-fi drama it creates, the idea of a multiverse is not fictional. In the real world, this multiverse, originally known as the Many-Worlds Interpretation, arose from a dispute between physicists over a deterministic and indeterministic understanding of quantum mechanics or to put it simply: “fate versus luck or chance.” In 1957 physicist Hugh Everett (1930-1982) proposed his Many-Worlds Interpretation as the Relative State Formulation based on a deterministic reality with each possible occurrence branching off into a new universe. This contradicted the Copenhagen interpretation built on the work of physicists Niels Bohr (1885–1962) and Werner Heisenberg (1901–1976) which argued that subatomic events are not caused but are rather determined by probability. Albert Einstein (1879–1955) didn’t much like the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics because as he put it, "[God] does not play dice with the universe." Remember Einstein had developed his theory of special and general relativity based on the idea of causality not probable randomness.

Within the context of No Way Home Doctor Strange is a proponent of fate; he’s okay with using magic to bend fate to his will but ultimately believes certain things are predetermined or, at the very least, should not be tampered with. He is not interested in any plan to rehabilitate the criminals he accidentally dragged into his world rather he favours a plan to return them to their own worlds even if it means their certain and imminent deaths. Doctor Strange even uses the word ‘fate’ in talking about the problem they face due to his botched magic spell. Peter Parker (Holland) due to the influence of his Aunt May doesn’t want to conform to the idea of fate and believes in second chances. He’s willing to sacrifice his own life for even the possibility of making things better for others. All three of the Peter Parkers share this desire and each makes the other a better Peter Parker than they would be alone. The thought that a Spider-Man movie could so skilfully tackle these ideas is sort of mind-boggling. If Strange views the future cynically, Spider-Man views it optimistically. This difference dramatically impacts what these characters think is possible regardless of whether they look at a problem fatalistically or hopefully; it also impacts their choices and actions.   

Looping back around to reality, what are viewers to make of all this? If films are a kind of cultural catechism are there people who earnestly believe in the idea of the multiverse? What does your average viewer of a movie like No Way Home think of fate or chance? What do Christians think of these things? For viewers who take the time to contemplate these questions Watts has provided a lot to chew on. Within Christianity one of God’s attributes is omniscience: the state of knowing perfectly everything that has happened, knowing everything that could happen and everything that will happen simultaneously. The only true ‘multiverse’ would then be in the mind of God and this is hidden from human knowledge. Also, knowing every probability doesn’t mean those probabilities exist in a real sense only that they could exist. This is why God forgives sins that have happened and will happen; there is no need to forgive sins that might happen. God existing both inside and outside of time makes this interesting from His perspective, but perfect knowledge of this is not the human experience. In fact, knowing all possible outcomes before they occur means God can promise “I will lead the blind in a way that they do not know, in paths that they have not known I will guide them. I will turn the darkness before them into light, the rough places into level ground. These are the things I do, and I do not forsake them,” (Isaiah 42:16) because God knows where the step will land before the foot hits the ground. “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD” (Proverbs 16:33).  

While fun and exciting in Spider-Man, the general concept of the multiverse is not particularly compatible with a Christian understanding of reality. Christians believe what Scripture teaches that they “have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews 10:10). There cannot be universes in which Jesus failed at His work of salvation or a universe in which the Virgin Mary had a miscarriage. There cannot be a universe in which Jesus sinned or in which Adam and Eve did not fall. For Christians there is one world and one Jesus and “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). If it seems unfair to bring questions of religion and Christianity into this film review consider how one of the film’s comedic lines is a quip where one character refers to another character’s outfit as being like a non-denominational generic evangelical “youth pastor.” Then there’s the Daredevil, Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) cameo, a MARVEL character with many Roman Catholic themes. When the film itself includes Christian winks and nods it’s certainly fair to think about its content and ideas from a Christian perspective. Regardless, each viewer will consider it in relation to their personal beliefs.  

A positive aspect of No Way Home is Peter Parker’s (Maguire, Garfield, Holland) determination to love his enemies (Matthew 5:44) even in the face of adversity seeking for them what he wants for himself: a second chance and a good reputation. The film also engages the audience to think about restoration and redemption of things that are broken in this world. All people are called to care for the lives of others and to improve what they can. Christians know that ultimately this is accomplished in Christ Jesus who promises, “Behold, I am making all things new” (Revelation 21:5). The negative aspect of No Way Home would be a reading of the film that puts all its hope on science, medicine, magic, or transhumanist ideas of restoration by means of hardware or software, or in some hope of a better life in a parallel universe somewhere else. 

In a time where modern film offerings in established franchises often succeed in not just ruining the newly-released film but in weakening, distorting and vandalizing the films that preceded (as has been seen with the recent Star Wars trilogy), with No Way Home Watts manages to make a film that actually pulls together the preceding films and in some cases makes them better by tying up loose ends or fixing things that previously went wrong. This is no small feat. The relationship between MJ and Peter Parker (Holland) is really great. Zendaya and Holland have achieved something lacking in many MCU films: a grounded relationship that doesn’t feel tacked onto the film as a plot contrivance. They provide a lot of heart to a film with a lot of heart. Holland as Spider-Man has matured into his role making him perhaps the best cinematic Spider-Man. Everything about his performance fits that optimistic hero slogging through one tragedy after another including his willingness to make personal sacrifices for the good of others at his own expense. Watts clearly respects the work of the directors who came before him making a kind-hearted film that honours Spider-Man and the fans who love the character. There are moments that feel like a really good dream, like something too good to be true, but this is the power of hope. It isn’t often that audiences cheer and clap and literally jump up out of their seats with joy at each reveal and victory splashed across the screen.  

Rev. Ted Giese is lead pastor of Mount Olive Lutheran Church, Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada; an award-winning contributor to The Canadian Lutheran and movie reviewer for the “Issues, Etc.” radio program. Follow Pastor Giese on Twitter @RevTedGiese. Check out our Movie Review Index!