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Spider-Man: No Way Home almost starts like a coming-of-age film. The story’s pivot, a high school senior, Peter Parker (Tom Holland), nurtures a simple age-appropriate ambition: He wants to get into his dream school, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). But unlike other teenagers, Peter has to fight for the smallest of things, including – and especially – being normal. His arch-nemesis, Mysterio, has framed him for murder and revealed his identity. With great attention comes great backlash. The media calls him a “vile vigilante”; his peers hound him for photos; MIT rejects not just his application but also those close to him – his girlfriend, MJ (Zendaya), and his best friend, Ned (Jacob Batalon) – punishing him for what he is.
But filmmaker Jon Watts goes the other way, remembering and reminding us that, “even after saving half of the universe”, Peter Parker is still a teenager. So, the film’s initial portion – featuring intimidating lawyers, an MIT administrator, fierce supervillains – retains charming playfulness and pleasant humour. Dr Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) reinforces that motif more directly, when he says, “I sometimes forget that you’re just a kid.” Holland and Cumberbatch share compelling chemistry. Marked by an obvious power differential, due to differences in age and powers, their bond has varying shades of banter, reverence, compassion. Even the rest of Peter’s inner circle, MJ and Ned, are simple and sincere. Ditto MJ and Peter’s relationship. (The audience of PVR Saket, often relishing mid-movie meta-commentary, had a member who, referring to MJ, said, “Bahut sweet hai, yaar.”)
The movie has such a breezy rhythm that its central conflict takes some time to register: Peter requesting Strange to cast a magic spell that will make everyone forget that he is Spider-Man. Restless and confused, Peter also demands many last-minute changes, summoning different characters from the ‘multiverse’ – Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe), Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx), and Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church) – descend on Earth with vicious intentions. Strange wants to send them back, where they’ll likely die; Peter wants to “cure them”. Spider-Man: No Way Home is often informed by a sense of righteousness – we even get the line “your weakness is your morality” – but it is not sanctimonious.
This delicate balance shows across departments. It is evident in Holland’s arresting performance, where silly boyishness makes way for searing intensity and it is evident in the movie’s tonal variations, flitting from easy humour to expansive fights. The Mirror Dimension sequence in particular – involving a tussle between Peter and Strange trapped in the city and its literal image, where high-rises sprout from the New York sky – is a dazzling set-piece. So are a few others, but the film doesn’t overdo them. Even the most loaded lines sound relaxed, such as Foxx’s Max saying, “You’re from Queens, you help the poor. I thought you might be Black. Well, there’s probably a Black Spider-Man out there somewhere.” That’s it – the film moves on. Comparing this light touch to another recent Marvel release, the ham-fisted and moralising Eternals, makes Spider-Man: No Way Home glow even more.
Besides, since the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is huge, it provides ample current for diverse star wattage. The entries of Strange and Osborn delighted my fellow audience (who, it must be mentioned, had braved a remarkably cold Delhi morning to watch an early show). A film such as this, elevated by tiered anticipations, can often slip into a servile mode, solely existing for fan service. Spider-Man: No Way Home is not above such temptations. It does manufacture some trite crowd-pleasers, such as Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) saying that line to Peter, “With great power comes great…” The line recurs later – this time, with an even reduced efficacy. But such instances of complacency are few. And it matters here because we get a big twist post-interval – an exceptional feast for the fans of the superhero – which makes the film even more susceptible to easy smugness. But Spider-Man: No Way Home keeps a level-head here, too. Instead of relying on that plot turn as a crutch, Watts uses the opportunity to open the film further, filling it with a renewed spirit of inquiry and wonder.
But one of the most memorable – and moving – bits about the film is its coda. Running for only a few minutes, it accomplishes several heartening feats. It shows, for instance, that this superhero fare is not just about giant action set-pieces; that it cares for its main characters, even when they’re not in the spotlight; even when they’re just regular people. I never thought I’d be ever reminded of a Charlie Kaufman screenplay during a Marvel spectacle, but there I was. The scene’s understated circularity makes it even more poignant: Peter, MJ, and Ned at the same café, where they found about the MIT rejections at the start of the film. They are still the same people, but their worlds have changed. And Peter Parker, on the cusp of adulthood, must find ways to fight that eternal battle once more – not the one involving super-villains but the one webbing his teenage innocence: the desire to be ‘normal’.