As someone who cares a lot about keeping the movie theater experience alive, it was worrying to watch 2021's box office returns. Even though cinemas across the country had ostensibly reopened to full capacity after the initial Covid-19 shutdown, the movies that played in them made, on the whole, about half as much as they would have taken in pre-pandemic. That Spider-Man: No Way Home has done such boffo B.O., pulling in more than $630 million in less than three weeks – an astonishing haul, even in a regular year – gives me some hope for the future of moviegoing, but mostly it's a reminder of just how popular the Spider-Man franchise is – especially with Tom Holland in the title role.
The premise of No Way Home is pure comic book malarkey, but the outcome is an irresistible fan service gift. Picking up from the very moment that Spider-Man: Far from Home ended, with Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal) revealing Spider-Man's secret identity as Peter Parker, we find Peter and his girlfriend MJ (Zendaya) immediately on the run from fans, detractors, the law, the media, and everyone else. The stress is so great that Peter begs his old buddy Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to cast a magic spell that will erase this revelation from people's memories – meaning the entire population of the world. But Peter's last-minute amendments ("Except MJ! Except my best friend!" etc.) screw up the spell, open a rift in the multiverse, and bring supervillains from earlier Spider-Man franchises into his world.
The blockbuster landscape these days is becoming increasingly dotted with "meta sequels" – those that take a knowing wink at their earlier iterations, from Avengers: Endgame to The Matrix Resurrections. No Way Home's inclusion of past Spidey villains, played by the same actors who originated the roles years ago (Willem Dafoe as Green Goblin, Alfred Molina as Dr. Octopus, and Thomas Haden Church – sort of – as Sandman from the original Sam Raimi/Tobey Maguire series; Jamie Foxx as Electro and Rhys Ifans – sort of – as the Lizard from the Marc Webb/Andrew Garfield reboot), is definitely a meta move. Yet the fleet-footed screenplay by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, who also penned the first two Jon Watts/Tom Holland Spider-Man installments, makes it work. These aren't actors from past movies, they're real people from alternate timelines!
Now that Marvel Studios' head honcho Kevin Feige (here coproducing with Sony's Amy Pascal, since Sony still technically owns the Spider-Man film rights) has had his superheroes save the universe in Endgame, there's now a sense of "Where do we go from here?" After all, you can't get bigger than saving the universe. So instead of going small, they're going sideways: by opening up the multiverse, Feige and Co. now let their characters access parallel realities, where there are no rules. (The next Dr. Strange film promises plenty more of this.) As far as No Way Home is concerned, this concept is merely an excuse to bring back old characters and actors, in order to delight Spider-Man's longterm fans. It's silly, but it's heartwarming, and if not everything quite works about No Way Home – you can never suspend your disbelief over its cockeyed premise; the CG animation for Sandman and the Lizard is subpar; at least one of the returning actors doesn't seem too thrilled to be back – it's still good clean fun, and you can't beat the chemistry between Tom Holland and Zendaya: they keep much of the movie afloat by the sheer force of their charisma.