You remember the scene. If you didn’t catch it the first time, way back when, you certainly saw it the second time. You definitely know the meme. The set-up: An evil mastermind has donned a Spider-Man costume before committing a robbery, so the superhero will get blamed for the crime. Then the real webslinger shows up. The two masked men point at each other. They call each other impostors. Everyone’s confused: There’s more than one of them? Which one is the bad guy? Will the real Spider-Man please stand up?!
The bit dates back to a 1967 cartoon. It gets referenced as a post-credits punchline in Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse, and has become a visual shorthand for everything from police fails to hip-hop beefs to Congressional stalemates. And somewhere out there, a light bulb appeared over someone’s head: What if we essentially made what was once a deep-cut in-joke for Spider-fans into a whole live-action movie?
By now, you have likely seen Spider-Man: No Way Home, and are aware of the secrets and surprises that await audiences, and why we’re bringing up the now-iconic Pointing Spideys image. If you have not seen the movie, or are allergic to spoilers, or simply want to remain in the dark (something Spider-Man has been known to turn off) regarding some key twists and turns, don’t proceed any further. Spoilers ahead! Klaxon GIF! Sound of sirens and the Family Feud “wrong answer” noise! Go read our Guillermo del Toro profile or our recent Adele cover story instead.
The big revelation, one denied by most of the movie’s cast for years while also being primed by the teased appearances of familiar villains, is that this is not a Spider-Man story so much as a Spider-Men one. There is not simply one webslinger in attendance here. There are not even just two. You get all three of the actors who have starred in Spider-Man movies over the past 20 years, together again for the very first time. How this happens is one of the more ridiculous aspects of No Way Home, a plot turn which involves secret identities being exposed, a kid borrowing a magical ring, and Peter Parker asking the Master of the Mystical Arts to completely alter the fabric of space and time because his friends can’t get into M.I.T. (The real answer, of course, is multicorporate synergy, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.) Yet the end result of all of this narrative backbending and the abundance of blast-from-the-past bad guys is the glorious sight of Tom Holland, Andrew Garfield, and Tobey Maguire standing there, a fraternity of commiserating and complementary cinematic webslingers. As we said in our review, why service just one generation of fans when you can service several at once?
None of this should have been a shock, not really. When Tom Holland’s Spider-Man showed up briefly in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, the stage was set for a studio-to-studio networking deal: You can have Spider-Man in your movies, says Sony, who’ve owned the rights to the character for decades, if we get a few crossovers for our in-house franchise. Maybe Iron Man shows up in their film. Maybe Disney gets what is arguably Marvel’s most popular superhero to swing around in their MCU. Maybe the Mouse House simply made an offer that the other company couldn’t refuse. Regardless, a portal was opened that allowed the character to skip from one cinematic universe to the next.
As for the multiverse concept — a framework that’s going to be getting a lot of screen time for a host of different I.P.s in the near future — Sony’s animated division had already given us 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse and demonstrated how wild, and wildly entertaining, arachnid heroes from lots of different friendly neighborhoods could be. The overarching narrative of Marvel’s upcoming phase is predicated on dimensions colliding into each other; the next Doctor Strange movie is subtitled “in the Multiverse of Madness.” (Kudos to No Way Home for partially dispensing with the pretense of a second post-credit teaser and simply running a mini-trailer of this next Strange outing. Treat these things like what they are.)
And then there’s the notion of those old-school supervillains showing up in trailers and character posters, confirming that all timeline- or reboot-respective Spider-era bets were off. Of course actors would coyly skirt around the question when asked, or outright deny it. Of course Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire (well, maybe not Maguire) would come back one last time, whether for a victory lap or simply a payday, in addition to Alfred Molina and Willem Dafoe and Jamie Foxx. Of course when a time-hole is opened, and some Spider-Man walks through it, and removes his mask and oh my god it’s actually Garfield, people will scream. Of course when it happens a second time and yup, holy shit, there’s Spidey 1.0 himself, audiences will lose their freaking minds. (This is actual footage from the first press screening in New York.) And of course, when they find Holland, lamenting what hell he hath wrought, and suddenly you have the complete Spider-trio, sharing the screen and comparing notes…there’s going to be a current of energy rippling through whatever multiplex you’re in, even if it’s just a conversation in which older guys in spandex bitch about webswinging-related back pains.
It’s in this last third where No Way Home truly transforms itself into something unusual and a cut above your average superhero movie. For an hour and change, we’ve been watching scenes that could have been plucked from any other Holland-era entry, along with the requisite MCU drop-ins and the reminder that, while it’s great see certain actors chew acres of scenery again, not all of those first- and second-edition supervillains were created equal. Even with Molina, Dafoe, et al. mixing it up with Gen-Z Spidey, there’s still the feeling that you’re in the middle of yet another MCU movie, once again pitched at level somewhere between never-ending saga and soap opera.
But once these three get to interact and the film turns into one part Spider-group therapy session and one part buddy comedy, No Way Home levels up. There’s the odd, almost absurdist sense of fan fiction being writ large in witnessing this peck of Peters counseling each other over tragedies, joking with each other about web-shooter issues. Everyone has been singling out Garfield’s performance here, with folks saying that his aborted trilogy never really gave him the chance to carve out his take on the character. The emotional beats the movie gives him does feel like the franchise is paying penance; even if you have no dog in this fight, it’s hard not to see the look on the actor’s face when his Parker saves a falling MJ and feel as if he’s somehow dulled the pain of this for second.
It’s Maguire’s presence that gets us a little choked up, however. He did some fine work after his tenure was done, yet you got the sense he never quite found the right groove after Spider-Man, or even that he felt a little bitter about what came with the experience of playing him — a stratosphere of fame predicated on who he’d played versus a dedicated career of digging into parts prior to putting on the mask. You feel like Maguire is making peace with the role in these scenes. There’s an empathy that radiates off of him. He almost comes off like a Spider-mentor to these other versions.
That reel-to-real aspect resonates so wonderfully in those sequences even when the meta-reverberations start to shake the rafters. These three Parkers have gone through their own hells, made their own decisions, suffered their own losses. Yet in the end, they all know what the other has gone through — and only they know. Their bonding over their burdens gives the movie a heart as much as the love story, the last-act sacrifice, or the bittersweet ending. In a weird way, the movie that comes to mind when you watch those sequences in is The Beatles: Get Back. Only four men knew what it was like to be in that group, and that documentary shows how protective they are of each other when someone comes at one of them externally, and how much shared history they had. Only three teenagers bitten by radioactive spiders know what it’s like to have that great power, and the great responsibility that comes with it. Only three actors know what it’s like to play that role and what that entails. The movie eventually goes back to slam-bang-boom-CGI before dispersing everyone back to their respective worlds and plunging the rest into amnesia. Yet for a little while, even if you know this is still a nostalgia cash-in and sense that there really is no way back from all past-present convergence mania now, you get the sense that you are seeing something special. It’s a reunion that ensnares you in an emotional web you didn’t even see being wove.