A large part of Spider-Man: No Way Home’s hefty, long-running press tour has been about avoiding spoilers. It’s so crucial to the movie’s DNA that my screening of the film opened with a message from Tom Holland, Zendaya, Jacob Batalon, and Jamie Foxx (Electro) pleading with all of us about to watch the movie: Don’t say anything about it until everyone else you know has seen it! Don’t ruin the surprise!
But even Marvel knows that it can only do so much as to protect the world from the inevitable leaking of casting details and plot twists. Batalon even joked about this, pointing out that Jamie Foxx’s appearance in the video was, itself, something of a spoiler—after all, No Way Home’s most surprising conceit is that it weaves every previous attempt at a Spider-Man cinematic universe into one movie. Jamie Foxx ain’t even from the MCU, so the fact that he’s here protesting spoilers should feel ironic.
The secrets that No Way Home really keeps close to the vest, however, are way more exciting than seeing the return of Electro. (Who cares if the villain from the single worst Spider-Man movie in history is back?) Not only are the real spoilers for No Way Home more exciting than the multiverse allowing for all these old villains to come together, but they’ve got retrospective power. The movie allows for a surprisingly impactful reappraisal of a long-held Spidey franchise consensus.
And I’m about to spoil it all for you, so if you haven’t seen this Endgame-sized hype machine of a movie yet: Bye!
[Spoilers for Spider-Man: No Way Home obviously follow.]
No Way Home introduces MCU Peter Parker to Sam Raimi’s Peter, aka Tobey Maguire, and Marc Webb’s Peter Parker, aka Andrew Garfield. Despite Garfield’s repeated protestations otherwise, he indeed appears in the film; he’s on-screen plenty, and he’s the first alternate Spider-Man we’re treated to seeing in the movie. While Maguire’s return might be the movie’s most anticipated, Garfield has the most to make up for—he’s the one who really needs a second chance, and the movie seems to know it. After nearly a decade away from the superhero genre, and a disappointing turn within it, it turns out that Garfield was game to be an excellent Peter Parker all along.
The Amazing Spider-Man movies landed with a thud relative to their predecessors Spidey films—perhaps not surprising, given that the impetus for them was that Sony didn’t want its license on the money-making character to lapse after Raimi and Maguire declined to return for a fourth movie. The studio quickly launched a reboot, recasting the lead and pivoting to a different storyline entirely. While Maguire’s Peter Parker was a dorky, hopeless romantic obsessed with his lifelong crush Mary-Jane (and living in one of the New York’s most decrepit apartment buildings), Garfield’s was a moody, snarky high school student living comfortably in Queens, mourning the loss of his parents and pining for the affections of Gwen Stacy, played by the actor’s real-life girlfriend Emma Stone. Instead of wanting to atone for his role in the death of his Uncle Ben and repair his friendship with grief-stricken Harry Osborn, The Amazing Spider-Man’s hero has other priorities. He’s solving the mystery behind his parents’ deaths while chasing his dreams of being scientist and enjoying the attention of his teen genius girlfriend.
This was far less endearing stuff than Spider-Man fans were primed for by the Raimi trilogy, compounded by much messier filmmaking and self-serious writing. For as charismatic as Garfield tries to be in his two movies, he can’t make up for the lack of charm, cohesion, and beating heart that drove Maguire’s turns to success. The Amazing Spider-Man movies were critical and commercial downturns for the franchise, and their failure—plans for a third movie and subsequent spinoffs were canceled after the The Amazing Spider-Man 2 underperformed—effectively barred Garfield from taking another stab at Peter Parker, a role the actor had considered a childhood dream. When Disney partnered with Sony to bring back Spider-Man into the Marvel Cinematic Universe several years later, the studio managed to return to character to a more lighthearted, hopeful place. Tom Holland won over fans thanks to his movies’ nostalgic whimsy and humorous bent, and thus, Garfield landed the title of “Worst Spidey” by default. Not that he hadn’t already held it, to my mind: His movies were tiresome and forgettable, and a grouchy Peter is not a Peter I want to root for. Garfield was playing a comic book character with a sad past as a forlorn teen with a tinge of darkness, and it didn’t help add fun to movies mostly bereft of it.
Garfield has something to his credit, however, that Holland and Maguire have yet to match. This guy is an Oscar-nominated actor, benefitting from a lockdown-era resurgence in love for his role in The Social Network and currently coming off of critical acclaim for Tick, Tick … Boom! If there’s anyone wearing the Spidey suit who can undoubtedly act the hell out of a part, it’s Garfield. With the opportunity to do so in a well-established setting that allows him to flex a broader range of emotions—He laughs! He cries! He climbs on the ceiling to clear cobwebs!—Garfield manages to steal the show with his take on a character that few fans were likely stoked to reunite with.
The Peter Parker pulled in from the Amazing Spider-Man universe has been through hard times. Distraught over Gwen’s death, a trauma that neither Holland’s nor Maguire’s heroes suffered, Garfield’s Peter lost faith in himself. He stopped “pulling his punches,” he says, with a sense of wistful regret; he started to distance himself from his great power and his great responsibility. Coming back to web-sling around the city and help administer evil-curing antidotes to his multiverse-traveling old villains gives him a unique, moving arc in this movie: Garfield’s Peter once again avails himself to the role of Spider-Man after an admission of losing focus, and grants himself a sense of absolution for what he sees as his greatest sin. He finds joy in experimenting on antidotes for the quintet of classic villains intruding upon the MCU dimension; he bear-hugs his new Spidey brothers as he tells he loves them.
There’s an infectious joy to Garfield’s older version of Peter, deepened by our understanding of how devastated he’s been in the years since we last saw him. As he swings laps around Electro and Lizard, his foe from the first Amazing Spider-Man, Peter becomes rejuvenated and light in the air, clearly loving every minute back in the web-slinging swing of things. And when he gets a chance to save MJ from a life-threatening fall off the Statue of Liberty—that is, someone else’s girlfriend—his eyes well up with tears. He may have watched Gwen die, but ensuring that Tom Holland’s Peter won’t have to go through that same horror is a powerful, closure-granting achievement.
Yes, it’s a warm trip back to childhood to see Tobey Maguire back in the role that brought fame to our favorite hero. And yes, No Way Home is truly at its most wonderful when all three Spideys are riffing off or protecting each other. But the movie’s best surprise in the end isn’t so much that lifelong fans got the chance to see such an unprecedented crossover take place: It’s that it managed to give not just a character, but an actor another chance to make a great mark on one of the best roles in superhero stories.