Multiverse is memories. In the most basic sense, it asks you to spend your emotional capital from one realm in another. It’s a logical extension of the nostalgic referencing that every franchise, from Star Wars to Jurassic Park, does now. What do you do when you’re done regurgitating the past? You reach for a past that isn’t yours—except, if you’re Disney, it could be.
Multiverse is also IP. Spider-Man: No Way Home is co-produced by Marvel, maker of the last two solo films featuring the character, and Columbia, part of Sony, which made the five Spidey films before that. Because this is a ‘shared universe’, characters from the Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield films have been drafted into the continuing MCU/Tom Holland storyline. Talks between the two studios were initially unsuccessful; they only returned to the table after an outcry from fans and an appeal by Holland. All this to say: in today’s Hollywood, a multiverse is a hardheaded boardroom decision, not a creative one.
What’s ironic is this maneuvering has resulted in the tightest Marvel movie in a while. We catch up with Peter in the immediate aftermath of his unmasking by Mysterio in the last film. He’s being hounded by the media (well, by The Daily Bugle), and his application to MIT, along with MJ’s (Zendaya) and Ned’s (Jacob Batalon), is rejected “in light of the controversy”. Desperate to regain his old life, he approaches Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to work some magic. Strange agrees to cast a spell where no one remembers Peter, but it all goes wrong. Soon, foes of earlier iterations of Peter start showing up, including Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina), Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) and Electro (Jamie Foxx).
In allowing this trio to be easily overwhelmed by Peter (with help from Strange), Jon Watts, director on this and the last two Spidey films, and writers Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, discover something worth mining. Because in this new context, these antagonists are just lost old men—something that Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), Peter’s moral compass, recognizes immediately. Peter’s task becomes one of rescue and restoration, instead of a straightforward zapping back to their universe.
There's a clip that did the rounds recently on social media, in which Dafoe and Molina are asked what excited them about reviving their roles. Dafoe gives a long-winded, earnest answer, after which Molina says “For me it's just about the money." Perhaps this was in the back of my mind but in the film, Dafoe appears to be really invested, while Molina looks like he's just having fun.
The film can’t resist winking at its own setup—Norman Osborn saying “You know, I’m something of a scientist myself” is aimed at the young fans who know the line as a Twitter meme, not the older ones who heard it in Spider-Man (2002). There’s a nod to Sony’s freewheeling animated Miles Morales film, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018), in the scene where Electro tells Peter that he was surprised that Spider-Man wasn’t a Black kid. Apart from a spiffy scene that borrows from Scott Derrickson’s Doctor Strange film, Watts can’t break from the bland, brightly lit MCU house style and their neat, forgettable action. But it’s a sight better than the John Hughes stylings of the last two films.
Seeing the Sam Raimi-Tobey Maguire films referenced in a MCU joint feels like a circle being closed. Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2 (2004) were the start of the modern superhero cycle. So much can be traced back to them, yet so little today has their freshness. No Way Home’s smart riffs on the past should not obscure the fact that multiverses are yet another way for studios to keep running variations on tried and tested material. And we watch on, drawn by the promise of new worlds but borne back ceaselessly into the past.