There is something rather telling about the fact that so many of Marvel's superhero movies and shows now include what are essentially in-story recaps: the second act of Avengers: Endgame, a sort of season finale for the first decade and change of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), sent its heroes back in time to tromp through a selection of previous installments to relive their box office glories. The first act of last month's dismal Eternals added to the already bloated running time with a scene justifying the characters' lack of presence in previous Marvel movie affairs. (As if anyone would have wanted those bores around.) This summer's clever and largely amusing Loki TV series kicked off with an episode in which the title character was forced to watch a carefully curated highlight reel from his earlier adventures in the MCU, something Loki took as a kind of psychic torture. Pity, I suppose, the viewers who actually watched every installment in full.
After dozens of movies and television episodes devoted to expanding this expanded universe, things are getting so complicated that even the characters themselves can't keep up. As for those of us in the audience, well, at least we have Wikipedia.
If you haven't been taking notes on Spider-Man films for the last 20 years, you may need a refresher for his latest outing No Way Home. No Way Home is the third installment of the third iteration of the Spider-Man franchise since 2002. The first two iterations were solo affairs that took place outside the main Marvel movie universe. In the most recent set, however, the webslinger interacts with the rest of the Marvel movie cosmos—Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and so on, just like he does in the comic books
To explain why all this matters will require some spoilers, some but not all of which have been teased in the trailers. You've been warned.
The genius of this installment, and the knotty horror of it, is that in this film, the MCU Spidey interacts with a slew of villains from from the previous generations of Spider-Man films, and eventually, the earlier Spider-Men themselves, the ones who were never part of the MCU at all.
Because of film development deals that date back to the 1990s (if not earlier), when the Marvel comics empire was collapsing into bankruptcy, Marvel has for decades not owned the film rights to Spider-Man or his associated cast of friends and villains. Instead, Spider-Man, though a Marvel character in paper comics, has been a Sony product on the big screen. Only after the mediocre performance of the two Andrew Garfield Spider-Man films during the early 2010s, and the simultaneous success of the part of the Marvel movie universe actually owned by Marvel, did Sony agree to a deal allowing Spider-Man to interact with the rest of the MCU.
Sony, of course, still retained the rights to the previous, non-MCU movie adaptations of Spider-Man. So No Way Home is an attempt to integrate them all—the early Sony Spideys and their villains, plus the Sony/Marvel Spidey played by Tom Holland, plus the broader MCU, represented mostly by Dr. Strange (a droll Benedict Cumberbatch), who steps out of CGI portals at a few key moments to keep the story moving, wave his fingers in some magical gestures, and gently remind you that this not-fully-owned-by-Marvel movie is somehow connected to all those other Marvel movies that you liked. The precise details of that connection don't really matter; if you really need to know, you can always check Wikipedia.
In truth, No Way Home is pretty good, as this sort of thing goes, especially if you are the sort of person who, like me, has been reading Spider-Man comics and watching Spider-Man movies for the majority of your life. As the animated, Sony-owned Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse showed, there is something inherently comforting about Spider-Man and his valiantly dorky alter ego, Peter Parker, in nearly all his iterations, from the pages of Todd McFarlane's dark-and-gritty (but in retrospect not that dark and gritty) adjectiveless Spider-Man in the early 1990s to Toby Maguire's lovelorn dweeb in Sam Raimi's initial movie trilogy to Andrew Garfield's wiry, hirsute loverboy in the early 2010s.
Holland, who has played Spider-Man throughout his interactions with the Marvel universe, is probably the best of the bunch, owing both to his cartoon physicality and his screen charisma. It's a real pleasure to watch him in the movie's smaller-stakes scenes, like when he Facetimes his longtime love interest, M.J., who is played again by Zendaya, the franchise's other secret weapon. The two have a genuine on-screen chemistry that captures the uncertain mix of friendship and deeper attraction so common in high school.
The interactions between Holland, Maguire, and Garfield in the film's final section capture the kaleidoscopic relatability of Spider-Man in all his forms, emphasizing the continuity between the versions as well as their subtle differences (Maguire's web shooters were organic to his body, which makes for an eyebrow-raising metaphor).
But even still, there's a point in which the trio start reminiscing about their various adventures that sounds an awful lot like a "last time on Spider-Man" recap. The idea is to connect with viewers who have seen all of these films, and also have fond memories of them. The whole thing feels like a $200 million version of that Spider-Man meme you see from time to time on social media, in which an animated Spidey is seen pointing at another Spider-Man.
There's even a stinger sequence after the credits roll that teases a connection with the longtime Spider-Man nemesis Venom. Venom, of course, is a Spider-Man character from the comics, and thus owned for big-screen purposes by Sony, which forced him into the non-MCU Spider-Man 3 and more recently has made two terrible solo movies featuring a Tom Hardy version of character, neither of which were directly connected to the mainline Marvel movie universe. At least, that is, until a post-credits scene in this year's execrable Venom 2, in which he was mysteriously transported to a world in which Holland's Peter Parker/Spider-Man existed. And thus we see the Hardy version of the character sipping tropical drinks while trying to work out the in-world backstory of the superhero universe of which he is now part. He seems perplexed by the complexity and strangeness of it all. Perhaps you can sympathize.
I don't mean to complain, exactly. No Way Home is a top-notch blockbuster and a superior Marvel film, filled with heart and action and familiar faces and all the trappings you want from a zillion-dollar superhero extravaganza. But it is also a strange product of our intricately connected superhero-movie era, in which stories sometimes feel as if they were first negotiated by I.P. lawyers, and plots are dependent on viewers having done a fair amount of cinematic homework before coming to the theater.
So much of the appeal of No Way Home is predicated on the audience fondly recalling twenty years worth of not-quite-connected Spider-Man films. It is a Spider-Man movie about how much you enjoyed other Spider-Man movies, in which the hero's quest is, in a very real sense, to learn about and retroactively rescue the various earlier Spider-Man films. It's enough to make you wonder: Doesn't Spider-Man have Wikipedia?