For better or worse, each of the different “Phases” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has had a goal for its various films to strive for. The first brought our disparate heroes together, while two and three showed them fracture and eventually reassemble for a saga of infinite proportions. Because nothing could really stand against the power of a global pandemic, 2020 threw Marvel’s plans for Phase Four out of whack, and in some cases, out of order. But if the current crop of content for 2021 and Spider-Man: No Way Home, in particular, tell us anything, it’s that Phase Four is more interested in stroking Marvel’s own ego than anything else.
No Way Home’s recent trailer finally gave us our first real look at the assorted villains of Spider-Men past. The most curious of this insidious near-sextuplet aren’t classic foes like Doc Ock and Green Goblin, but the lower rung of cinematic Spidey baddies: Electro and Lizard from the short-lived Amazing duology, and Spider-Man 3’s Sandman (and potentially New Goblin). With ex-Spiders Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire also maybe waiting in the wings so they can get in on some Keaton-like last hurrahs, it’s clear the aim is to give those old villains and potential heroes a chance to “get it right.” Such an objective has loudly hovered over the Marvel and Sony joint custody like a weird smell, and No Way Home represents the most naked attempt at this yet. And unlike with comics, there’s no real illusion of change, just a confidence bordering on straight-up arrogance, that it can skate by on giving fans what they’ve been demanding and poorly photoshopping for three years.
With the world having collectively said “no thanks” to Amazing 2, the two companies decided to start from scratch with Holland as the “proper” Spider-Man. “They can do Spider-Man right,” so many said back in 2015 when the deal was announced because he was finally “coming home.” That Marvel has oversight over its biggest A-lister was reason enough for fans to take the company’s side during the 2019 custody fight with Sony, lest we have no more crossovers or references to other Avengers. (Keep in mind, this came after the success of both Spider-Verse and the original Venom, and it’s now funnier since Venom 2 has done pretty dang good as well.) And sure, the first two Home films are solid and Holland is quite good in them as both sides of Peter. But the high points of those movies can’t hide how superficial the notion is that these films outclass their immediate predecessor. Two solo movies and three crossovers continuously highlight how incredibly toothless this Peter is compared to those who came before him, and even the ones he proudly stands beside. Anything like character development or an overarching statement about who Peter is — as has been granted to his other trilogy veterans like Tony Stark and Steve Rogers — are nowhere to be found here.
On its own, it would be a bitter but tolerable pill to swallow, but it’s part of a larger Marvel trend of overcorrecting to the point of desperation. Wandavision needed to do the work to make that relationship feel real in a way the Infinity Saga sure as hell didn’t, but even in its best moments, Black Widow feels like a late, awkward apology. Shang-Chi making the Mandarin a tragic figure — who easily carries the whole film — was needed, as was bringing back Iron Man 3’s faux Mandarin to mock, but keeping Trevor around for the rest of the film felt like a studio trying to have its cake and eat it too. Even if well-intentioned, these moments come off as goofy at best, or at worst needlessly self-congratulatory.
It’s all “for the fans”: a phrase that’ll wear out its welcome long before the Fantastic Four and mutants officially enter the fray. Under the Marvel Studios banner, those reboots won’t be able to help themselves in redoing past events and reusing characters that weren’t as favoured in Fox’s hands. Sure, you finally get Doctor Doom the way you want, and Galactus isn’t a cloud again, but is it worth having to deal with an eventual third go at the Phoenix Saga? (If we’re already tired of seeing the Waynes being shot, that’s got to be a close second or third by now.) Do you want these characters you grew up with to be given a better hand, or do you just want to bring them up without having to add caveats, as prequel-era Star Wars fans had to do up until fairly recently? When the studio is high on its own bullshit is often when it’s at its worst, and those two properties will see them so high they’ll be touching Mars.
There will surely be some fun in watching the three Spiders and maybe other multiversal visitors fighting the beta version of the Sinister Six. But at the moment, it doesn’t feel like No Way Home exists to further Peter’s story or even really celebrate the history of Spider-Man as a character. It feels more like Marvel lording over Sony that Marvel Studios get the praise and adoration for including these previously used characters and villains and not the company who just happens to currently own the rights. And if they’re going to get into a dick measuring contest, the least they could do is have it behind closed doors.