It should feel gross to see Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock streak across the silver screen in Spider-Man: No Way Home with computerized tentacles and the kind of CGI face that makes Robert De Niro's Irishman feel natural.
Molina first played the character in what was a true accomplishment in genre filmmaking — Spider-Man 2 — as a tragic antagonist who ultimately finds redemption through sacrifice. Seeing Molina’s de-aged Otto Octavius exchanging quips with Tom Holland’s plucky Peter Parker 17 years later should feel like something ripped out of a Disney+ Super Bowl commercial.
But Spider-Man: No Way Home somehow manages to pull in some of the gravitas of Sam Raimi's 2004 film while piecing together one of the most ambitious (and confusing) pan-franchise hullabaloos this side of Avengers: Endgame.
It can’t quite shake the capital/nostalgia-driven shamelessness of its general plot, but director Jon Watts and company nevertheless manage to engineer a pretty darn good Spider-Man movie — one that finally gets at Peter Parker's ethos rather than what he can do as a bankrolled Avenger. Holland finally gets a chance to work with the bittersweet nature of the character, and he delivers his best performance yet as Spidey.
If it seems odd to see actors like Molina, Willem Dafoe and Jamie Foxx back as Spider-Man villains, don’t be alarmed. The MCU movies now ultimately do anything they want with any actors they want in any circumstances they want, because money. If the “multiverse” cracks open and the 2002 Green Goblin flies out, that’s just the deal now.
Is it pandering to play the hits this brazenly? Yes. The whole film is fodder for the Leonardo DiCaprio Once Upon a Time in Hollywood pointing meme. But there is plenty of joy in seeing a very invested Dafoe slip right back into the Shakespearean madness of Norman Osborn all these years later. In an age when nothing seems sacred, this film does a surprisingly good job of resurrecting the past without trampling too much of what made it special in the first place.
After going through the jokey MCU motions in the first half, the film starts to peel away into its own thing. All of the Spider-Man movies, past and present, begin to fold into one another, creating a grand finale that is genuinely cathartic. While it doesn’t always work, Spider-Man: No Way Home still feels like a very worthy trip into the past that helps forge a future for this series.