In 2016, Spider-Man finally joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe Captain America: Civil War. After a successful trilogy of films starring Tobey Maguire and two fun (if flawed) movies with Andrew Garfield in the title role, fans were, at last, getting the chance to see the web-head interact with characters like Iron Man and Cap himself. This led to Spider-Man appearing in his own movies that tied into the larger MCU (Spider-Man: Homecoming and Far from Home), as well as the character participating in Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame. Following the devastating events of Endgame, Peter Parker’s future was called into question. Would he still be an Avenger now that Tony Stark is gone? How does he move on in this frightening new world? Those questions were answered in the masterpiece that was Spider-Man: No Way Home.
No Way Home sees Peter encountering Spider-Man enemies from the Multiverse, losing his Aunt May, and allowing a thirst for revenge to take him over. Thankfully, with the help of two other Spider-Men (Maguire and Garfield), he was able to save reality and his own soul. With the success of the animated film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and the likely success of its sequel Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse — set to release, per Collider, in June 2023 — it would be easy to say that No Way Home was a cynical attempt at giving fans what they wanted in order to make barrels of money. While it’s entirely possible that this may have been the impetus for the film, the final product is so much more than fan service.
What is Fan Service?
Whenever a franchise has longevity (like Spider-Man), it’s because of returning business. Essentially, fans of the franchise turn up again and again to support the thing they love, resulting in more of them getting made. Sequels, new seasons of your favorite series, spin-offs set in the same world of a thing you love — they all exist because the fans keep showing up. Sometimes, the franchise will reward longtime fans by bringing back elements the audience remembers. When this happens, it usually elicits a sense of nostalgia, making the viewer more prone to enjoy the experience of the story. When this is done poorly, it’s usually referred to as fan service or bad fan service. The more frequently this kind of thing happens, the more disillusioned some viewers become, as outlined by CBR. They grow suspicious of the creative decisions to reference characters and events they’ve already seen, assuming it’s just to manipulate them into liking something. That disillusionment has created a kind of phobia in critics (and vocal fans) from liking something they suspect is pure fan service.
What Fan Service is Not
Long-running science fiction and fantasy properties (Star Trek, Star Wars, the MCU) construct an expansive, fictional universe that continues to be explored and expanded on with each installment. This means that characters, locations, even vehicles (spaceships and the like), and props (weapons, clothing, etc.) will occasionally reappear every so often. Let’s say you’re watching a Star Wars movie that takes place in the days leading up to the original film Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope and your characters encounter a familiar ship, run into characters we recognize, or get slaughtered by Darth Vader — this is not fan service necessarily. After all, these moments make sense within the reality crafted by the films and television shows that came before. It’s not as though the movie stopped the plot just to say, “Hey, kids! It’s Darth Vader!” No, the rebels stole the Death Star plans and the merciless dark Sith lord was dispatched to retrieve it. That isn’t fan service; it’s telling a story within an existing world and utilizing what you have at your disposal.
When Fan Service is a Problem
If you’re watching a new movie or the latest season of your favorite show and that thing decides to address you directly, so much so that the characters are practically winking at you, that is fan service. It’s intrusive, destroys the flow of the plot, and can completely take you out of the narrative. They want to let you know they haven’t forgotten about you and are willing to do whatever it takes to make sure you keep watching. An example of this would be the third season of Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch. The climax of the previous season saw Sherlock Holmes plummet to his death. Of course, there’s no way they’re going to kill the star of the show, so he’s back in the following season. The premiere episode spends an inordinate amount of time toying with fan theories regarding Sherlock’s survival tactic. The episode literally recreates these theories and has scenes where tweets discussing his potential survival fill the screen. It trolls the fans who shared their own theories in real life and distracted from the story being told.
Why Spider-Man: No Way Home is Different
On the surface, Spider-Man: No Way Home is absolutely fan service. We have returning characters and references to older movies we know and love. JK Simmons even plays J. Jonah Jameson again (though, an alternate reality version). However, what makes No Way Home the difference is that all of this is rooted in Peter’s character. Other than maybe the Daredevil cameo (who will be featured in the animated series Spider-Man: Freshman Year), every returning character is here to push Peter along his journey. The villains test Peter’s ability to see the good in people, even when he knows they would (and have tried) to kill him without hesitation. When the Green Goblin kills May, Peter is pushed so close to the breaking point, that the only person who can bring him back is himself. That is why the two previous Peters appear. They aren’t just there to wink at the camera and say, “Remember me?” It’s nice to see both actors return, but their presence is so much more profound and important than that. They are the only ones who understand what Peter is going through, and they serve as proof that no matter how dark things get, there’s always a path to redemption.