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Spider-Man: No Way Home
A colossal trilogy-capper that wins big by playing to the smaller moments.
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The oft-overlooked strength of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has always been its ability to imbue larger-than-life characters with enough humanity to make them equally compelling on or off the battlefield. Too many people (and sometimes even the films themselves), make the mistake of believing that it’s the action spectacle that keeps us coming back—when in reality, it’s the emotional turmoil and relatability of its heroes that make any of that spectacle mean anything.
It’s why many other franchises have failed to replicate the MCU’s formula or success; they go big too quickly without focusing in on the small, critical details of its characters.
Spider-Man: No Way Home, the apparent closer to director Jon Watts’ and star Tom Holland’s Spider-Man “Home” trilogy, understands and maximizes this critical dynamic, even as it flies high and plays fast-n’-loose with multiverse chaos and a Spider-palooza of recognizable foes. Moreover, it gets Spider-Man; it gets what the character stands for and the lessons he’s meant to learn, and drives them home harder than most adaptations before it—all the while, packing in the biggest and most bizarre webheadventure on screen to date.
Frankly, it has more in common with the animated Into the Spider-Verse than I expected—though less because of the multiverse shenanigans and more because of its ability to distill everything special about the character into a few relatively simple strokes, amidst a giant, chaotic, event-style story. It’s a “Spider-Man’s Greatest Hits” compilation that lovingly ticks off the boxes of “quintessential Spidey things,” while also managing to feel like a fully-conceived original album all its own, rather than a hollow, nostalgic act of fan-service.
If my ramblings about how No Way Home captures the magic of Spider-Man seems vague, it’s mostly for your sake. This movie is hard to talk about without spoiling. The trailers and promotional clips give a pretty good sense of the broad beats of the story, and I was surprised that watching the film didn’t make me feel like I’d been hoodwinked by divertive marketing. What you see is, actually, pretty much what you get—with some whopping caveats, granted, most of which I can’t talk about right now.
To inch closer toward specificity, I’ll say this:
As the trailers tell you, this movie is about Peter Parker (Holland) and his loved ones dealing with the fallout of the end of Far From Home, in which Mysterio revealed Spider-Man’s identity to the whole world. The effects of this upend Peter’s life, as well as that of everyone he knows. He’s now the most famous, or infamous, person in the world, and everyone close to him is viewed as accomplices.
In a desperate attempt to return things to “normal” and end his friends’ suffering, Peter seeks the help of mystical master Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), convincing him to cast a spell that will make everyone in the world forget that he’s Spider-Man. Peter’s insistence on editing the parameters of the spell mid-cast cause it to go awry, cracking the barriers between universes and allowing various characters who know Peter in another world to spill through into this one—mostly in the form of villains from past Spider-Man films. Thus, it’s up to Peter to clean up his mess, either by defeating these new foes or sending them back where they came from.
The first act of the film serves to portray the effects of Peter’s global identity reveal, while also saying something of a goodbye to the John Hughes-style school comedy of the first two films. The Midtown High antics offered here are, sadly, probably the weakest of the trilogy. It’s hard to put a finger on the root issue, but it’s as though all of the silly jokes in this film’s first act were rough drafts that were never revised. The goofier dialogue in these early scenes is raw and clunky, at times even abrasive. That rough writing style extends into the introductory scenes for the villains, which is an unfortunate but thankfully temporary flaw. The jokes (and the writing in general) kick it up several notches for the middle and final third, leading to legitimately beautiful and hilarious moments in droves.
The first act also moves very quickly—which is more understandable once you’ve seen everything they’re trying to do in the latter two-thirds, but it still felt a bit jarring and sometimes more synoptic than fully fleshed-out. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the first act is bad, but it reminded me of the original Avengers: a film with a wonky, dopey opening act that hits its stride somewhere before the halfway point, then accelerates into something truly special.
It’s also worth talking about the villains themselves, now that trailers and announcements have revealed who all is here. Peter’s and Strange’s multiversal mistake introduces Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina), Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), Electro (Jamie Foxx), The Lizard (Rhys Ifans), and Sandman (Thomas Haden Church)—and yes, these are versions of the characters you’ve seen before, in previous Spider-Man films.
Not all of them get equal screen time or depth, but I can’t imagine anyone could be reasonably upset with who gets the most spotlight. Dafoe’s Goblin is the standout, getting to explore an element of the character in Sam Raimi’s films to more nefarious effect here. Molina and Foxx get to flex themselves as well, either reinforcing or introducing the more human side of their characters.
Even beyond the villains, this movie is chock-full of great performances that anchor the emotions in the film’s latter half. Holland is the best he’s ever been as the wall-crawler, getting to continue his plucky, younger-Peter charm while also exploring darker and more traumatic territory as he grapples with the consequences of his actions. Marisa Tomei’s Aunt May gets to take a more central role here, after being woefully cast aside in Far From Home, and Tomei is unsurprisingly more-than-equipped to handle the emotional significance of her relationship with Peter.
Likewise, Zendaya and Jacob Batalon are strong supports as Peter’s girlfriend and best friend, MJ and Ned. If you had doubts about the strength of the Peter-MJ relationship in these films, No Way Home should put them to bed. They’re very much in love at this point, and their chemistry is clear. I would gladly watch them continue to grow as a couple, if that’s the direction these studios decide to take.
Tertiary characters like Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori) and Peter’s teacher Mr. Harrington (Martin Starr) take even more peripheral roles this time around, though I don’t think many will mind a greater focus on the more important figures in the story.
As hinted at already, Peter finds himself in darker circumstances than he has before, and these all-time-lows bolster one of No Way Home’s strengths: its sharp understanding of how the character of Peter Parker is meant to work. The best Spider-Man stories are those of hope and responsibility in the face of tragedy and extremely bad luck. Not much good happens to Peter in this film, and as a result, we get to see what makes him the hero we love. It’s an incredibly resonant story about the sacrifices of heroism that hasn’t really been achieved, to this strong an effect, in a Spider-Man film before… maybe ever?
No Way Home makes this happen by handling its smaller moments with care. Interacts between Peter and other characters, or those characters amongst themselves, feel intimate, honest, and warm. For as many players as there are on this field, many of them new to this franchise, it’s stunning how multidimensional most of them feel, even with just a smattering of brief moments to develop.
I won’t give any details away about how it all ends, but where we leave Spidey here opens exciting questions about where the character could be taken in the future, while also feeling like a natural conclusion to the story so far. More importantly, it puts him right back where all classic Spidey stories do: down on his luck, but with a resolve to keep going that’s fire-hardened by the preceding catastrophe and the lessons he’s learned. It’s not entirely a happy ending, but there’s still hope for the future.
No Way Home is the best thing Marvel has made since Avengers: Endgame, and it’s not even close. I’ve been less enthused by Marvel’s slate in 2021 than I usually am. The films, in particular, have been the more disappointing part of their offerings, while the shows have executed more creative ideas to greater effect. I loved most of WandaVision and Loki, and I’m having a great time with Hawkeye. But this is the first Marvel project of the year to truly, wholeheartedly stick the landing.
Holland and Spider-Man producer Amy Pascal have made some confusing comments about what the future looks like for Spider-Man in the MCU, but if the final moments of No Way Home tell us anything, it’s that the character is in good hands right where he’s at. And I can’t wait to see where he goes next.