I have to admit that the closer we came to the release of Spider-Man: No Way Home, the more nervous I became. The previous two Spider-Man films in the MCU were great, and I was looking forward to another, but with every trailer and trickle of information about what and who would possibly maybe be in the new film, I became wary. Doctor Strange! Sinister Six! Wasn’t this a franchise that twice before collapsed under its own weight and had to rebooted after a film tried to do too much?
It turns out I had very little to worry about. Spider-Man: No Way Home is the kind of film that not only draws upon nearly 20 years of Spider-Cinema, it’s the kind of film that could only have been made using the meticulous world-building tools of the MCU. It’s a franchise saving throw that succeeds in not only redeeming its previous incarnations but sends the current one in an unexpected new direction.
A brief warning: As with most of my reviews, I will try to keep this as spoiler-free as possible and only reference things already revealed in official Marvel trailers and adverts. However, there may still be some mild spoilers involved where I find it necessary to discuss aspects of the film.
The film picks up right after the mid-credits scene of Spider-Man: Far From Home, right after J. Jonah Jameson (J. K. Simmons) has revealed to the world that Spider-Man is really Peter Parker (Tom Holland). Peter’s notoriety begins to affect the lives and potential futures of his loved ones, so he approaches Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) for a spell that would make the world forget Jameson’s big reveal. The spell goes awry, however, and soon dangerous individuals from other realities associated with alternate versions of Peter begin arriving to cause havok.
And when I say “other realities”, what I mean is both the original Sam Raimi Spider-Man films and Marc Webb’s Amazing Spider-Man films. The trailers and promotional materials have heavily featured Doctor Octopus from Spider-Man 2, played once again by Alfred Molina, but he isn’t the only one. Other characters appear, all played by their original actors and kept in their original contexts and histories, from across all other Spider-films. It’s a lot. Like, a lot a lot.
But instead of being overwhelming, it ends up being exhilarating. At least eventually. The first two acts of the film proceed relatively slowly, and at times you could even call the pace clunky. However, when we finally reach the end of act two going into act three, it hits you how deliberate the build-up has been. The third act explodes with such kineticism and energy that you almost forget how the second act actually got a little boring there for a while and you wondered if this whole thing was actually going to work.
One of the biggest hurdles the film had to face was the sheer size of its cast list, including a lot of actors who turned in iconic performances in previous Spider-Man films. Unlike Into the Spider-Verse, which crossed-over characters from alternate dimensions who hadn’t made film appearances before, No Way Home has a dramatis personae full of superhero film history. While a couple characters do get the short end of the stick here, for the most part everything is arranged with precision by director Jon Watts and writers Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers (all of whom worked on the previous MCU Spider-Man films).
What holds the film together most, however, is the same thing that anchored the previous MCU films: Tom Holland. Since his first appearance in Captain America: Civil War, Holland and Spider-Man both have gone through a distinct evolution and growth. Holland’s initial gee-whiz energy in the role has been tempered with experience and a bit of harsh reality, and while his Spidey has remained mostly optimistic in the past, here we find him in his darkest and most challenging situation yet. It was no surprise that Holland could handle the emotional tornado Spider-Man has to face here, but the degree of skill and nuance he handles it with is like a metatextual reassurance to the audience. Don’t worry; he’s got this. That this film even exists at all is partially due to Holland acting as a diplomat between Sony and Marvel when the franchise agreement between the two broke down. His commitment to the role is to be commended.
Holland is countered brilliantly by the most prominent members of the rogue’s gallery here, that being Molina as Doc Ock and Willem Dafoe as Norman Osborne/Green Goblin. Dafoe is nothing less than magnetic here. During the scene where Osborne’s Goblin personality takes over, he sinks his teeth into the role and doesn’t let go. He’s the very definition of an antagonist, a catalyst for destruction both physical and personal. He might be the MCU Spider-Man’s most compelling villain, and he doesn’t even go here.
Molina is similarly powerful in his role, even if he isn’t as theatrical. Doc Ock’s menace is far more controlled than the Goblin’s, his rage more directed. Molina simmers here where Dafoe broils, but he’s no less commanding on screen. He also sports some of the best CGI in the film with the impressive work on Doc’s mechanical tentacles, and he might be wearing the best de-aging technology yet.
In general, the entire cast does a great job, with every returning MCU actor building on their previous appearances admirably. From a character standpoint, there’s almost nothing to complain about here, even if some of the writing for Parker’s friends MJ and Ned isn’t as interesting. Zendaya and Jacob Batalon do their absolute best to sell it, though. Zendaya in particular could coast almost entirely on personality (and in some ways kind of does) and still come out on top.
Things are not all amazing in this Spider-Man universe, however. There are a few moments of questionable CGI, including nearly every non-fight scene appearance of one of the imported characters. In a film where the special effects are generally well-executed, this particular character looks remarkably dated. And as I mentioned before, the second act does drag more than a little, but its deliberate pace isn’t revealed for what it is until the approach of the third act climax.
But once that third act climax arrives…oh, man. It might be one of the most satisfying in MCU history. It’s the kind of third act that could only come about by carefully archiving, arranging, and remixing 20 years of superhero film history across multiple timelines, directors, and franchises. The masterful balance that Watts and his writers displays here is impressive, even if we can’t always see that balance in the moment. In the bigger picture, it’s always there.
No Way Home is perhaps the best subtitle to give this film, as the events here fundamentally change the rules for Spider-Man going forward. In fact, there is a degree of closure here that’s a bit uncharacteristic of the MCU; there’s honestly no way of knowing where the franchise will go next, and that’s kind of exciting. But let me tell you, if Tom Holland is going to be swinging in again for Spider-Man: Home Is Where The Spider Is, or whatever, I’ll be setting my alarm for the moment tickets go on sale.
FBOTU Score: 8 out of 10 / B+