“Ever since I got bit by that spider, I’ve only had one week where my life has felt normal.”
(Unlike other reviews, it is almost impossible to comprehensively talk about this film without delving into heavy spoiler territory. This review CONTAINS HEAVY SPOILERS. If you still have not seen the film, it has been 5 months since it released. Too bad.)
Almost exactly three years prior to Spider-Man: No Way Home, a little movie (also by Sony) was released, called Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Lauded for its depiction of every Spider-person, easily introducing the concept of a multiverse into the cultural zeitgeist, its spectacular animation, etc., it did the impossible and dethroned the iron grip that Disney usually has on animated film awards. Meanwhile, just down the hall, our current live-action Spider-Man toiled on, with a fun but forgettable sequel (Spider-Man: Far From Home). It didn’t take a genius to realize that Sony, being the severely incompetent creatives they typically are (for every Spider-Verse, there’s two Venom movies and Morbius), would want to hop on the multiverse bandwagon with Tom Holland’s Spider-Man and his upcoming third installment. And hop on they did, with No Way Home and director Jon Watts bringing back a massive ensemble cast of characters from previous Spider-Man films for an action-packed but also deeply meaningful and surprisingly deft Spider-Man film that has everything you could ever want.
The debate over the best actor to portray Peter Parker/Spider-Man will rage on for all of eternity, but regardless of what your answer to that is, Tom Holland’s webslinger was in desperate need of a link to the source material that the other two had in spades, even with how good Holland is in the role. In addition to needing to include a major course correction to the MCU Spider-Man, No Way Home was riddled with rumors from the start, with the internet being convinced that everyone from Green Goblin to Miles Morales would make an appearance in the film. While this ends up being true to an extent, it’s not hyperbole to say that No Way Home had massive expectations from the start, possibly even higher than 2019’s Avengers: Endgame. No Way Home meets those massive expectations head on with an intensely emotional story, and just like Spider-Verse, fully embraces its comic-book nature.
Where we last left Tom Holland’s Spider-Man, he was being framed for the death of Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) and the drone strikes committed by him during the finale of Far From Home. No Way Home picks up right after that, with Peter being publicly outed as the webslinger and becoming a menace in the eyes of the public. While he’d like to ignore it, his inner circle can’t afford to, including best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), girlfriend MJ (Zendaya), Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), and even his pseudo-uncle Happy (Jon Favreau). With their lives being even more ruined than his own, Peter decides to seek help from everyone’s favorite arrogant wizard Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), who deduces that a “simple” memory wipe spell will help Peter and friends get their lives back. Unfortunately, a mid-spell intervention soon causes long-dead villains from years past to spring into this universe, and chaos ensues.
No Way Home marks Holland’s sixth (!) appearance as the titular wallcrawler, and while he’s sharp as ever, the first half of No Way Home does him no favors by not giving the young star much to do besides quip and serve as Dr. Strange’s verbal punching bag. It’s not until the second half of the film where Holland truly gets to shine, more than he ever has before in any other MCU film, with a profoundly moving and raw performance alongside his…well, we can get to that later. Zendaya’s MJ and Jacob Batalon’s Ned are both featured prominently as well, but aside from an incredibly impactful scene or two during the film’s finale, neither are afforded many chances to make a significant impact, which is fine given the nature of the film. Cumberbatch’s Strange fills the Stark-shaped mentor role quite neatly here, but is very clearly playing second fiddle to the villains and Holland, which I appreciate. It would have been incredibly easy to overuse Dr. Strange in No Way Home, but he is (rather awkwardly) sidelined for much of the film’s second and third acts, allowing for the film to truly be about Spider-Man rather than be a MCU film that happens to have Spidey.
Speaking of villains…it’s no secret from the trailers and promotional materials that villains from Spidey movies past make a return to terrorize Holland’s universe. Green Goblin (a chilling Willem Dafoe), Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina), Electro (Jamie Foxx), Sandman (Thomas Haden Church), and Lizard (Rhys Ifans) round out the roster, with J.K Simmons’ version of the MCU J. Jonah Jameson returning from Far From Home. Dafoe’s cackling Norman Osborn/Green Goblin is downright terrifying and arguably an upgrade from when he first appeared in 2002’s Spider-Man, with Dafoe proving once and for all that his Goblin is firmly heads and shoulders above almost every other comic-book movie villain. Octavius, played by Molina in all his digitally de-aged glory, is also excellent, with the good doctor’s arc from 2004’s Spider-Man 2 thankfully intact and leading to one of the most poignant scenes in the film. Foxx’s Electro is graciously not blue this time, with the veteran actor getting to joke around more and play the comic relief next to Goblin and Octavius. As for Sandman and Lizard, it’s painfully obvious that neither Thomas Haden Church nor Rhys Ifans were able to be present on set, as both villains spend the whole film in their (clearly) CGI forms.
Michael Giacchino continues his unprecedented grip on the film industry with a powerful and bombastic score that’s appropriately somber when it needs to be. His MCU Spider-Man theme, which we’ve heard for the past two films, finally crescendos here into a booming and orchestral piece, on the same level as Danny Elfman’s iconic original Spider-Man theme. Director Jon Watts, who is somehow the first director to complete a MCU trilogy, ups his game significantly compared to Spider-Man: Homecoming and Far From Home, with No Way Home finally not being shot like an insurance commercial, as well as having much more flair than those previous installments. Even though the first half of the film has breakneck pacing and pinballs between quips and necessary plot points, Watts slows everything down around the midpoint and pulls all the loose threads together with an uncanny precision. The action sequences in No Way Home are also tightly focused and grand, more so than anything else from the MCU Spider-Man films. And while none of them are as gleefully comic-booky as the Mysterio illusion sequence in Far From Home, they are more visceral and brutal than a lot of MCU fight scenes.
SPOILERS AHEAD. LAST CHANCE TO TURN BACK.
If Strange’s spell pulled the villains from previous Spider-Man films spanning the last 20 years, you’d be correct in assuming the heroes of those films would also come along. The Raimi-Verse and Webb-Verse Spider-Men were heavily rumored for months before No Way Home released, and it’s a modern miracle in this day and age that their appearances were mostly kept under wraps. Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Men arrive in No Way Home right after Holland’s Aunt May is killed by the Goblin, and they’re not just a quick fanservice cameo. Both Spider-Men are supporting characters to Holland’s Spider-Man through and through, with both of them furthering his emotional journey and arc in ways that couldn’t be done otherwise. It’s a very meta and deeply satisfying bit of storytelling for fans and the character alike. For probably hundreds of millions of people around the world (including this reviewer), the original Spider-Man trilogy and the subsequent Amazing Spider-Man duology made up their childhood, and to see the two actors reprise their roles all these years later is one of the greatest things that any movie has ever accomplished, at least for someone who’s been a lifelong Spider-Man fan.
While it’s sad that Maguire’s Spider-Man doesn’t share a scene with Dafoe’s Goblin, he gets perhaps the most surreal and moving scene, in which his Peter Parker is able to talk to Molina’s Octavius and communicate that he’s been “trying to do better”, a nod to Spider-Man 2 and also what feels like the two actors speaking directly to an audience that hasn’t seen them for the better part of 15 years. Peter-2 is very much the guiding older brother/mentor to his two younger counterparts, with him being the one to utter the iconic “with great power comes great responsibility” to Holland’s Peter and implore him to continue on in the wake of Aunt May’s death, as well as reassure Garfield’s dejected Peter-3 that he isn’t a failure as Spider-Man despite what he thinks of himself. It’s a welcome return to the silver screen for Maguire, who hasn’t physically acted since 2014, yet effortlessly slips back into the role that made him a star.
While No Way Home has an impressive ensemble cast that shines throughout the film, it’s Garfield who shines the brightest. If Maguire’s Peter Parker was the calm and wise mentor to Holland’s Peter, a shining example of what his Spider-Man could one day evolve into, Garfield’s Peter-3 is what the MCU Spidey could become if he allows himself to give into his anger and ignore what his aunt and uncle have tried to impart to him. Dejected and bitter after he failed to save Gwen Stacy, Garfield’s Peter allowed himself to “stop pulling his punches”, and regrets it with his whole heart, begging Holland’s Peter through tearstained eyes to not become like him. Despite all this, Garfield shows that he’s still the best actor to portray the webslinger, easily quipping and bringing a welcome and unique energy to the role that neither Maguire or Holland ever have. Underneath the clear depression that his Peter Parker is struggling with, Garfield ensures that his Spider-Man never loses the wholesome and lighthearted demeanor that endeared us to him all those years ago.
Earlier, I mentioned that the MCU Spider-Man was in desperate need of a link to his source material, even if the films he was in were great nonetheless. No Way Home gives him that link by firmly restating the importance of Spider-Man’s secret identity and also cutting out all of his resources. While some may argue that the trope of an independent superhero is tired, it has never been more necessary to the character of Spider-Man. Where Maguire and Garfield’s wallcrawlers had it hammered into them that being Spider-Man is both a curse and a blessing, Holland’s Peter Parker never got to explore that idea until now. Spider-Man and Peter Parker’s happiness cannot coexist, lest there be consequences. We saw that with the ruined relationships between Mary Jane/Harry Osborn and Maguire’s Peter, and how Gwen Stacy paid the ultimate price for being close to Garfield’s Spider-Man. No Way Home gives Holland’s Peter Parker this same lesson by directly showing what happens when Peter’s loved ones get involved in Spider-Man’s life, and in doing so, goes far beyond what Homecoming or Far From Home ever did. In a way, No Way Home truly completes the MCU Spider-Man’s origin, in spite of this being the sixth time we’ve seen him.
More than anything, though, No Way Home is a celebration of every Spider-Man film, from the old characters coming back to little things like easter eggs to Miles Morales or MJ’s comic surname (Watson). Every element comes together in a perfect storm that will probably never be replicated again to create one of the most well-rounded Spider-Man films ever. While No Way Home doesn’t quite pack as much heart into its hefty runtime as 2004’s Spider-Man 2, or as many slick action sequences as either Amazing Spider-Man film, it finds the ideal middle ground between both, with the third act of No Way Home topping even Avengers: Endgame in terms of being balanced between fanservice and profound storytelling.
No Way Home ends on a dour yet hopeful note, with Peter being completely isolated from anyone and everyone in his world, yet choosing to continue honoring his aunt’s memory by being Spider-Man. To me, that’s quintessential Spider-Man, and doesn’t take away from the brilliance on display just ten minutes prior. If The Batman was one end of the spectrum as to what a live-action comic book film could achieve in terms of technical excellence and immersion into a superhero’s world, No Way Home is the opposite end of said spectrum, leaning far into fantasy and its titular character’s roots and source material to produce an experience like no other.
It should have been obvious that Spider-Man: No Way Home had extraordinarily high expectations when it obliterated presale records, or how rumors about possible cameos circulated for months prior to the film’s release. There was no viable way any film could satisfy those expectations, let alone even some of them, but No Way Home not only meets them, but exceeds every expectation while making sure to avoid becoming a mindless cameo-fest for cheap fanservice. Against the odds, Spider-Man: No Way Home weaves a miraculous and magnificent web for Tom Holland’s eponymous webslinger with a melancholy, cathartic, and heartfelt adventure that’s packed with all the action and humor you’d expect it to have, while also serving as an incredibly exciting tease for the future of Spider-Man.
Let me know what you thought of the film in the comments below!
Disclaimer: I do not own any of these stills or promotional art. Sony Pictures, Colombia Pictures, and Marvel Studios own all of these images!