The Spider-Man film franchise has the dubious distinction of having been rebooted twice in the space of a decade. The first Spider-Man trilogy, directed by Sam Raimi and starring Tobey Maguire, launched in 2002 and defined the superhero film genre for a generation. The hasty 2012 Amazing Spider-Man relaunch led by director Marc Webb and star Andrew Garfield struggled to craft its own identity, first aiming to distinguish itself from its beloved forbearer and then to emulate the Marvel Cinematic Universe, from which it was contractually detached. Sony/Columbia’s inability to spin the Spider-Man license into a sprawling universe to rival the MCU led them to strike a deal with Disney, bringing yet another new incarnation of the character to the big screen to mingle with the Avengers beginning in 2016. This third wave of Spider-Man films, directed by Jon Watts and starring Tom Holland, has distinguished itself by embedding the titular hero deeply into the interconnected Marvel Universe and making him the protege and heir apparent to its most popular character, Iron Man.
The latest entry in this new canon, Spider-Man: No Way Home, contrives a way for the contemporary version of Peter Parker to reckon with the franchise’s past, pitting him against supervillains plucked from each of the films that preceded Holland’s tenure with the character. But what could play as a shameless stunt to cross-pollinate two generations of fans ends up amounting to more than the sum of its parts. No Way Home is “Spider-Man’s Greatest Hits,” but in a good way, a more complete collection of the elements that make the character great than any live-action feature since 2004’s Spider-Man 2.
Dox and Friends
No Way Home picks up immediately where the previous film, Far From Home, left off, with Spider-Man’s secret identity exposed to the world as a posthumous “fuck you” from that film’s villain, Mysterio. Framed and tried in the press for Mysterio’s death, high school senior Peter Parker (Tom Holland) finds that his double life has not only put his own future in jeopardy, but that of his girlfriend MJ (Zendaya) and best bud Ned (Jacob Batalon). While they’re spared the expected marathon of supervillains out for revenge (since Holland’s Spidey hasn’t been around long enough to rack up grudges), they face a far more conventional repercussion — no college in the country will accept a costumed vigilante or his accomplices. Peter blames his superhero life for crushing his friends’ dreams, and seeks a superhero solution to their troubles. Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) offers to make everyone forget that Peter Parker and Spider-Man are one and the same, but Peter interrupts Strange’s spell in progress, insisting on exceptions for the people closest to him. Peter’s meddling destabilizes the spell, drawing a handful of individuals from alternate universes into his own.
These wayward time variants are, as advertised, transported from the third acts of previous Spider-Man movies, all portrayed by their original actors. Willem Dafoe is back as the Green Goblin, restored to his 2002 self via Marvel’s best digital de-aging effort yet. Alfred Molina reprises his Doctor Octopus from Spider-Man 2, and Jamie Foxx returns as Electro from The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Spider-Man 3 and The Amazing Spider-Man are also represented via Sandman and the Lizard, respectively, but rendered entirely via VFX. (Thomas Hayden Church and Rhys Ifans still lend their voices.) Dr. Strange charges Peter with capturing each of them while he works out a way to send everyone home, but thankfully the story has a lot more to offer than just a string of fight scenes in which Spidey catches legacy villains like Pokémon. Marvel didn’t hire Dafoe, Molina, and Foxx to do glorified cameos — they’re here to play characters and they each get something of an arc.
Going into No Way Home, I was a bit worried, between its multiple trailers and the inescapable rumor mill, that I would know the entire story of the film before I even arrived at the theater. Happily, this was not the case and there’s a lot more to the film than even the excess of pre-release promotional footage has revealed. Moreover, what the trailers don’t convey is that No Way Home is a more emotional film than either of its immediate predecessors, and its spectrum of emotion differs greatly from that of Sam Raimi or Marc Webb’s films. Amongst reminders of the franchise’s past glories (and follies), Watts and company also showcase what makes Tom Holland’s incarnation of Spider-Man distinct from Tobey Maguire’s or Andrew Garfield’s — he’s just the sweetest kid you’ve ever met. No Way Home capitalizes on that sweetness, and then challenges it in a way that the MCU Spidey films have yet to do.
Putting a New Prescription in My Nostalgia Goggles
Between Dr. Strange and the returning villains, half of No Way Home’s ensemble is made up of characters from other film series, but it’s still thoroughly a Jon Watts Spider-Man movie. The familiar coming-of-age comedy tone of Homecoming and Far From Home still prevails, aided by the chemistry between Holland, Zendaya, and Batalon. The trio is now 25, the age Tobey Maguire was when the first Spider-Man was released, but are still far more convincing as clever but immature high school kids. Their dynamic is stronger than ever, particularly now that MJ is in on Peter’s double life and their romance is in full bloom. (It’s no surprise that this real-life couple is great together on screen.) Zendaya shines in both dramatic and comedic capacities, and Marissa Tomei gets a more prominent role than in any of her previous turns as Aunt May. Dafoe and company get plenty of moments to shine, but there’s no question that they are the guest stars, and Watts’ cast are the leads.
There is occasionally some dissonance in integrating elements of the Raimi and Webb films into the MCU, where the sillier elements of comic book lore are treated with less reverence. Peter, MJ, and Ned find the name “Dr. Otto Octavius” uproariously funny, for instance. One gets the impression that someone involved in No Way Home is a little embarrassed of the pre-MCU Spidey movies. Green Goblin’s oft-criticized Power Ranger helmet is dispensed with almost immediately, and there are a few winks made at the lesser popularity of the Amazing Spider-Man series. Honestly, though, I’ll take this hint of embarrassment over a solid coat of nostalgic adoration any day. (I will refer you to my review of Ghostbusters: Afterlife.) I actually admire Watts’ restraint in not including many direct visual quotes from the more popular films in the franchise. There are a few clear “hold for audience recognition and applause” moments in the script, but considering the nature of the story, I was expecting a lot worse. Small doses of nostalgia go a long way here, like the return of J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson or just hearing Willem Dafoe’s Gilbert Gottfried voice again.
None of the action sequences from No Way Home are simple re-staging of fights we’ve seen before, and they’re all about on par with what we’ve gotten in the other Watts installments. Some of the visual effects looked a bit dodgy in theatrical trailers, but the final product is up to code and generally less wonky than the third acts of this year’s Black Widow and Shang-Chi. The most imaginative set piece takes place in Dr. Strange’s Mirror Dimension, where Manhattan’s architecture bends into hypnotic patterns of fractal geometry. It doesn’t touch the perfection of Far From Home’s Mysterio Funhouse sequence, but it’s still pretty dang cool. Much of No Way Home doesn’t actually lean very heavily on action at all, allotting more time and gravity to managing its many characters. That’s a trade-off I’ll happily accept.
Now to Discuss Some Spoilers You’ve Probably Already Read
I do have some criticisms for No Way Home, but they’re difficult to get into without getting a bit into spoilers. If this is something you’re sensitive about, suffice it to say that the movie hits the brakes pretty hard going into the third act and takes a while to recover. For those of you who don’t mind or are not that invested, follow me to the next paragraph. I’ve still saved you plenty of surprises.
So. You may have heard rumors that Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield are in this movie. That’s true. They are, in fact, in a pretty big chunk of the movie, the entire last half hour or so. Their introduction into the story is by far the clumsiest part of the film, played with the absolute confidence that theater audiences would applaud as each of them steps into frame. (Mine did.) From this point on, Watts and company plainly assume that you’ll be so charmed by the presence of these two characters from other film series that you won’t notice that the movie has basically stopped. Don’t get me wrong, I was quite charmed — I was just shy of 13 years old when the first Maguire Spider-Man came out and probably watched it 30 times by the time I graduated high school, I’m not made of stone. I’m even a big fan of Garfield as an actor and of his take on the character, regardless of how lousy I find his two films to be overall. But if you were not, by chance, born around 1990, I have to imagine this part of the film might be a slog for you. Their interplay is never nearly as fun as the similar scenes in the 2018 animated masterpiece Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Things pick up at the action climax and the ending is very touching, but there’s a solid 15 minutes of the three Peters just comparing notes.
That said, I do think some of what’s done with the two older Peters is interesting. Wisely, neither of them has been de-aged to the state in which we last saw them, so we get to see the interactions between one teenaged Peter, one in his late 20s, and one in early middle-age, which alone might be enough to hold the interest of someone with no attachment to the older films. Maguire slips back into his quietly weird Peter, who seems to have found some peace in his life. Garfield’s Peter is defined by the loss he experiences at the end of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, but I couldn’t help but read his character’s relative insecurity as an acknowledgement that he’s definitely the “other” Spider-Man to a lot of people, the one who didn’t get a third movie. (This film offers him some of the emotional closure that he was denied by the cancellation of his next sequel.) What I like best about their use in the story is how they come to the aid of Holland’s Peter when he’s reached the kind of emotional low that both of the older Peters seemed to suffer over and over again. Angst is pretty new to the teenage Peter, but it’s old hat to his predecessors whose lives are basically defined by sacrifice and suffering. Through them, the MCU’s Spider-Man learns to incorporate that essential element of the character that’s been missing from his films so far.
But more than that, what I like about No Way Home is how it both celebrates Spider-Man’s film history and what makes the MCU’s incarnation unique. This Spidey is a team player, part of a larger world, and that’s helped to define his identity. At the same time, No Way Home also points him in a direction closer to traditional takes on the character, acknowledging that it’s time to put the “Iron Man Jr.” era of Spider-Man films to bed. Indeed, if No Way Home were Tom Holland’s final performance in the role, I would be entirely satisfied with that. But since there’s almost certainly more coming, I also find myself refreshed and excited to see what comes next.