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The best of “Spider-Man: No Way Home” reminded me why I used to love comic books, especially the ones about a boy named Peter Parker. There was a playful unpredictability to them that has often felt was lacking from modern superhero movies in the way they feel so precisely calculated. Yes, of course, “No Way Home” is incredibly calculated, a way to make more headlines after killing off so many of its event characters in Phase 3, but it’s also a film that’s often bursting with creative joy.
Director Jon Watts and his team have delivered a true event movie, a double-sized crossover issue of a comic book that the young me would have waited in line to read first, excitedly turning every page with breathless anticipation of the next twist and turn. And yet they generally avoid getting weighed down by the expectations fans have for this film, somehow sidestepping the cluttered traps of other crowded part threes. “No Way Home” is crowded, but it’s also surprisingly spry, inventive, and just purely entertaining, leading to a final act that not only earns its emotions but pays off some of the ones you may have about this character that you forgot.
Note: I will very carefully avoid spoilers but stay offline until you see it because there are going to be landmines on social media.
“No Way Home” picks up immediately after the end of “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” with the sound of that film’s closing scene playing over the Marvel logo. Mysterio has revealed the identity of the man in the red tights, which means nothing will ever be the same for Peter Parker (Tom Holland). With an almost slapstick energy, “No Way Home” opens with a series of scenes about the pitfalls of super-fame, particularly how it impacts Peter’s girlfriend M.J. (Zendaya) and best bud Ned (Jacob Batalon). It reaches a peak when M.I.T. denies all three of them admission, citing the controversy about Peter’s identity and the roles his buddies played in his super-adventures.
Peter has a plan. The “wizard” he met when he saved half the population with The Avengers can cast a spell and make it all go away. So he asks Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to make the world forget that Spider-Man is Peter Parker, which, of course, immediately backfires. He doesn’t want M.J. or Ned or Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) to forget everything they’ve been through together, and so the spell gets derailed in the middle of it. Strange barely gets it under control. And then Doc Ock (Alfred Molina) and the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) show up.
As the previews have revealed, “Spider-Man: No Way Home” weaves characters and mythology from the other cinematic iterations of this character into the universe of the current one, but I’m happy to report that it’s more than a casting gimmick. My concern going in was that this would merely be a case of “Batman Forever” or even “Spider-Man 3,” where more was often the enemy of good. It’s not. The villains that return from the Sam Raimi and Marc Webb films don’t overcrowd the narrative as much as they speak to a theme that emerges in the film that ties this entire series back to the other ones. For a generation, the line about Spidey was “With great power comes great responsibility.” “Spider-Man: No Way Home” is about the modern Peter Parker learning what that means. (It also helps a great deal to have actors like Molina and Dafoe in villain roles again given how the lack of memorable villains has been a problem in the MCU.)
So many modern superhero movies have confronted what it means to be a superhero, but this is the first time it’s really been foregrounded in the current run of Peter Parker, which turns “No Way Home” into something of a graduation story. It’s the one in which Parker has to grow up and deal with not just the fame that comes with Spider-Man but how his decisions will have more impact than most kids planning to go to college. It asks some interesting questions about empathy as Peter is put in a position to basically try to save the men who tried to kill other multiverse iterations of him. And it playfully becomes a commentary on correcting mistakes of the past not just in the life of Holland’s Parker but those of characters (and even filmmakers) made long before he stepped into the role. "No way Home" is about the weight of heroic decisions. Even the right ones mean you may not be able to go home again.
Watts hasn’t gotten enough credit in his other two Spider-Man movies for his action and “No Way Home” should correct that. There are two major sequences—a stunner in a mirror dimension in which Spidey fights Strange, and the climactic one—but it’s also filled with expertly rendered minor action beats throughout. There’s a fluidity to the action here that’s underrated as Mauro Fiore’s camera swoops and dives with Spider-Man. And the big final showdown doesn’t succumb to the common over-done hollowness of MCU climaxes because it has undeniable emotional weight. I also want to note that Michael Giacchino’s score here is one of the best in the MCU, by far. It’s one of the only themes in the entire cinematic universe that feels heroic.
With so much to love about “No Way Home,” the only shame is that it’s not a bit more tightly presented. There’s no reason for this movie to be 148 minutes, especially given how much the first half has a habit of repeating its themes and plot points. Watts (and the MCU in general) has a habit of over-explaining things and there’s a sharper version of “No Way Home” that trusts its audience a bit more, allowing them to unpack the themes that these characters have a habit of explicitly stating. And, no offense to Batalon, turning Ned into a major character baffles me a bit. He always feels like a distraction from what really works here. On the other hand, this is the first of these three films that has allowed Zendaya and Holland’s chemistry to shine. In particular, she nails the emotional final beats of her character in a way that adds weight to a film that can feel a bit airy in terms of performance.
“Spider-Man: No Way Home” could have just been a greatest hits, a way to pull different projects into the same IP just because the producers can. Some will see it that way just on premise alone, but there’s more going on here than the previews would have you believe. It’s about what historic heroes and villains mean to us in the first place—why we care so much and what we consider a victory over evil. More than any movie in the MCU that I can remember, it made me want to dig out my old box of Spider-Man comic books. That’s a heroic accomplishment.
In theaters on December 17th.
Tom Holland as Peter Parker / Spider-Man
Zendaya as Michelle 'MJ' Jones
Benedict Cumberbatch as Stephen Strange / Doctor Strange
Jon Favreau as Harold 'Happy' Hogan
Jacob Batalon as Ned Leeds
Marisa Tomei as May Parker
Alfred Molina as Otto Octavius / Doctor Octopus
Jamie Foxx as Max Dillon / Electro
Willem Dafoe as Norman Osborn / Green Goblin
Tony Revolori as Eugene 'Flash' Thompson
Angourie Rice as Betty Brant
Martin Starr as Mr. Harrington
Hannibal Buress as Coach Wilson
J.B. Smoove as Mr. Dell
J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson
Benedict Wong as Wong