*** out of ****
(for sequences of action/violence, some language and brief suggestive comments)
Released: December 17, 2021
Runtime: 148 minutes
Directed by: Jon Watts
Starring: Tom Holland, Zendaya, Benedict Cumberbatch, Alfred Molina, Jamie Foxx, Willem Dafoe, Marisa Tomei, Jacob Batalon, Benedict Wong, Tony Revolori, Angourie Rice, J.K. Simmons
Movie theaters aren’t going anywhere because people will always want to have a place where they can share an experience together like Spider-Man: No Way Home.
The third film in the Tom Holland Home trilogy saga (itself an off-shoot from the broader Marvel Cinematic Universe), No Way Home is more than just a capper to a trilogy but, as the trailers have teased, an embrace of Spider-Man’s 20 year legacy on the big screen so far.
Picking up right where the last solo effort left off (or, well, where one of its end credit scenes was left hanging), the first act of No Way Home is a lazy hangover from Far From Home, the sloppy, cheesy YA entry that preceded it, which was a significant letdown from the spectacular Homecoming launch.
Peter Parker – whose secret identity was revealed – has fallen victim to fake news and is now seen as a dangerous vigilante, with his girlfriend MJ (Zendaya) and best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) branded as accomplices.
From that starting point, it’s amazing how swiftly the story jumps from resolving dire, complex legal implications to the trio simply worrying about if they’ll be accepted to any of their dream colleges.
It’s all pretext to establish a teenage anxiety that motivates a truly preposterous premise: Peter asking Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to risk bending time and space (or, at least, cast a universal spell over all of humanity against their will or consent) just so that Peter’s besties don’t have to live with the baggage of being associated with his polarizing persona.
But hey, the kids deserve a break and Marvel needs their multiverse, so why not?
Spoiler alert: things go wrong.
Suddenly, villains from other Spider-Man universes start entering this one (specifically and conveniently those from the IP’s previous two movie franchises). Thankfully, this is where the movie finally starts to get interesting, and not just because it’s a close-to-overkill edition of Spider-Man: Fan Service.
Rather than simply raising the stakes of what and who Spider-Man must face, No Way Home turns the twist into a moral dilemma for Peter. Now, the dangers of a heretofore flimsy, contrived plot are escalated significantly by testing that old Uncle Ben axiom, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
What unfolds from there is truly inspired, not simply in what happens but in how it happens.
Seeing Willem Dafoe and Alfred Molina reprise their roles as Green Goblin and Doc Ock are highlights (Dafoe’s tortured Norman Osborne especially), boosted by seamless digital de-aging that keeps them age-appropriate to their early-2000s era.
Jamie Foxx’s Electro from the second Spidey series is along for the ride as well, with (thankfully) the gaudy magnetic blue of his first incarnation removed. Foxx is also given the latitude to ditch Max Dillon’s sillier, geeky excesses. They’re all joined by two previous CGI baddies: Thomas Haden Church’s Sandman and Rhys Ifans’ Lizard.
If, to any degree, No Way Home is a missed opportunity, it’s in limiting its multiverse visitors to a nostalgia trip of characters we already know, rather than allowing for new ones, Spider-Verse style.
Tom Holland has described No Way Home as the darkest Spider-Man yet. It’s not. Not that he’s lying, mind you, as there are dark moments which, as an actor, likely tested Holland much more than the previous installments did.
Even so, it’d be more accurate to say that Spider-Man: No Way Home is the most sentimental Spider-Man movie ever made.
Yes, the requisite multi-franchise callbacks are all there, with winks and references in clever, satisfying abundance, but they’re not doled out as if from some cursory, exhaustive checklist. Each and every bit is considered, is consequential and, at times, even redemptive.
Sure, there have been better and will be better Marvel movies, but Spider-Man: No Way Home may very well stand as the most meaningful.