Marvel Studios out-nerds itself once again with Spider-Man: No Way Home, a fan-service extravaganza that will dazzle and delight MCU scholars and casual audiences alike. It’s a film that acknowledges the fact that geeks have taken over the world.
It’s no secret that the film features characters from Spider-Man films of years past, with trailers revealing Alfred Molina would be reprising his role as Doctor Otto Octavius (Raimi’s Spider-Man 2), and Jamie Foxx would return as Max Dillon/Electro (Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2). This franchise crossover is a dream come true for fans of the films. Is a comprehensive knowledge of every Spider-Man film a prerequisite to enjoying No Way Home?
To a certain extent, yes. You will have a lot more fun watching this film if you’re familiar with the early 2000s Sam Raimi films and the pair of Amazing Spider-Man films from a few years ago. But the good news is, there are legions of Spider-Man and MCU fanatics out there, so the No Way Home isn’t exclusively appealing to a niche demographic. Yes, the film is a veritable deluge of references and meta-jokes that rewards those who have invested in the MCU (and beyond) for years. It’s a geeksplosion of cameos and Easter eggs, but there’s enough substance in the storytelling to hold it all together.
What makes the MCU Spider-Man films feel so relevant and timeless to fans is that, deep down, they’re coming-of-age stories. In No Way Home, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) learns hard lessons about loss, selflessness, and the big one: responsibility. It would be easy for this film to get bogged down by the sheer number of characters and plot machinations swirling around, but Peter’s growth as a person remains the focus of the story throughout.
The story picks up right where the last film, Watt’s 2019 film, Spider-Man: Far From Home, left off. It’s been revealed to the world that Peter Parker is Spider-Man, making him the most famous person on earth, which comes with a slew of negative repercussions that affect the lives of everyone he loves. In an act of desperation, he solicits the help of Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to cast a spell that will make everyone outside his inner circle forget that he is Spider-Man. When the spell goes haywire, it opens doors to other universes and unleashes a gang of villains that push Peter to his limits and forces him to redefine the type of hero he wants to be.
There is simply no way to delve into the story with any measure of specificity without spoiling the experience. There are twists and surprises seemingly at every turn, and these reveals are what make the No Way Home so fun to watch, particularly as a shared experience in a theater with fellow geeks. In broad terms, it’s fair to say that those with a proclivity to spirited internet speculation will not be disappointed. This film is the most over-the-top thing you’ll see in a theater this year. I mean that in the best way.
Holland once again proves to be the best big-screen Peter Parker yet, capturing youthful exuberance and crippling insecurity at once. Any teen or former teen can relate to Peter’s struggle to put his loved ones first while at the same time managing his own interests and aspirations, and Holland handles both the comedic and dramatic story beats with ease.
The trio of Peter, MJ (Zendaya), and Ned (Jacob Batalon) remains the beating heart of the franchise, and the actors, who are famously close in real life, share a chemistry that can’t be faked. They’re hilarious together, and their more intense scenes together come across as genuine because the actors’ love for each other is so obviously real. In a film full of fantasy and spectacle, it’s comforting to have them act as the story’s center of gravity.
Director Jon Watts understands what has made these films so wildly successful so far, and he doesn’t stray too far from the formula with No Way Home – to its benefit. Unlike the rest of the MCU, the Spider-Man stories center on teenagers, and the No Way Home naturally feels youthful. Peter and his mutant friends are just as worried about getting into the same college together as they are about saving the world.
There’s a surprisingly funny dynamic between the young characters and their adult counterparts. Doctor Strange and Doctor Octavius are, per their distinguished titles, all business all the time. The kids, however, can’t help but giggle at their perpetually dour dispositions and don’t hesitate to poke and prod at their sizable egos at every opportunity.
The film’s excellent character work extends beyond the heroes. It’s a wild idea for the villains to be plucked from older films that, to this point, have had no connection to the MCU whatsoever. But Watts and co. make it work with a thoughtful explanation as to how they came to be “evil” and whether they’re worthy of a second chance or not. Redemption is a major theme here, and the way each of the characters does or does not redeem themselves is both creative and deeply emotional.
As for the fun stuff, like the set pieces, the crossovers, and the ever-popular post-credits scenes – it’s all fantastically entertaining. Things happen on screen that, only a year or two ago, nobody would think possible in a gigantic Hollywood franchise. The final battle takes place on a heavily under-construction Statue of Liberty (its torch is being replaced by Steve Rogers’ shield) and is a little hard to follow due to the sheer number of characters involved. But the fight sequences are eye-popping and delightfully comic book-y, with powerful emotional beats weaved in the scenes.
No Way Home seems more like a massive cultural event than a film, and that’s a testament to the universe that MCU president Kevin Feige and the brain trust that Marvel Studios have built over the last 13 years. While No Way Home is but a cog in a larger movie-making machine, it stands on its own as a wonderful third entry in a series that is primed to usher the younger generation of audiences into the future of the ever-expanding MCU.