Another month, another new Marvel Cinematic Universe installment. But unlike the last two movies in the ever-growing MCU, this one actually feels important. The previous two films, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” in September and “Eternals” last month, were more about introducing new players and hinting at things to come. But “Spider-Man: No Way Home” had the feel of something significant, not only because it features one of Marvel’s most popular properties, but because its story felt like a genuine game-changer.
This is the third Spider-Man movie since Disney’s unorthodox partnership with Sony Pictures. Their first collaboration, 2017’s “Homecoming”, spent too much time rewriting Peter’s history in order to fit in the MCU. Their next film, 2019’s “Far From Home” felt more like a Spider-Man story and set things up nicely for what might be coming next. “No Way Home” not only pulls from those two movies, but from other films and streaming shows in the MCU catalog. And it definitely sets the table for some interesting but also confusing things to come.
Tom Holland hops back into the red and blue spandex, but this time the stakes are more cosmic(ish). In fact, reality itself is in flux as Holland’s Peter Parker and a weirdly inept Doctor Strange (a returning Benedict Cumberbatch) botch a magic spell and inadvertently pull people from across the multiverse out of their worlds and into ours. How they do doesn’t make sense. Neither do the potential consequences. But returning director Jon Watts and screenwriters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers are content with urging their audience to ‘just go with it’ and worrying about the explaining later.
The 25-year-old Holland effortlessly falls back into the role of Peter Parker, a character he has managed to make his own (And can we please get past the fruitless “Who’s the better Spider-Man” debate. Much like Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield, Holland offers his own fun and unique spin on the character). As the movie begins Peter is feeling defeated. Now that the world knows he’s Spider-Man (see the end of “Far From Home”) he finds himself thrust into the spotlight. Some call him a hero, others consider him a villain.
To make matters worse, those closest to him are starting to suffer due to his notoriety, especially his girlfriend MJ (Zendaya) and his longtime best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon). Tired of seeing his loved ones suffer, Peter seeks out Dr. Stephen Strange and asks him to conjure up a spell that would cause the world to forget he was Spider-Man. In a comically bumbling scene of hocus-pocus, the two accidentally open up the multiverse. Strange stops the spell and contains it before any damage is done.
Or so he thinks.
Soon villains from other universes (namely Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” trilogy from the 2000s and Marc Webb’s “Amazing Spider-Man” movies from the 2010s) begin popping up and terrorizing the city. Among them is Alfred Molina reprising his role as Dr. Otto Octavius, Willem Dafoe as Norman Osborn, Jamie Fox as Electro, and a few other unexpected surprises that’s better left unmentioned.
Watts is given a lot of story to cover and even more characters to manage. To his credit he mostly succeeds which is an impressive task in itself. There’s clearly broader franchise implications to what we see. But Spider-Man has always been best as a more intimate superhero story. Watts is able to balance both of those needs in a surprisingly satisfying way.
The movie is also helped by its terrific cast, most of whom know these characters like the back of their hands. I’ve talked about Holland, but the most pleasant surprise continues to be Zendaya and Batalon. I didn’t care for either of their characters in “Homecoming”. Both took a step up in “Far From Home”. Here they’re even better. Both Zendaya and Batalon have a good feel for who these characters are and they’re given material that really grounds them. Together with Holland, the three wonderfully convey one of the film’s most effective themes – friendship. Love, loyalty, sacrifice – it’s all captured in their relationships.
Also returning is Jon Favreau as Happy Hogan. And Marisa Tomei is back as the MCU’s unusual version of May (they drop the “Aunt” because it doesn’t carry as much sex appeal). Cumberbatch makes for a terrific Doctor Strange even if his role here is a pretty weird one. As for Dafoe and Molina, both veteran actors are terrific and you’d never guess it has been nearly 20 years since they last played these roles. There are some other performances I’d love to praise, but it’s best if you discover (and enjoy) them for yourselves.
“No Way Home” is a good looking movie with DP Mauro Fiore putting together some eye-popping action (there’s one sequence that takes place in a realm called the “mirror dimension” that is absolutely jaw-dropping). At the same time, the film has a lot of heart and it gives its characters more time to reckon with their emotions than the previous movies. It’s an emphasis on their humanity that I really responded to. There’s also some fantastic callbacks to previous Spidey films that not only excited me, but also the packed house of moviegoers I watched with.
Without question, there’s far more to like about “No Way Home” than to dislike. At the same time, parts of the story don’t really hold up once you start asking questions. Also, not every character decision works (sorry, I’m still not buying a Doctor Strange with so much ineptitude and such little foresight). And by the end, the direction of both the story and the MCU was murkier than before. But at some point all you can do is let the brains at the MCU hive-mind figure it out and then hope they’re able to bring it all together. It’s the best approach. Otherwise you risk missing out on all the enjoyment Spider-Man’s latest chapter has to offer. “Spider-Man: No Way Home” is now showing in theaters.