OUR SPOILER-SENSE IS TINGLING!
Review after the break!
Now that's how you do a fan-pleasing movie.
In all honesty, Spider-Man: No Way Home is an indulgent, over-the-top, absurd cash-in of a film. It's also an absolute joy. Is it designed to be the perfect fan-service for Marvel and Spider-Man fans, which is exactly what it is. This film is tremendous fun, and is far better than it really needs to be. No Way Home could have gotten away with being a stream of classic character cameos and patented Marvel CGI-heavy fights. What we got was a film with genuine heart, intelligent storytelling and three-dimensional characters brought to life by some of our most acclaimed actors and up-and-coming stars.
No Way Home is the ninth Spidey-film of the modern era, and all seven before it get referenced. The previous two MCU film form the backbone, with No Way Home following on directly from the shocking twist at the very end of Far From Home where Peter Parker had his identity as Spider-Man revealed to the world, whilst being framed for the murder of the villainous Mysterio. There's a lot to pick up on from that film, including Pete's budding relationship with MJ, his more complex relationship with his Aunt May and her (now ex) boyfriend Happy Hogan, and his mentorship by Tony Stark. This last element is downplayed in the latest film, which will suit many fans who felt that the MCU Spidey-films were turning him into Junior Iron Man, but still ties into the story. Instead, his reluctant father figure, to begin with at least, is Doctor Strange, who brings the reality-warping sorcery into the mix.
The film treads similar ground to Into the Spider-Verse, still for my money the best of the Spidey-films so far, although No Way Home gives it a run for its money. Like that animated triumph, No Way Home pulls on the Spider-Verse comics event from a few years ago, and on the many reality-hopping stories Marvel comics have run over the years (and with a strong link to the similarly-themed Loki Disney-Plus series). The big drawer, of course, is its tying into the two previous live action Spidey franchises. The three Sam Raimi/Tobey Maguire films and the two Mark Webb/Andrew Garfield are so crucial to this film that it's almost essential to watch them all before sitting down to this one. That's perhaps the only major downpoint to No Way Home – younger and more casual viewers are potentially going to feel alienated by references to seven earlier movies, going back almost twenty years.
Frankly, you have to wonder why Disney-Marvel didn't keep this one back for just a few more weeks so that it premiered in 2022 – the tenth anniversary of Garfield's The Amazing Spider-Man, the twentieth anniversary of Maguire's Spider-Man, and the sixtieth anniversary of Spider-Man's first apperance in the comicbook Amazing Fantasy. That's such a perfect serendipity it's worth giving up the Christmas release slot for.
Fans have poured over the trailers for No Way Home, which carefully revealed a little more each time while still keeping some things under wraps. In true MCU style, the takes we watched so intently are quite different to the ones that actually made it to the film, but that's the multiverse for you (obviously the trailers come a reality slightly to the left of this one). Unless you've really avoided the spoilers, you would have known going in that Alfred Molina was returning as Doctor Octopus, and that more of the famous villains from the earlier films were following him. Molina was a big part of what made Spider-Man 2 the best live action Spidey-film so far, perhaps the most accomplished actor to portray a villain in a comicbook movie and arguably the greatest supervillain performance of all time. That's not to say he was without competition, with Willem Defoe's turn as Norman Osborn, the Green Goblin, being astonishingly good as well. With years more experience under their belts, and more subtly written roles, Defoe and Molina are even better than in their previous appearances as the villains. It also helps that the de-ageing software, which Marvel have been applying to their older actors to hide the passage of time for about a decade now, has reached the point where it's completely convincing.
Alongside the big hitters we have Thomas Hayden Church returning as Flint Marko, the Sandman, easily the best thing about the much-maligned Spider-Man 3, Rhys Ifans voicing the Lizard and Jamie Foxx back as Max Dillon, aka Electro. I've still got a lot of time for the less celebrated Spidey-films, which is to say, anything that came out after Spider-Man 2 and before Homecoming, but there's a truth to the suggestion it was the villains that let them down. I still think the ASM2 version of Electro works, even though Foxx was miscast, but the Lizard never really worked in its predecessor. Both work far better here, with Foxx given material that suits him better and the Lizard kept to a minor but effective role.
While Doc Ock and the Sandman remain true to their imposing appearances in their original films, both Electro and the Goblin get makeovers. Dillon's is more immediate and obvious, his Ulimate Spider-Man look from ASM2 replaced by a more natural appearance, with the blue replaced with yellows and greens, first via fluorescent overalls and then an energy upgrade. Osborn, however, literally smashes his “lame Power Rangers mask” (as Weird Al would have it) and picks up donated clothes at May's shelter, gradually ending up as a spot-on cinematic version of his original comicbook look. It's just a shame that the Lizard doesn't get a labcoat. “Connors, you're about to turn human again and you'll be all naked. Here, we found you a coat, put it on.” Sorted.
It's also a fair suggestion that the overload of villains was a problem for Spider-Man 3, ASM2, and similar sequels including X-Men: The Last Stand, or even The Dark Knight Rises. While we don't quite make it to a Sinister Six here, five villains, an angry public plus the threat of collapsing reality is a lot for a film to shoulder. Yet it pulls it off, presenting a coherent storyline that has a strong theme and tone. No Way Home is a story about redemption, with Peter Parker going against Doctor Strange's say so and refusing to dump the villains back in their own universes to face their fated deaths. He instead chooses to exorcise the demons of the past franchises and save these villains, fighting to find them all cures even as they battle against him. It's a dangerous thing to be a friend to Peter Parker, especially if you're a scientist; you'll eventually fall foul of an experiment and turn into a crazed supervillain. (In one of the funnier running jokes of the film, the villains chat about the absurd circumstances that turned them into their current selves. “Electric eels... that'll do it.”)
Peter faces his own redemption for his mistakes, eventually making a supreme sacrifice to put the world back to, if not how it was, at least a way in which is can continue to function, even if he is left out of it. While it's a powerful moment when Aunt May finally gives him that golden advice, “With great power comes great responsibility,” it also dooms her. (She put it off for two-and-a-half films and dies moments after saying it. Never risk it in a Spidey-film.) May's death is painful but never feels gratuitous, instead coming as the moment this version of Parker needs to show him that he can't win all the time, and that the life he has chosen is dangerous. He's already shown his selflessness by his efforts to put his friends ahead of himself in their college careers and not be tarred by their assocation with him, but this moment is the one that grants him maturity, but also threatens to lead him on a dark path. When he finally smacks down with the Goblin, the little guy looks genuinely dangerous.
It's a career-best performance by Tom Holland (so far, the guy's got a lot of star turns ahead of him), bringing depth, charm and pain to the role, but there's a lot of praise to be given to the supporting good guy cast. Marisa Tomei continues to impress as the younger, more dynamic verison of Aunt May who actually functions as a character rather than simply a constant source of worry. Zendaya grants real warmth to the somewhat more open version of MJ, and her chemistry with Holland is palpable (and knowing the two young actors are a couple in real life only makes their moments sweeter). Jacob Batalon is pitch perfect as sidekick/best friend Ned. Cumberbatch doesn't have as much to do as Doctor Strange as he might have hoped, but is as solid as ever. Jon Favreau even gets to show a more reserved side to Happy. On the not-quite-bad-guys list, the Damage Control team are non-entities, but J. K. Simmons, surely the only person who can ever play J. Jonah Jameson on the big screen, is wonderful as a version of the character reworked for the fake news, conspiracy-theorist age we live in.
The biggest deal, of course, is the return of Maguire and Garfield to the role of Spider-Man. Holland, who basically made this film happen after watching Into the Spider-Verse and saying “I want to do that,” was told to keep his spoilerific mouth shut. Garfield followed suit, strenuously denying his involvement (as did Charlie Cox, making a nice little appearance as Matt Murdock for the first time since Daredevil ended). Maguire, on the other hand, was taking selfies with fans and telling anyone who asked that he was in it and it was going to be great. So we knew what to expect. That didn't stoop the actors' entrances being punch-the-air moments though. Garfield's was a lovely reveal, but it was Maguire who got the resounding cheer from the audience. I can only imagine that this was what it was like for Doctor Who fans watching The Three Doctors in 1972, the first time we ever saw different versions of the Doctor together.
Wisely the script recognises what made each of the actors so great in their respective performances. Maguire, the best Peter Parker, retains his simple, down-to-earth good guy persona, but gets to be honest with his age and plays the elder statesman. Garfield, the best as the wise-cracking Spidey, gets the funny moments but also the angst he played so well. Holland remains the best of both, while being the youngest and most tech-savvy version of the character, and the most optimistic. The three share fantastic chemistry on screen, and it's particularly nice that each pair of Parkers gets some extended time just chatting about things. These are moments that could slow the film right down but don't, instead acting as welcome breathers between frenetic set-pieces. The best touch, though, is having the MCU Peter be the one who teaches the other two loner Spideys how to work as part of a team.
Some elements are predictable, but that doesn't mean they don't work. Even from the trailer were we saw that MJ would fall during the climactic battle, we knew that Garfield's Spidey would swing and save her, exorcising his own failure to save Gwen. Sometimes, knowing it's coming makes it all the more satisfying. There's a mid-credits scene which is pointless but fun, Easter eggs a-plenty and visual spectacle by the spade. Could we have had more, though? Could this film have even fit more in? There's no appearance by either Kirsten Dunst or Emma Stone, although it's hard to see how they easily could have been inserted into the narrative without it feeling cheap. James Franco would have rounded out the six as Harry Osborn and provided even more story opportunities, but he is persona non grata right now. A brief appearance by original screen Spider-Man Nicholas Hammond would have been nice. And if everyone's being pulled across the multiverse, a chance for Simmons to play two versions of Jonah, head-to-head? We can but dream.
No, it's silly to demand even more. No Way Home is the culmination of not just one, but three takes on this beloved character, complete with little hints at a fourth (and if Miles had turned up, I would have screamed). For all the fan service, OTT visual tricks, elabroate action sequences and jokes about the Rhino, this is a heartfelt, ultimately moving film about redemption, sacrifice and growing up. An absolute triumph.