I wasn’t sure, especially in light of a pandemic that it seems we’ll never pull out of, if I’d ever have another theatrical experience quite on the level of “Avengers: Endgame.” I’m not a particular fan of that movie, or even the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole, but there’s no denying that the conversion of years’ worth of characters and storylines was the definition of event cinema. I’m not sure I entirely understand how the third installment of Sony/Marvel’s Spider-Man series featuring Tom Holland as Peter Parker ended up getting hyped up even more than the teaming of so many of the world’s biggest superheroes, or maybe I do— the pull of nostalgia is more powerful than ever in 2021, as we all seek comfort in the familiar. “Spider-Man: No Way Home” introduces the concept of the multiverse, or alternate timelines and dimensions, to the MCU, giving the filmmakers the freedom to pull characters from the previous live-action Spider-Man films into this one. A lot of your mileage on “No Way Home” is going to be dependent on your relationship to the Spider-Man films, the current run starring Holland and directed by Jon Watts in particular. There’s no denying that it’s an enjoyable watch, but it’s one that will either deepen your appreciate for the franchise, or remind you of better days (and better films).
“No Way Home” picks up immediately where its predecessor, “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” left off. A video message from Mysterio broadcast to the world has just outed Peter Parker as Spider-Man, prompting the teenager to scramble to protect his girlfriend MJ (Zendaya) and Aunt May (Marisa Tomei). After the dust settles and their senior year of high school begins, Peter is dismayed to find that his as well as MJ and his best friend Ned Leeds’ (Jacob Batalon) applications to MIT have been rejected because of their association with Spider-Man (they seem to have thought MIT was a sure thing before and there’s a lot to unpack there, but we’ll leave that for another day). So Peter decides that the logical thing to do is pay Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) a visit and ask him to cast a spell that will cause the world to forget that Peter Parker is Spider-Man. The problem is, Peter doesn’t realize until it’s too late that the spell will also cause everyone he cares about, including May, MJ, and Ned, to forget he’s Spider-Man too. Peter’s interference with Strange’s spell corrupts it, causing a rift in the multiverse that summons people who know Peter in other universes to come through to theirs- including some of Spider-Man’s greatest villains, like Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina) and the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe).
“No Way Home” served as further confirmation for me that Holland is such a good fit for this iteration of Peter Parker because they are both well-meaning, but fundamentally dumb, guys. This is far from the first time the primarily conflict of an MCU film has centered around the heroes cleaning up a mess they created (hello, Ultron), but it’s temple-rubbing levels of frustration watching Peter dig a deeper and deeper hole for himself as the movie progresses. It all circles back to Peter being a fundamentally good person who will do what it takes to help anyone—a lesson passed down from May— but there also comes a point where we just need to let the villains be villains. A portion of the story involves Peter wanting to help them out before sending them back to their own universes, but there’s something distasteful in the way he forces his solution on them, even when some of them very clearly do not want it.
Still, “No Way Home” forces Peter to come to an emotional reckoning the likes of which hasn’t been seen in his previous appearances, both in his own movies and in ensemble films. The film doesn’t quite hit all the emotional beats— it moves on from some of them too quickly, and I still don’t buy the romance between him and MJ enough to feel like they were meant to be in the way the movie pushes their relationship. I was disappointed in the previous Spider-Man film, “Far From Home,” partially because it didn’t explore the trauma in the aftermath of the blip as deeply as it portended to. “No Way Home” doesn’t go that far either, but it does prompt Peter to make a decision whose effects will surely be explored in a future sequel.
“No Way Home” includes a lot of fun appearances from characters and references to the last almost two decades of Spider-Man movies, in a way that will delight longtime fans without not alienating those who are only familiar with this current run of films. In addition to Molina and Dafoe, the cast also includes Jamie Foxx reprising his role as Electro from 2014’s “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” amongst other faces that aren’t mere cameos; they are all integral pieces of the story. But it’s interesting to consider how much of it is cleverly making use of the multiverse, and how much of it is just fan service. Holland’s Parker, with some exceptions (including big moments in this movie), has frequently existed in the shadow of other characters, whether he is fighting alongside the Avengers or grappling with the legacy of his mentor, Tony Stark. There are some really wonderful character moments in “No Way Home” that range from humorous to heart-rending, and the characters have good chemistry along with a warmth and supportiveness that we don’t see among male heroes in particular enough. But some scenes and lines of dialogue are such direct references to some of those other Spider-Man movies, they come off as cringey.
It doesn’t help that “No Way Home” is, like so much of the MCU lately, stylistically uninspired. The direction and cinematography are mostly flat, with Watts, in action scenes in particular, choosing to frantically whip the camera around rather than composing interesting shots. There’s also an artificially to the film that is likely due to covid safety protocols during filming and not the fault of anyone involved at all, but it still feels odd to see such an extreme lack of crowd shots in a big superhero movie set in one of the world’s busiest cities. And so much of the film feels structured around these big reveals to maximize the audience’s reaction. Like the previous two installments, regardless how middling the overall film is, “No Way Home” ends in a way that drums up intrigue for the next movie. But it was a bold choice to spend the bulk of its runtime reminding the viewers of other, better movies.
“Spider-Man: No Way Home” is now playing in theaters. Runtime: 148 minutes. Rated PG-13.