The Pitch: It’s very very hard to make specific references to much of what happens in Spider-Man: No Way Home without spoilers. But at one point, while discussing the memory spell that Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) has agreed to perform for Peter Parker (Tom Holland), Peter voices his concern over his beloved MJ (Zendaya) forgetting that he’s Spider-Man.
Doctor Strange then points out that if MJ is only Peter’s girlfriend because he’s Spider-Man, then what does that say about their relationship? It’s perhaps the smartest thing Doctor Strange says in the entire movie, and evaluating No Way Home leads to a similar dilemma.
What director Jon Watts and writers Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers have done with this film is an unprecedented piece of corporate-produced art. But attempting to write about it without blowing some of the bigger reveals highlights this question: Separated from the most exciting/controversial/unexpected moments in play, and without the element of surprise, does No Way Home hold up as a good story well told? The answer is yes to a degree…but it could have gone further.
Bring Me Pictures of Spider-Man! If you haven’t recently seen Holland’s previous Spider-Man outing, Far From Home, you might want to go revisit it, as the action of No Way Home picks pretty much immediately after the surprise outing of Peter as Spidey by J. Jonah Jamison (J.K. Simmons, whose new interpretation of the character veers immediately into full-tilt Alex Jones territory here).
Being revealed as a superhero when you’re still a senior in high school turns out to have a number of drawbacks, which mount up to the point where Peter approaches his ol’ pal Doctor Strange (they went to space together that one time, remember?) about finding a magical solution to this problem. Doctor Strange agrees to help, but things go wrong, and the end result leads to the kind of chaos we’re coming to know, here in Phase 4 of the MCU, as multiverse-related.
We’re Using Our Made-Up Names: Let’s at this point assume that anything blatantly teased in the No Way Home trailers which have been released so far is fair game to discuss in this review, which is to say that it can be said here that past Spider-Man villains from the earlier, Sony-produced incarnations of the character become central to the storyline.
Fan service is often used as a pejorative term, but while No Way Home features many things guaranteed to make MCU super-fans cheer and/or freak out, none of them felt truly extraneous. There’s even one scene, just a conversation between three characters in the lead-up to a battle, which goes on slightly longer than one might expect, but in the best way possible — like a miracle ice cream you can eat and eat without ever feeling sick.
Beyond telling a story about superheroes fighting supervillains, though, there’s a fascinating meta undercurrent flowing through No Way Home that in some ways is genuinely groundbreaking, because up until this point in our storytelling-obsessed culture there simply hasn’t been much cause for a franchise to engage so directly with its own past.
The history of Marvel on-screen is a fascinating one on a business level, due to the various ways in which the intellectual property originally created by Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, Jack Kirby, and countless other writers and artists has been sold and/or licensed over the years. Take the curious case of Roger Corman’s The Fantastic Four, or the complicated negotiations that have led to multiple studios battling for rights to certain characters, and their related sidekicks and villains.
In short, there’s never been a storytelling universe where so much of the creative is tied up in the business side of things, to the point where it now seems like those two factors have come together to create a unique symbiotic organism. (That sentence did not intentionally start off as a reference to Venom, but that sure is where it ended, so we’ll just go with it.)
In the case of No Way Home, there are superficial ways in which the sins of past Spider-Man movies are addressed — Jamie Foxx‘s Electro gets a less blue/less silly look, and unlike in the 2002 Spider-Man, you actually get to see all of Willem Dafoe‘s face rather than an expressionless plastic mask. (Nineteen years later, and the scene in Spider-Man where Green Goblin and Spidey just hang out on a roof in their masks and snipe at each other still remains a real nadir for superhero movies.)
Get This Man a Shield Oscar: On his third MCU outing, Watts now seems very comfortable playing with the visual toolbox made available to him, including a sequence featuring Doctor Strange that’s on par with the kaleidoscopic battles that Scott Derrickson crafted for the Sorcerer Supreme’s 2016 film debut.
Also, one scene in particular stands out because, of the half-dozen actors on screen, everyone except Holland has at least one Tony or Oscar nomination — a reminder of just how much high caliber talent these films have been able to attract over the years — and in general Holland proves that at some point soon, he’ll join their ranks. There are both nuanced and monumental events thrown at the character in this film, and the former Billy Elliot manages to capture everything that makes this a pivotal moment in what’s evolved into a three-part coming-of-age story.