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For months now, the hype surrounding Spider-Man: No Way Home has been inescapable. Ever since the massive cliffhanger ending of 2019’s Spider-Man: Far From Home, in which the MCU version of J. Jonah Jameson both framed Spider-Man for the death of Mysterio and simultaneously revealed his secret identity, fans have been wondering how Peter Parker (Tom Holland) would confront the worst possibility he could imagine. How would he survive no longer being anonymous?
Also, just who is this version of Jameson and why is he played by J.K. Simmons again after 14 years away from the role?
It’s no spoiler to say–it’s the trailers, for Pete’s sake–that those questions are answered fairly quickly during the first act of No Way Home. With Peter wanted by the police and his cover blown, his world is now turned upside down. Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), and the love of his life, Michelle “MJ” Watson (Zendaya) are also caught in the whirlpool of bad publicity, and it threatens to overtake all their lives. So Peter does the only sensible thing he can think of: He asks a fellow Avenger for help.
That Avenger is Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), who senses Peter’s pain and agrees to cast a spell that will make everyone forget Peter is Spider-Man. But Peter realizes halfway through the process that he doesn’t want everyone to forget–mainly the three people mentioned above–and his attempt to get Strange to change the spell midstream opens up a crack in the universe which should never have been opened.
Through that crack comes an assortment of villains who are complete strangers to this Peter Parker, but well-known to fans of the Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield eras of the Spider-Man franchise: Dr. Otto “Doc Ock” Octavius (Alfred Molina), Max “Electro” Dillon (Jamie Foxx), Flint “Sandman” Marko (Thomas Haden Church), Dr. Curt “the Lizard” Connors (Rhys Ifans), and, most ominously of all, Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe). Yes, the original Green Goblin himself is back. It’s not quite the Sinister Six, but it’s certainly a Fearsome Five whom Peter must round up and allow Strange to send home. Which is far more challenging than it sounds.
The dilemma that arises for Peter in Spider-Man: No Way Home is a conundrum almost straight out of a classic Spider-Man comic book. While hunting these rogues down, Peter decides to do the right thing instead of the simple thing, and his actions have ramifications for him and his loved ones that put this teenager through the ringer like never before. “I sometimes forget you’re still a kid,” says Strange at one point, and that sums up Peter’s torment in one neat line. Despite all he’s seen and done in his young life, he’s still a kid, and the decisions he makes can be impulsive and even wrong.
It takes a little while for Spider-Man: No Way Home to get to the heart of the matter, and some of the first half of the film features awkward plot turns. But once director Jon Watts–helming his third Spidey film, and from a screenplay by Far From Home writers Chris McKenna and Eric Sommers–hits on the crux of Spider-Man’s conflict and raises both the stakes, No Way Home becomes something of an epic.
Make no mistake, there is lots of fan service in No Way Home. But we’re happy to report that the film–unlike so many other villain-heavy superhero movies–somehow makes it work. Doc Ock, Electro, and Norman Osborn all get material to play, and even the Lizard and Sandman enjoy a moment or two to shine. No one here is a walk-on. Although we’re still not fans of the Lizard’s design, we actually like this version of the bad guy from The Amazing Spider-Man better. And watching all of them interact with each other scratches the itch for those of us who have longed for some iteration of the Sinister You-Know-Who to arrive onscreen.
Doctor Strange is also a welcome sight after being sidelined for most of Avengers: Endgame, and the relationship between him and Spider-Man/Peter is plenty different from the latter’s dynamic with the late Tony Stark. Strange is not a mentor or father figure to Peter like Tony was, yet they’re not quite equals either. Typically, Strange thinks he knows better than the young high school student–and for a while it seems like he’s right, much to Peter’s dismay.
At the heart of it all is Holland’s stellar performance, and we sincerely hope that he isn’t going to hang up his web-shooters after this. No Way Home features Holland’s best work as Peter and Spidey to date, with the film driving him toward emotional extremes he has never previously touched. His chemistry with Zendaya and Batalon is also real (Zendaya exudes a lot of warmth here while she and Batalon also provide gentle comic relief).
The action in the film is similarly terrific–you really feel it in particular during Spidey’s first battle with Doc Ock–and the climactic confrontation likewise hits unexpected emotional beats that bring things full circle for Holland’s Spider-Man. There’s also a reality-bending sequence with Doctor Strange that feels like it’s leapt off the pages of one of their many team-ups. In fact, much of No Way Home, with its multiple villains, forays into magic and multiverse weirdness, and earnest character motivations, leans into its comic book roots far more than Spider-Man: Homecoming and No Way Home previously did.
This feels like Watts’ more assured outing in the MCU so far (which bodes well for his next assignment, Fantastic Four), and while the CG involved in bringing the Lizard and Sandman back is still a little shaky, Doc Ock’s arms and the way he moves are more impressive than ever before. Mauro Fiore’s cinematography, meanwhile, is sturdy if unremarkable while Michael Giacchino’s score (following his work on Far From Home) hits both the emotional notes and the more oddball cosmic ones.
Spider-Man: No Way Home ends a strange year for Marvel on a strong note. While 2021 featured an enjoyable if redundant prequel (Black Widow), a compelling debut for an obscure hero (Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings), and an experimental if divisive spectacle featuring even more unknown characters (Eternals), No Way Home channels the entire spectrum of Spider-Man movies while setting the character on a course all his own at last. Make sure you stay for the credits.
Spider-Man: No Way Home arrives in theaters on Friday, Dec. 17.