Historically, Spider-Man series don’t have much longevity. Sam Raimi’s noughties take had two soaring instalments, before hitting a wall with its third. Marc Webb only managed two, neither fulfilling their potential. Jon Watts is now on his third. He’s not only setting out to prove he can hit three in a row but trying to tie all the Spider-Man movies together, effectively making this the capper on one 20-year saga. It’s an insane mission, yet in all the most important ways he succeeds triumphantly.
It’s only been two years since Far From Home, but there’s been a lot going on, so to catch up: the dying hurrah of villain Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal), who the public thought was a hero, was to tell the world Spider-Man (Tom Holland) murdered him and then reveal Spidey’s true identity. No Way Home begins with Peter, still just 17, the most famous kid on the planet, being investigated for murder and wishing he could go back to simpler times. He knows a man who can do that, so he swings off to visit Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), who casts a spell to make the world forget Peter Parker. That spell goes very, very wrong. Instead of making the world forget Peter, it makes everybody in every reality fixate on this Peter Parker. In short order, villains from every Spider-Man universe are leaking through the fabric of reality to kill Peter. So you have the villains from Raimi’s and Webb’s movies invading Watts’. Welcome to the multiverse.
The wild ambition of that idea brings both joys and awkward difficulties. Let’s do the downsides first. Using villains from all the films means you’re not just treated to the good ones but lumbered with the ones you may not even remember. Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina) and Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) were so vivid in Sam Raimi’s films that they arrive with the weight of solid backstory and clear personality. The others are wisps by comparison. Sandman (Thomas Haden Church) from Raimi’s dreadful third outing, and Electro (Jamie Foxx) and Lizard (Rhys Ifans) from Marc Webb’s messy efforts, were underwritten in their own films and it’s too much to ask that their brief screen time here can flesh them out into fulfilling characters. The film tries some Suicide Squad-ish comedy with them but little of it lands because there’s not much personality to play with. The villain performances range from gleefully pantomime (Dafoe and Molina) to phoned-in (Jamie Foxx does not even attempt to reprise his characterisation from Amazing Spider-Man 2, instead rebooting the character as ‘a man like Jamie Foxx’).
And yet, we start with the bad because the good far outweighs it. For one, the audacious spectacle of putting all these baddies in one film is thrilling, even before they’ve done anything. They could sit and relay the complexities of their contract negotiations and it would still hold some excitement. The real triumph is in how Watts and writers Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers use this opportunity. It’s not lazy fan service, Easter eggs from films past served up for cheap cheers. The gimmick is used to really get into what it means to be Spider-Man. A comic book villain is always a cracked mirror version of the hero. No Way Home reflects Peter back at himself in so many ways that he can’t avoid reckoning with what he sees.
While Strange wants to return the villains to their universes and inevitable death, Peter thinks he can rehabilitate them before they return. He can’t bring himself to effectively kill people he’s never met. This is always Spider-Man’s lot. He thinks everyone can be saved. This is a film about the MCU’s most upbeat hero realising that’s not true. Tom Holland’s boyscout-ish Parker faces up to the reality that being Spider-Man means failing, facing tragedy, and learning to come back swinging. Spider-Man’s greatest power is eternal optimism in the face of inevitable tragedy.
Holland has always been a great Spider-Man but he ascends to a new level here. All the ‘aw gosh gee willikers’ stuff he still does charmingly, but this time he has to do some hefty emotional lifting. The weight of two decades of Spider-Man movies are on his wiry shoulders and he carries it manfully. To go into detail about how the film explores the soul of Peter Parker would give away secrets – although knowing ‘spoilers’ should in no way ruin your enjoyment of the story, such is a the quality of the character writing – but suffice to say that in terms of getting to the heart of the character, No Way Home is the ultimate Spider-Man film. There are moments here that make you want to cheer and weep simultaneously. It’s not the most visually spectacular, it’s not the funniest, but it’s the most emotionally rich. For Spider-Man fans who’ve stuck with the character through the soaring highs and the sticky lows, this is your reward. And it makes it all worth it.
- Director: Jon Watts
- Starring: Tom Holland, Zendaya, J.K. Simmons
- Release date: December 16