Spider-Man: No Way Home is the largest movie in the Spider-Man franchise, but it succeeds by never losing sight of the characters and emotion that make the wall-crawler Marvel’s best character. There’s a reason why head honcho Kevin Feige has worked so hard behind the scenes to ensure he keeps his creative touch on the character. Although the universe is filled with interesting stories and heroes, none is as capable of the diversity of stories found in the Spider-Man canon. He fights mad scientists, hardened criminals, space aliens and multiversal threats, all while principally worrying about his regular human life. Past movies have forgotten that balance and suffered for it. Looking at the advertising for No Way Home, it seemed like this iteration of the character was destined to fly too close to the sun just like his predecessors. Instead, this is one of the best films about the character, truly capturing the essence of his motto for the first time since Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man: With great power, comes great responsibility.
The last film, Spider-Man: Far From Home, ended with Peter Parker (Tom Holland) revealed to the world at large as Spider-Man. It quickly ruins his life, forcing him and Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) into relative hiding. Worse, it starts causing problems for his girlfriend, MJ (Zendaya), and pal Ned (Jacob Batalon) as they apply to colleges with the red mark of “accomplice” on the public record. Peter feels guilty and, in hopes of doing the right thing, asks Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to help the world forget his secret identity. When Peter realizes the spell would make his friends forget him, too, he accidentally messes up the spell, causing incursions of villains who learned his identity in other universes (i.e., previous films). It’s up to him to help capture them before they can cause trouble in his home universe.
So … yeah, this movie is massive. It not only features Peter Parker and his cast of supporting characters introduced in Spider-Man: Homecoming but also a substantial role for Doctor Strange and five villains from previous films — Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina), Norman Osborn (Wilem Dafoe), Electro (Jamie Foxx), Sandman (Thomas Haden Church) and Lizard (Rhys Ifans) — not to mention a number of other cameos and characters too exciting to talk about here. It makes the overstuffed swan songs for the other live-action Spider-Men look minuscule by comparison. Not that this is Holland’s last time out at bat, necessarily, but it would certainly make for a satisfying one. Every character is given their due, with big character moments and action beats that really use them to their potential.
Cumberbatch’s Strange has been one of Marvel’s most underutilized toys, due to the release slate (and COVID) pushing his second solo film back for years. Here, he’s a formidable, friendly presence. Unlike the inclusion of Iron Man and “Nick Fury” in the past two Holland Spider-Man films, Strange’s role feels like an logical direction for the story to take. This movie isn’t built around teaming Peter up with an MCU hero; it uses the MCU hero to further Peter’s arc.
The returning villains also feel properly integrated into Peter’s journey, although the details of their story and how he reacts to them are something I won’t spoil outright. Suffice to say, Dafoe, Molina and Foxx are all given particularly great material. The fact that they were introduced in previous movies lets the film dispense with crafting a big origin sequence, and we finally get what has always been missing from these films — villains who just kind of hate Spider-Man and aren’t intrinsically linked to this version of Peter Parker (or, in Marvel Studios’ case, Tony Stark) from the outset. In fact, one boon to No Way Home is that this version of Peter and his world is no longer linked to Tony Stark in an overbearing way. He uses Stark technology, but this is a Spider-Man story through and through.
That’s only scratching the surface, of course. Most of what transpires has been kept out of the trailers, kind of a first for a Sony Pictures Spider-Man production. The surprises are numerous, but the real surprise is that everything director Jon Watts and Kevin Feige’s team at Marvel throw into the film actually works. The comedy lands, the action is thrilling and the emotional payoffs are startling in their effectiveness. This is, more than any other Spider-Man film, a story that understands the inherent goodness of the title character — and the tragedy that his quest to do the right thing often requires unfair levels of personal sacrifice. That’s the old Parker Luck, as they call it in the comics.
Although there is quite a lot of nostalgia and callbacks throughout No Way Home, none of it feels superficial or stands in the way of the plot. Holland and Zendaya have such a sweet, natural chemistry that carries the story on its back. They start the film on the run together, devoted despite their youth, and where they end it … well, for what it’s worth, I hope the two can continue to be onscreen as these characters for several more films. It’s a lovely comic-book romance that works because people like them together. Peter Parker is a character whose bad luck affects those around him. The choices he makes in this movie feel better developed than the ones depicted in previous movies.
Marvel Studios have had an OK year. Black Widow, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Eternals were all relatively successful. Its Disney+ content has fared better, creatively, with Loki and Hawkeye being the standouts. But for the most part all of those feel … low-key in comparison to where the company was around Avengers: Endgame. None of those felt like events with the size and emotional palette of the studio’s finest output. No Way Home reminded me why I love the franchise, and the sort of excitement and emotionally gripping entertainment it has offered in the past. It’s basically perfect.