In the grand sequel tradition of Halloween II, Back to the Future Part II, and Harold and Kumar Escape Guantonimo Bay, Spider-Man: No Way Home picks up immediately where the last one concluded. As seen in Spider-Man: Far From Home, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) has been outed as Spider-Man and falsely accused of murder by the fear-mongering talking head of J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons)—the anxious guitars of Talking Heads’ “I Zimbra” swelling with the public fervor. Seeing the video accusation in midtown Manhattan, Parker extricates apprehensive girlfriend MJ (Zendaya) and himself from amassing helicopters and looker-on cameras via a neat, frenetic, web-swinging escape, only to see he and his loved ones’ lives irrevocably damaged thanks to Jameson’s claims. Most notably, Parker, MJ, and best friend Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalon) have their college applications rejected thanks to their proximity to Spider-Man’s newfound infamy. If colleges can’t forgive student debt, how can they forgive being an arachnid teen who may have killed Jake Gyllenhaal?
Consequently, Parker feels very, very bad about denying his fellow nerds their learning. So why not pay a visit to his old pal Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to request a magical undo button that fixes the whole situation?
This of course exists, and Strange agrees to cast the spell and erase the world’s memory of Parker being Spider-Man. But Parker’s flighty interjections during the casting breaks Strange’s concentration enough that the spell instead draws people from other universes who know Spider-Man’s true identity. Because multiverse something-or-other, five Spider-Man villains from two separate franchise iterations bleed into the MCU proper, and by minute thirty, Parker is on the Queensborough Bridge battling Doc Ock (a de-aged Alfred Molina) from Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 (his mechanical tentacles still have a listening problem, but never so nearly as awesomely realized as Raimi’s iconic hospital room scene).
Considering COVID restrictions, a quick turnaround, and juggling an impressive cast’s schedules, the film’s artificial, green screen-y aesthetic is forgivable, but something about the Ock fight is endemic of the film’s Venom 2-inspired sloppy visual effects. This Spider-Man sometimes looks and feels less like a major blockbuster than PS5’s Spider-Man—which ends up making more sense than it should once Strange lays out No Way Home’s primitive, video game-style mission structure: Parker and his pals must track down the invading Sinister Five one-by-one, capturing them with a special beam that teleports them to a little gallery of transparent cages set up in the bowels of Strange’s Sanctum Santorum. Plan B is using the aforementioned fucked-up spell, now conveniently housed in an ornate cubical MacGuffin, to send the legacy rogues back to their respective dimensions and dooms. Again, because multiverse something-or-other.
It’s a thin excuse to get some Ghosts of Spider-Men Past to kick around with Holland and company, but it makes as much sense as anything now that Loki established the multiverse, pushing what’s possible in the MCU to Maximum Comic Book Bullshit. (Though even Rey Skywalker would scoff at one non-magical character almost instantly learning one of Doctor Strange’s classic moves.) With five vintage plates to spin, No Way Home risks the most egregious case of classic superhero sequel Villain Overkill yet. But since this mix of classic and immediately-forgotten foes have all been established in previous pictures, it works out as well as it could—even if the individual character motivations get pretty muddy.
Given how beloved Spider-Man 2 and its antagonist remain almost 17 years since the film’s debut, Molina is smartly given the meatiest role of the group as the ever-sympathetic Dr. Otto Octavius, gleefully recapturing some of that ol’ Raimi magic. Willem Dafoe is a deliciously-close second as a resurgent Norman Osborn/Green Goblin from Spider-Man, who, in what may be a minor spoiler, finally gets his dumb little purple hood! Jamie Foxx’s Max DIllon/Electro from The Amazing Spider-Man 2, trades ways in being insufferable, and is now pretty much just Jamie Foxx, having been spared getting blued this time around. For consistency, Rhys Ifans and Thomas Haden Church also cash checks as nearly-completely CGI versions of Spider-Man 3’s Flick Marko/Sandman and The Amazing Spider-Man’s Dr. Curt Connors/The Lizard, respectively. It’s an unnecessarily expensive amount of bad guy star power for one wall-crawler to face. Sony is lucky they don’t have to fight NBC for Church over a Wings revival.
If Spider-Man: No Way Home sounds overstuffed, that’s because it kind of is. There’s even a return to Doctor Strange’s full-on Inception visual nonsense in one totally unnecessary fight scene. It doesn’t leave much time for the charming high school material from the first two features, but Batalon, Zendaya, Tony Revolori, Angourie Rice, et al. are still convincingly game youngsters—and the treat of more Simmons as the rising Daily Bugle’s Greek chorus is a decent enough trade-off. Rather, like Sony’s Ghostbusters: Afterlife less than a month ago, the studio’s focus here is plainly on pleasing the fans, from its blockbuster returning cast to the smallest, Downton Abbey DVD set-sized Easter Eggs. It just plays a lot better here with Marvel involved; they know a thing or two about crashing together their disparate action figures with just enough emotional substance.
Spider-Man: No Way Home is unapologetically a fan-pleasing machine, designed to fulfill the type of nostalgic wishes to see Norman Osborn and Otto Octavius interact with a lived-in familiarity for the first time. (There are obviously a few other fan-pleasing bits not mentioned here.) These scenes are a genuine pleasure, but at the heart of this ambitious spectacle is the funny and sad story of Holland’s poor Peter Parker. The kid who never seems to catch a break is maddeningly put through the wringer this time, and Holland’s performance gracefully imbues a level of pathos not seen since the Raimi Spider-trilogy—with a minimum of blubbering. Amidst a gratuitous constellation of satisfying reunions and redemptions for the characters of Spider-Man: No Way Home, it’s Spider-Man himself whose arc is most compellingly ambivalent. It’s going to be fun seeing where he goes when home isn’t an option.
Spider-Man: No Way Home
Director: Jon Watts
Studio: Sony Pictures Releasing
Runtime: 148 minutes
Cast: Tom Holland, Zendaya, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jacob Batalon, Jon Favreau, Marisa Tomei, J. B. Smoove, Martin Starr, Benedict Wong, Jamie Foxx, Alfred Molina, Willem Dafoe, Thomas Haden Church, Rhys Ifans