Spider-Man: No Way Home is hands-down one of the best comic-book adaptations ever made. Similar to 2008’s The Dark Knight or 2012’s The Avengers, it’s a fresh re-imagining of what is possible within the genre. It’s also an example of fan service done correctly, tastefully, and a significant step-up for Tom Holland’s iteration of the character. Between his modern-day Avenger and Sam Raimi’s classical take, played by Tobey Maguire, it’s been a close-race in terms of which actor and interpretation was the “definitive” on-screen form of our friendly neighborhood web-head. Through storytelling ambition, emotional heft, surprising directorial finesse, and a command of different franchise tones jockeying for position, No Way Home is the film that puts Holland and his director Jon Watts over the top. The latter may not hold a candle to Raimi when it comes to visual acumen, camera wizardry, or unique style and personality, but his writers have crafted the perfect Spider-Man arc over the course of three pictures, culminating in 2021’s magnum opus delving into the much-ballyhooed multiverse.
What sets apart No Way Home beyond the obvious, beyond the cameos and cultivated moments of joy and audacity and meta commentary, are the deepening of certain themes and feelings of which the previous Holland pictures only scratched the surface. Marisa Tomei finally gets a moment or two to shine as Aunt May, her significance in Peter’s life coming into sharper focus, and Peter’s relationship with MJ (Zendaya) strikes a much more poignant note than the meet-cute banter seen in the previous films. For all their heart, the Marvel canon Spider-Man had so far lacked the emotional whollop and earnestness which defined the Raimi era. Sony and Marvel had been so concerned with avoiding repetition (and for good reason, following the Webb-Garfield era) that they had doubled-down on wink-wink, too-cool-for-school sarcasm to paint a stark contrast between the MCU and the rest of Sony’s superhero ilk. That made them terrific comedies and coming-of-age stories, and yet slightly ho-hum when it came to human drama and elevated stakes, save a brief collapsed building or a certain villainous father. No Way Home ups the ante on the human drama, finally allowing Holland’s Parker to face the level of torment and sacrifice part and parcel to the comics, and which routinely haunted Tobey’s nebbish dweeb and Garfield’s wiseacre outsider. And due to the return of Willem Dafoe as Norman Osborn, there’s also a palpable menace here that was missing previously, a sense of dread that never accompanied Keaton’s blue-collar Vulture or Jake’s con-artist Mysterio. When he and Parker go toe-to-toe in a condo during a visceral hand-to-hand brawl, hurling each other through concrete floors and plastered walls, it’s evident the influences are plentiful as we’re reminded of the violent, climactic bout between them in 2002’s Spider-Man. It’s a sequence that stands out for being one of the very few set pieces in the MCU to forgo CGI in favor of practical effects, with smoke, dust, fire, and an impressive set destroyed before our very eyes, all without any computer-generated assistance (for the most part). It’s a beauty, buoyed by Dafoe’s maniacal performance as he cackles in Parker’s face, in the face of pain.
That’s not to say No Way Home doesn’t feel apiece with its predecessors. Humor remains a priority, with Parker’s best pal Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalon) serving a bigger role as his “guy in the chair,” and once again Peter is partnered with an older Avenger who serves as both snarky obstacle and all-powerful mentor. Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) fills in where Tony Stark and Nick Fury left off, exasperated and attempting to correct for his botched spell after the young web-crawler comes a-calling for help with a newfound exposed identity. The picture opens strong, diving into the real-world ramifications of Mysterio’s reveal at the end of Far From Home, from helicopters hovering over Aunt May’s apartment to legal trouble like government spooks interrogating Peter, his friends, family, even Happy (Jon Favreau) regarding the use of military-grade drones and other technology. Unfortunately, outside of a thread involving Ned and MJ (Zendaya) getting rejected from MIT for associating with a known vigilante, this subplot is promptly dropped once multiversal chaos is unleashed, begging the question of what was lost in the quest to cram as many of Spidey’s cinematic foes as possible into a two-and-a-half hour runtime. Doc Ock (Alfred Molina) enjoys a welcome return, his iconic tentacles getting a workout in a standout action sequence on a bridge when Peter tries amiably to fix said MIT situation by tracking down the Dean of Admissions. Less welcome are Lizard (Rhys Ifans) and Sandman (Thomas Haden Church), the former a plot afterthought and the latter not exactly belonging by virtue of having already reformed by the end of Spider-Man 3. Jamie Foxx’s Electro is somewhat redeemed by ditching the blue skin and leather suit and opting instead for an arc reactor, though the explanation for why he looks so different is rather daft, and Foxx seems to be playing himself more than anything else. Dafoe steals the show, his Goblin proving once again to be Spidey’s arch-nemesis, in more ways than one. He pushes Peter to the brink of what he’s capable of and to the line he never thought about crossing until now. No matter the number of villains, No Way Home never forgets about its titular hero, putting him through the wringer to rigorously learn his biggest lesson of all.
To divulge or discuss more would be to spoil the film’s best surprises. Suffice to say, No Way Home is the best superhero picture since Endgame in what feels like five years ago instead of three. A couple of minor plot holes abound, such as why the magic of spidey-sense magically disappears on many occasions, but fans can chalk that up to Peter’s inexperience and other vagaries. Additionally, Marvel’s cinematography woes are like weather: you can’t stop what’s coming. Multiple scenes set in Strange’s “wizard dungeon” are woefully underlit, the picture’s lack of contrast and overuse of grayscale colors sapping the film of its otherwise lively color palette. These are quibbles compared to the incredibly enjoyable and emotional narrative, many notable performances, and in some cases, even impressive filmmaking from director Watts, a young upstart clearly still improving. Regardless of their inability to avoid particular quirks, certain flaws, Marvel continues to outdo themselves every few years. Redefining what makes the character so heroic, and doing so with harrowing aplomb, Spider-Man: No Way Home is another example of the studio at the top of their game.
P.S. I recognize Sony plays a part in these pictures, but it’s difficult to grant them credit given the recent lacking quality of their non-Marvel-affiliated comic-book movies.