Spider-Man: No Way Home (United States, 2021)

December 16, 2021
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Spider-Man: No Way Home Poster

Note: This review contains no overt spoilers beyond what can be found in the trailers and other officially sanctioned publicity material. However, if you read between the lines, you may sniff out a few things. Proceed with caution.

Spider-Man: No Way Home completes the Tom Holland Spider-Man/MCU trilogy begun in Spider-Man: Homecoming and continued in Spider-Man: Far from Home. Once again directed by Jon Watts and featuring another high-profile Marvel character (following in the footsteps of Iron Man and Nick Fury), No Way Home brings the three-part arc to a resounding conclusion that may be a little more “sound and fury” than substance. Nevertheless, as superhero movies go, this one offers its share of satisfying moments and is guaranteed to warm the heart of any Spider-Man movie fan, regardless of when their fandom started.

With a movie like this, there’s usually the question of whether the final product can match the expectations generated by a brilliant marketing campaign and the seemingly boundless enthusiasm among potential viewers. For the most part, Watts succeeds in scaling the peak, although it’s fair to wonder how much better No Way Home might have been had its various piece-parts been kept under wraps. But with possible spoilers revealed as part and parcel of the publicity onslaught, the movie is forced to rely a little more on the narrative than might otherwise have been the case and, as is often true with superhero movies, that proves not to be the film’s strongest point.

No Way Home starts its journey by overlapping the shocking ending of Far from Home, where the despicable J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons) reveals to the world that Spider-Man’s secret identity is none other than high school student Peter Parker, while peddling the conspiracy theory that the superhero was responsible for the “murder” of the previous installment’s villain, Mephisto.  Suddenly, Peter learns what it means to be the most famous person in the world and discovers that fame doesn’t have many perks. Beloved by some and hated by others, he finds temporary refuge in the domicile of Tony Stark’s former right-hand man, Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau). With him are his girlfriend, MJ (Zendaya); his best buddy, Ned (Jacob Batalon, not quite as annoying as in the previous two movies); and his aunt, May (Marisa Tomei, still causing cognitive dissonance for those who recall Rosemary Harris in the same part). Observing the negative impacts the revelation has had on his friends, Peter pays a visit to his former ally in world-saving, Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), and asks if there’s a magical solution to the problem. Strange opines that it might be possible to have the world “forget” the connection but, while the spell is in progress, Peter keeps adding conditions and something goes very wrong. Before Strange can shut things down, a collection of Spider-Man’s previous adversaries have crossed universe boundaries: Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), Doc Ock (Alfred Molina), Sandman (Thomas Hayden Church), The Lizard (Rhys Ifans), and Electro (Jamie Foxx). 

No Way Home has some pacing issues, especially during the first half. There’s too much filler and the first twenty minutes feel more like a sit-com than a superhero movie. Although the rogues’ gallery might be supersized, the narrative isn’t. The storyline is stretched thin for a 150-minute theatrical experience. When doing the publicity rounds for the second Venom film, Andy Serkis made a comment about comic book films trying too hard to be “epic” when a leaner, meaner approach might work better. That’s the case here. The good parts of No Way Home (and there are some exceptionally good parts) are diluted by a tendency to meander, especially early in the proceedings. (Did MIT pay a promotional fee?)

Watt’s handling of the roughly half-dozen high-profile action scenes is a mixed bag. His touch is perfect during some of the one-on-one struggles, especially the one that introduces Doc Ock to the MCU. However, the more pieces that are put on the gameboard, the more scattershot things become and the Battle Royale is as confusing as it is exhilarating. It’s almost impossible trying to figure out who’s who and what’s going on. It’s necessary to wait for a pause in the action to take stock of what just happened.

There’s a lot of fan service and nostalgia in play – how else to describe the tingling that results from seeing a villain who hasn’t graced the screen in two decades? No Way Home is as much built on the shared history of the Sony Spider-Man franchise components as it is intended as a bridge to the future. The film’s co-owners have constructed the movie so that future installments could either transpire in a Sony-only Spider-verse or in one that is again set within the wider confines of the MCU. The final scenes work either as an ending or a beginning. (For those who “stay after,” there’s one mid-credits scene and a trailer at the very end.)

The interesting wrinkle in No Way Home is the necessity for some of Spider-Man’s oldest and deadliest adversaries to work alongside the web-slinger when their goals coincide. But the tenuous alliance has foundational cracks from the beginning and there’s something Shakespearean in the way that Peter’s ego becomes his tragic flaw. Watts gives us just enough to recognize that sometimes superheroes are their own biggest enemies. I’ll admit to being frustrated by the character’s stubbornness at times.

In essence, this is simply a story of caging five of Spider-Man’s greatest villains in a zoo then watching what happens when they break free. It’s not a lot more complicated than that. It feels a lot like the classic Doctor Who anniversary stories where celebrating the past took precedence over crafting a coherent story. Despite having the biggest group of villains, this is in many ways the smallest Spider-Man movie to date (spanning all eight feature films). Attempts to introduce and explain the multiverse are dumbed-down to the point of being nonsensical. (Not that the comic book’s version of the multiverse has anything to do with what’s found in hard science fiction, not to mention what Stephen Hawking believed.) Maybe the screenwriters for the next Marvel film, Dr. Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, will do a better job.

Of all the recent films to arrive with a similarly stratospheric level of expectations (particularly The Force Awakens and Avengers: Endgame), No Way Home is the most successful. It suffers from many of the common pitfalls of comic book movies but one thing that Watts understands are the characters. He has shepherded them through three films (to-date) and, despite the long shadows cast by past Spider-Men Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield, he has enabled Tom Holland to come into his own. The chemistry between Holland and Zendaya easily matches that of Maguire/Dunst and Garfield/Stone. The supercharged CGI effects are fine and the battles are eye-popping, but the character interactions make No Way Home work.

Spider-Man: No Way Home (United States, 2021)

Run Time: 2:28
U.S. Release Date: 2021-12-17
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity)
Genre: Action/Adventure
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1