Directed by Jon Watts.
Spider-Man: No Way Home, 2021.
Directed by Jon Watts.
Starring Tom Holland, Zendaya, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jon Favreau, Jacob Batalon, Marisa Tomei, Alfred Molina, Jamie Foxx, Willem Dafoe, Tony Revolori, Angourie Rice, Martin Starr, Hannibal Buress, J.B. Smoove, J.K. Simmons, Benedict Wong, Paula Newsome, Arian Moayed, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Jay Karales and Michael Le.
With Spider-Man’s identity now revealed, Peter asks Doctor Strange for help. When a spell goes wrong, dangerous foes from other worlds start to appear, forcing Peter to discover what it truly means to be Spider-Man.
With great success comes more considerable responsibility and greater pressure for director Jon Watts. He must have felt the weight of the world on his shoulders whenever MCU overlord Kevin Feige gave him even the briefest summary of what he would be tackling with Spider-Man: No Way Home. Somehow, he pulls it off, wrangling together heaps upon heaps of fan service repackaged into a narrative that only works because of its heart and clarity wrapping everything around the theme of responsibility.
Considering the recent creative bankruptcy of blockbuster filmmaking that chooses to manipulate emotion through nostalgia, screenwriters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers (based on characters created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko) don’t ride what is essentially a real-life cheat code for fandom approval. There is a witty and emotional thoughtfulness to the interactions between this crowded cast of characters, rendering Spider-Man: No Way Home better than it has any right to be. My cynicism not only turned to joy but questioning how anyone could not come away remotely entertained.
Spider-Man: No Way Home is also far from perfect, as reaching this emotionally resonant high comes at the cost of sacrificing a more grounded story, or rather, the kind of Spider-Man movie that has been abandoned in favor of Peter Parker (a returning Tom Holland, not only giving his best performance as both teenager and superhero but remarkably rising to the occasion during dramatic heft) playing around with Tony Stark’s gadgets and teaming up with the Avengers. That’s not to say those movies are not good, as they are fine for what they are, just that a barrier had been raised connecting the average person to a relatable superhero.
Picking up immediately where Spider-Man: Far From Home left off (minor spoilers incoming for anyone that still hasn’t seen it), cranky and fear-mongering newscaster J. Jonah Jameson (once again played by the absurdly funny J.K. Simmons) is spreading the word and video footage of Jake Gyllenhaal’s now deceased Mysterio’s proof that Peter Parker is the friendly neighborhood spider. This not only opens up an FBI investigation against Peter (which Marisa Tomei’s Aunt May does her best to shield him from and assist in navigating) that tanks his future college ambitions. Peter’s girlfriend MJ (the cynical Zendaya who at one point has a line preaching to expect disappointment so that way it hurts less when it comes, which feels a mindset for those coming in aware of this film’s lofty ambitions) and best friend Ned (goofy Jacob Batalon continuing to be a reliable stream of laughs) are also denied scholarships due to their association with the vigilante.
Feeling selfless, Peter decides to visit spellcaster Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to figure out how to fix life for his friends through magic. Without getting into the details, a host of super-villains appear causing trouble (including during a sequence surrounded by one of those college officials, who make a head-spinning decision afterward that seems like it would cause more problems for the college, even though I understand it comes from a place of gratitude). They are physically and mentally disturbed individuals (yes, I’m intentionally not naming them so as to keep spoilers to a minimum, but I will say everyone comfortably slides right back into their respective roles), leaving Peter with choices of either taking action that will lead to their deaths or living by Aunt May’s noble creed of attempting to cure them. Perhaps this is not the best decision considering what we know about these nefarious foes, but it’s one of many engaging beats that play up the increased responsibility of a superhero.
Failure also seems like an inevitability at some point when dedicating a good portion of one’s life to saving the day or the world. In rare instances, Marvel has gone through with darker moments here and there, and there are a few more present in Spider-Man: No Way Home. However, the story here attempts to wrestle with how those failures affect the psyche of a superhero. The middle section of Spider-Man: No Way Home certainly feels like a parade of boss battles with God knows how much money thrown at the screen bringing them to life (there’s a mirror dimension sequence here that is full-stop mind-blowing visually but impeccably crafted), but the fun quickly takes a serious turn into something far more devastating and dramatically compelling (with Michael Giacchino’s powerful score swelling up at the perfect moments). Again, that’s not something this movie ever had to be there or something I expected coming into it.
Some of this is contrived (I have several questions regarding the usage of magic here), and it’s ridiculous how all of this gets started, albeit a potent reminder that despite everything Peter has accomplished so far as Spider-Man, he is still just a 17-year-old boy that’s not always going to make practical decisions. Once it settles into its gimmick, there is a sincere and often creative attempt to give all this weight and make it matter. If there’s a callback, it usually comes with clever insight or a purpose extended to these present-day characters. Above all else, Spider-Man: No Way Home is a thrilling experience with bold moves, personal stakes, and the kind of thoughtful fan service that makes such an easy storytelling route less nauseating.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at [email protected]