Written by Anna Harrison
Spider-Man has had an odd cinematic life, to say the least: studio interference from Sony hobbled Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3, leading to a scrapped Spider-Man 4; The Amazing Spider-Man duology, coming mere years after Tobey Maguire gyrated his hips in his black suit and slacks, went for broke trying to set up a slew of movies that never came after The Amazing Spider-Man 2’s muted reception; finally, after Sony head Amy Pascal threw a sandwich at Marvel’s Kevin Feige, Tom Holland’s web-slinger arrived in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with Spider-Man: No Way Home capping off his first trilogy. If you’ve seen a trailer or set foot in Twitter for the past several months, you know that No Way Home owes a lot to the movies that came before it—yet while both Spider-Man 3 and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 buckled under their own weight (and Sony doing far too much far too fast), No Way Home manages to fold its packed cast into the emotional stakes and character arcs of the story, dodging the errors its forefathers made by concerning itself more with Holland’s Peter Parker than setting up the next great Sony hit.
We pick up right where we left off in Spider-Man: Far From Home: Jake Gyllenhaal’s Mysterio has revealed to the world that Peter Parker is Spider-Man, throwing his world into turmoil. Though his “very good lawyer” lets Peter know there are very few legal consequences for this revelation, it has wrecked his chance at admission to MIT, where Peter, girlfriend MJ (Zendaya) and friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) all have set their sights; suddenly, college admissions seem just as important as saving the world, something that Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield’s versions never addressed but serves as a sweet and gentle reminder of Peter’s age. While there are remnants of the John Hughes vibe that was so prominent in Spider-Man: Homecoming and Far From Home, director Jon Watts doesn’t linger too long on it—when MJ and Ned face rejection letters because of their association with Spider-Man, Peter goes to ask Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) for help, and things get a little fun and funky as we drift away from your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man and into magic and (at last) the multiverse.
As Strange casts a spell to make the world forget Peter Parker’s identity as Spider-Man, it goes awry (of course), and other universes start to bleed into this one. If you have even the slightest ounce of nostalgia for the Raimi and Marc Webb films, then buckle up, because it’s one hit after another: It’s all pure, unadulterated fanservice, but fanservice backed up by top-notch performances from newcomers to the MCU (but, y’know, maybe not Marvel as a whole), and nearly every reference to the past serves to give new insight on our very own Peter Parker, even if the people he’s talking to come from different universes.
Not only does the world get bigger, the emotional stakes do as well. Never has Holland’s Peter been confronted with such as this, and never has Holland been as good as he is here, even surrounded by a plethora of Oscar winners and nominees; though the biggest shocks and serotonin boosts might come from other faces, Holland serves as the beating heart that makes the movie work. The movie never misses a chance to throw in some humor (and a few meme references) when needed, bringing a winsome charm to the proceedings even as Peter races closer and closer to danger, yet writers Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers know when to pull back on the quips. This is the most mature outing yet for the MCU’s Spider-Man—the stakes are enormous not only for the cinematic universe which he inhabits, but for Peter’s personal life as well, and the unexpectedly somber ending promises a big change of pace for the character.
This, more than Black Widow, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, or Eternals, feels like the true start of Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe: the stakes are big, but the emotions bigger, and the villain vs. hero beatdowns showcase creative and expressive choreography and cinematography that other MCU entries so often lack. It goes big to go small, to dig into what makes Peter Parker tick, and in the process provides no shortage of both smiles and tears. If the MCU can continue pulling off tricks like this, then it’s hard not to feel energized about what the future holds.
Spider-Man: No Way Home Trailer
Spider-Man: No Way Home is currently playing in wide release.