Spider-Man: No Way Home is equal parts fan service and character exploration – seamlessly crafting a cinematic love letter to everyone’s favorite friendly neighborhood web-slinger. (WARNING – MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD)
Before The Avengers transformed the superhero genre into the blockbuster machine we know it as today, there was one little web-slinger who started it all: Spider-Man. Having been brought to the silver screen in three entirely different reimaginings, Spider-Man: No Way Home is the latest installation in Marvel’s Tom Holland-led Spider-Man series, which not only explores the next chapter in Holland’s turn as Peter Parker but also pays homage to the heroes (and villains) who paved the way before him. Though Peter himself ends up getting a little lost under the sheer volume of characters to wade through, Spider-Man: No Way Home is a staggeringly well-balanced film that’s equal parts fan service and character exploration – not just re-using familiar faces, but helping bring closure and depth to their original stories.
Picking up in the world-shaking wake of Spider-Man: Far From Home, No Way Home sees Peter Parker (Tom Holland) grappling with the weight of the entire world now knowing that he’s Spider-Man, thanks to the meddling of the late villain Mysterio. Though having his identity exposed has brought all sorts of new dangers into his life, it’s also critically derailed the lives of his family (Aunt May) and friends (Ned Leeds and MJ), who are caught in the crossfire of his newfound controversy. Desperate to fix the lives of his loved ones, Spider-Man enlists the help of Doctor Strange to change the past and ensure his secret identity is never revealed: but when Strange’s spell goes wrong, Peter finds himself up against everyone who knew Spider-Man’s secret identity – in any universe.
One of the central tenants of all superhero stories is the precarious balance between maintaining one’s secret identity while still having a personal life – and No Way Home explores this idea – exposing Peter Parker’s superhero identity for the first time in cinematic history. For such a youthful, lighthearted character, No Way Home‘s arc for Peter/Spidey is a remarkably dark one: he’s forced to confront the pain and struggle he inadvertently placed on his loved ones by having his identity exposed. Peter also faces an ethical crisis on another front: having his code questioned when Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) tells him to send the villains who have come through as a result of the botched spell (Green Goblin, Doc Oak, Electro, and others) back to their universes, knowing that they will be killed battling their versions of Spider-Man.
By giving Peter a crisis of conscience as both Peter Parker and as Spider-Man, the film is similarly able to balance its arc with the copious amounts of characters and Easter eggs it employs: and on that front, there certainly are many. Exactly who will pop up in No Way Home was the subject of intense controversy and discussion, and though we don’t want to spoil all the surprises here, the majority of our favorite moments and character beats came not from the MCU’s characters, but from the transplants who originated in the McGuire and Garfield Spider-Man films.
Among the small army of intergalactic travelers are the three aforementioned villains Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), Doc Ock (a digitally de-aged Alfred Molina, whose youthful glow is eerily convincing), and Electro (Jamie Foxx). Though the film features other, smaller villains as well (including a welcome, kind-hearted baddie from the much-maligned Spider-Man 3) it’s this trio of villains who take up most of the film’s runtime, and for good reason – all three actors are on their A-game, giving performances just as good (if not better) than their original incarnations of the character.
Foxx’s Electro (from the Andrew Garfield trilogy of films) is perhaps the least memorable of all the characters brought back, but No Way Home seems to recognize this and puts Foxx’ comedic talent to perfect use – he delivers a number of the (surprisingly funny) film’s best gags, including a wink-wink-nudge-nudge Miles Morales joke about wanting there to be a Black Spider-Man. The real stars of the show, though, are Molina’s Doc Ock and Dafoe’s Green Goblin, who both come courtesy of the Sam Raimi Spider-Verse.
Unsurprisingly, both actors are pitch-perfect in their respective roles as similar Jekyll-and-Hyde figures consumed by science experiments gone wrong. Where Molina serves as more of a dry-humored, level-headed baddie, DaFoe revives his terrifyingly multifaceted turn as both the kindhearted, fumbling Dr. Osbourne, and the menacing Green Goblin. His eerie ability to switch from one personality to the other makes him a magnetic onscreen presence and an undeniable scene-stealer, which is a feat considering just how many characters are in this film.
Though it’s the villains who first appear in Peter’s world, the back half of the film introduces several other familiar faces into the mix – but spoiling them here would be a disservice to our readers, so we encourage you all to catch the film for yourselves ASAP. What we can say is this – though there was certainly a way the cameo(s) could have gone sour, the inclusion of the characters feels not only narratively justified but thematically cohesive as well: the characters that appear in No Way Home all get their moments to shine and help resolve unfinished arcs/storylines from their respective films.
If anything, the weakest point of Spider-Man: No Way Home is its main characters: Peter, MJ, and Ned seem almost boring and flat in comparison to the dynamic heroes and villains that come to visit from their respective universes. Though No Way Home takes Peter in a risky, darker new direction (including finally giving him a pseudo-Uncle Ben origin story moment), his romance with MJ feels arbitrary and juvenile in the grand scope of the film’s massive scale.
Still, even where Holland’s turn as Peter Parker falls flat in comparison to the baker’s dozen of legendary actors around him, Spider-Man: No Way Home is still a slam dunk of a film for any Spider-Man fan, and a worthy installment in the MCU’s Spider-Man trilogy. Paying its due diligence to the many characters and films that paved the way for the current version of Spider-Man, No Way Home is the perfect blend of the unexpected and the familiar: creating a cinematic experience most fans won’t soon forget.