The ultimate Spider-Man.
After defeating Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal), Peter Parker (Tom Holland) finds out with the rest of the world that his secret identity as Spider-Man has been revealed. While the court of public opinion is torn between believing Mysterio’s posthumous accusations of villainy or trusting Spidey as a hero, Peter’s girlfriend MJ (Zendaya) and best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) find their futures following high school graduation prematurely in ruins. Not only are they being hounded by reporters, the grad schools they’ve all applied to don’t want the publicity of being associated with Spider-Man’s “accomplices.” On a whim, Peter goes to Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to ask if magic could put the genie back into the bottle. When the spell goes sideways mid-casting, Peter’s own hasty words come back to haunt him as villains from another reality begin to appear… and they all want our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man dead.
There’s a tendency for reboots to tarnish the source material, or worse make fun of it. This isn’t the best way to treat fans of an intellectual property, especially when filmmakers are leveraging into built-in familiarity. The 2016 Ghostbusters flirted with creating a world where the 1984 Ghostbusters never existed, yet the actors from the same stricken film were asked to play along as a constant distraction of what 2016 wasn’t — a problem wisely fixed in Ghostbusters: Afterlife. Anyone who’s seen advertising for the third MCU Spider-Man film knows that certain villains (and the actors who played them) are appearing from a universe outside of Marvel’s current film continuity, the very idea of which has opened up an entire comic-con worth of discussion panels ahead of the film’s opening. While Tom Holland has garnered praise as the best Parker/Webhead combo to date, his character has always had other heroic help that previous franchise incarnations never did, including Doctor Strange in No Way Home. How is it possible the newest film can stand on its own while incorporating elements from two of Sony’s earlier Spidey series, especially since the villain from arguably best entry of all eight films is front and center as an immediate reminder of treading over the same ground?
Maybe we can thank Into the Spider-Verse or “Loki” on Disney Plus, but the MCU is going all-in reinventing itself throughout the multiverse… and it’s working. As big-name directors are seeing their passion projects falling by the wayside commercially, pointing accusingly at super-powered franchises able to lure hesitant viewers back into theaters, Disney/Marvel has unlocked a new achievement: giving every character incarnation their independent relevance. This was never more clear than Richard E. Grant’s appearance as “classic” Loki, straight from the comics and instantly amazing. It’s what the MCU was created to do: mine decades of comics for stories rather than license properties individually to folks with no interest in what originally made those heroes and villains great. No Way Home does something never before seen, celebrating everything Spider-Man has ever been on the silver screen to the delight of fans and creators alike, and that’s all the audience needs to know.
It’s the longest Spidey film so far, and it’s entirely worth it. Questions asked by fans since Holland’s first outing in Homecoming are finally coming to light, setting up a very personal story for Peter Parker even as Spider-Man does whatever a Spider-Man does trying to save everyone. It’s also a light reset on the other problems plaguing the series — Parker’s access to Stark Industries technology and wielding it with expected naivety — which directly resulted in his identity being outed in Far From Home. The stakes and revelations are at Avengers: Endgame levels here, and it’s not an exaggeration to say nothing will be the same; director Jon Watts completes his directorial work on all three films, stepping up the consequences for every decision Peter makes. With the same sage-like wisdom Cumberbatch employs to keeps Holland from blurting out Marvel’s secrets in press junkets, Doctor Strange has all the feels admitting he forgets Peter is still just a kid, one who constantly takes on too much responsibility at his own risk… and there’s nothing more Spider-Man than that.
Nits to be picked include how Strange’s “everyone forgetting the true identity of Spider-Man” spell is even supposed to work, including a lack of changes brought on by prior knowledge that are inexplicably glossed over. For example, if J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons) built his “Daily Bugle” website fame upon revealing Peter Parker’s secret, does he lose the street cred that got him there if no one remembers it? Do video files and news report evidence vanish from existence, or do they still exist but can’t be remembered, a lingering function of the spell? If that’s true, if Peter decides to reveals who he is to someone, would they instant forget again, becoming confused like adults in “Locke & Key”? Time will (or won’t) tell, but audiences won’t soon forget the best Marvel Studios offering of 2021… and yes, there are both mid and after-credits goodies, so sip your drink wisely.
Spider-Man: No Way Home is rated PG-13 for sequences of action/violence, some language, brief suggestive comments, and great responsibility.
Four skull recommendation out of four