Review: Spider-Man: No Way Home Is Just Nostalgic and New Enough to be a Great Addition to the Superhero’s Canon

In my comic book reading patterns, Spider-Man was always my guy. Not because of his cool powers or even the similarities in our ages when I was reading his adventures. I loved Spider-Man because, despite an impressive and memorable rogue's gallery of villains, his greatest adversary was life itself. Spider-Man/Peter Parker was never really allowed to live a happy, contented, worry-free life for more than half of any one of his books, and that was something I could identify with in spades. Not that I had an unhappy childhood—I’d say it measured decidedly down the middle as far as happy/unhappy moments go—but it was that concern set up in the Spider-Man titles that no matter how hard you tried to be good and help people, there was no guarantee that your life was going to be better. His sense of humor doesn’t come from him being a fun, naturally hilarious guy; it’s a defense mechanism and its own type of mask. It’s both a cynical way to look at the world and a fairly realistic one, and it kept me coming back month after month to Spider-Man’s stories, just hoping beyond hope that in the next issue, Peter would find some happiness.

Spider-Man: No Way Home Image courtesy of Marvel/Disney

Certainly more than any of the other Tom Holland-starring Spider-Man movies, No Way Home captures that naive optimism at the heart of Peter Parker, as well as the understanding that Peter’s worst enemy is his own good intentions. The worst things tend to happen to him when he’s trying to do what he believes is the right thing. Picking up right where Far From Home left off, Spider-Man has just had his identity revealed by click-bait journalist J. Jonah Jameson (a returning J.K. Simmons), and he goes into panic mode, first attempting to consult and console his closest friends, MJ (Zendaya) and Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalon), and then getting to his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) before the press swarm on their apartment; she’s in the midst of breaking off her summertime fling with Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), so she hasn’t even noticed the helicopters hovering outside the window.

With the world evenly divided over whether Spider-Man killed the supposed hero Mysterio in the last film and whether Spider-Man is a menace or hero in his own right, Peter and his friends attempt to begin their senior year of high school amid protestors and supporters picketing outside their school. Some teachers (including Martin Starr) are in full support of Spider-Man being one of their students, while others (a very funny Hannibal Buress, in full conspiratorial mode) are on Team Mysterio. Peter’s world is in chaos, and the only place he can find any peace is on the city's rooftops with MJ.

But after watching his friends and family be harassed and even put in danger by being associated with Spider-Man, the final straw for Peter comes when his, MJ's and Ned’s application to MIT are rejected because of “recent events.” He seeks out fellow Avenger Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, displaying a much-needed and more personable looseness here, beginning with wearing his trademark cloak with sweats) to cast a spell to make the world forget he’s Spider-Man. But as soon as Strange begins to cast the spell, Peter starts making stipulations about those who shouldn’t forget (like MJ, Ned, May), and it screws up the spell. However, messing with reality to such a degree somehow also opens up holes in the multiverse and transports everyone who knows that Peter Parker is Spider-Man, including a host of villains from other Spider-Man movies—namely the ones that don’t star Tom Holland—including Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina), the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), Electro (Jamie Foxx), the Sandman (Thomas Hayden Church, mostly voice only), and the Lizard (Rhys Ifans, again voice only).

For fans of all of the Spider-Man films, the prospect that these other films are now canon (sort of) is beyond thrilling and brings up more questions than it answers. But to include these characters and give them varying degrees of development, motive, and complexity is almost more than we could hope for. The character work done with Molina and Dafoe alone is so good and unexpected that there comes a certain point where you just sit back, forget the insane nature of the conceit, and admire the acting and writing (along with some modest de-aging technology) for breathing new life into these villains, who may not stay villains for long.

Once Spider-Man realizes that all of these multi-versal visitors all died fighting him, he’s determined to help cure them of whatever scientific anomaly has made them what they are before he sends them back with the help of a reverse spell created by Strange. Perhaps if he accomplishes that, they won’t be fated to die in their own universe. Strange thinks this is a bad idea, so Peter steals the spell (contained in a fancy box with a big red button on top, in case you were confused how it worked) and uses his scientific knowledge and a little bit of stolen Stark tech to begin formulating cures.

To say much more about what happens beyond this point in the story would be venturing deep into spoiler territory, but if you are in any way invested in this recent batch of Spider-Man films, the odds are you will get emotional, you will feel waves of joy and a degree of fear, and you’re going to feel the punches—this is one of the most violent, non-R-rated superhero movies I can recall. Director Jon Watts (working here with writers Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers) has taken on the seemingly insurmountable challenge of seeing each of his three Spider-Man films grow in scale, but it seems especially clear from No Way Home that he has prioritized keeping these increasingly massive productions intimate, centering on his core cast and contextualizing any threats or villains as something that might disrupt the natural order of the interpersonal relationships, with the harm to the rest of the world coming in a distant second.

In just about every way, Spider-Man: No Way Home ends in a manner that would make a great sendoff for Holland, were he to decide to conclude his run as Spider-Man (which of course he isn’t since he just signed a new contract to continue on), but at the very least, it concludes the trilogy that began with Homecoming so perfectly that whatever comes next is going to feel like something entirely new (especially with director Watts off making his Fantastic Four movie next), and I think that’s a wise direction. With this film, Peter has discovered what it truly means to be Spider-Man and learned the true meaning of the age-old mantra that has been assigned to the character since its creation. This film embraces all things Spider-Man, and because of that, it feels like a much-needed hug that goes so far beyond normal nostalgia trips that it puts a great number of other superhero movies today to shame. It’s not just a great Spider-Man movie; it’s a great piece of filmmaking and a powerful rediscovery of an old friend.

The film begins screening today, only in theaters.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JfVOs4VSpmA

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.