Spider-Man: No Way Home is in a position to be one of the most memorable superhero cinematic experiences of all time. Its ambitious story, major character inclusions, and overwhelming audience expectations certainly place the film in a particularly bright spotlight ahead of its release. Between this movie being Tom Holland’s sixth appearance as Spider-Man and Holland’s hero being the lead of the third Spider-Man franchise since 2002, perhaps the biggest question is whether or not No Way Home is able to deliver a new, exciting, and fresh take on a Spider-Man solo flick. The second question undoubtedly is whether this film can live up to the arguably unprecedented fan excitement that became an unrelenting marketing force of its own over the past two years. Fortunately, No Way Home delivers on its own promises but also many of the promises that audiences made for themselves.
No Way Home is without a doubt a celebration of almost twenty years of Spider-Man in cinema. It is obvious that the film draws inspiration from Sony’s prior live-action Spider-Man franchises, but it is also clearly influenced by the studio’s critically-acclaimed animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. With the general concept of the multiverse at No Way Home’s core, the Marvel Cinematic Universe-set film is well-designed to embrace the character of Spider-Man somewhat apart from his current and popular role in the MCU.
The idea that an exploration of the multiverse can make a character more prominent seems counterintuitive, but No Way Home is nothing if not a love letter to Spider-Man. In a multiversal movie that also includes someone like Doctor Strange, where exactly does Holland’s Peter Parker shine? By design, he is the absolute anchor of virtually everything that moves in the film. While there are fascinating elements that have the power to outshine the main character, the fact that Peter is the glue that holds everything together is a win in the face of everything the movie is trying to accomplish in one sitting.
No Way Home is easily one of the MCU’smost introspective and emotional films yet. Peter Parker is gifted with deeper character development here than in Holland’s previous outings. While the MCU has witnessed the character grow from an insecure teenager to a slightly more secure teenager, No Way Home delivers a more nuanced turn on the hero that manages to stand out at the end of the film. Amongst the mania of the movie, the character experiences both internal and external crises, with a primary theme being his intrinsic guilt surrounding the consequences his double life as Spider-Man has on those he loves.
Until now, he was able to skirt most of these implications, but the reveal of his identity at the start of the film means that he’s no longer able to hide behind a mask. In this way, No Way Home offers audiences a more intimate look at Peter Parker and explores his psyche freshly and more profoundly than ever before. The film hits notes that feel dark, broody, hopeless, and generally depressed throughout.
But while the movie certainly explores darker elements, No Way Home knows how to deliver pure joy. The film features the return of fan favorites such as Alfred Molina’s Dr. Otto Octavius and Willem Dafoe’s Norman Osborn. The movie brings back bygones from a beloved era in a way that mostly escapes the shallow feeling of fan service. The fan service is real and abundant, but it generally manages to stay on target and not devolve into a lifeless parade of callbacks and Easter eggs. Molina and Dafoe in particular are phenomenal and, quite frankly, outperform the main cast members. Their transition into playing these characters once more feels flawless, and the two veterans bring an air of seriousness to the chaotic situation, despite being much of the chaos themselves.
Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange is also another well-placed addition to the film. He’s a standout character both as a plot device and in terms of Peter’s development. Without Doctor Strange casting the spell, there would be no Spider-Man: No Way Home. Luckily, the character comes across better in the film than he did in the trailers—not only was the sorcerer not overly dumbed-down, but Cumberbatch also puts in a performance that stretches the known emotional range of the character. Stephen naturally finds himself filling the role of some sort of mentor or guardian to Peter, though nothing like Peter’s relationship with Tony Stark in Spider-Man: Homecoming. Far from taking over Peter’s story, Doctor Strange feels utilized just enough to give shape to the plot and add a little extra to Peter’s emotional core. The two have an easy, comforting relationship that seems to have sprung up overnight.
Peter and Doctor Strange’s relationship is a testament to this movie’s ability to create strong dynamics between a large number of characters. The ensemble is numerous and many of the characters do not have pre-existing relationships going into No Way Home. But somehow one of the film’s greatest strengths is the effortless way in which the many characters interact with one another. It is one of the most, if not the most, impressive aspects of the film given how conservative individual character screen times seem to have been allotted at times.
No Way Home’s weakest point is, unfortunately, its plot. The mechanics of the multiverse story made very little sense. There are countless questions unanswered about why someone is here or there, or why a very obvious and easy resolution is acknowledged and ignored for the entire film. The movie hardly attempts to engage any of the important details, but that might have been a calculated, intelligent move. While the plot is not strong in and of itself, No Way Home proves to be one of those rare films that can be good with a bad plot.
The pacing of the first act is exquisite. A lot of time passes between the reveal of Peter’s identity and Doctor Strange’s spell, but the No Way Home moves through it in a choppy but enjoyable fashion reminiscent of some of the more innocent days of Spider-Man: Homecoming. After that, the “pure joy” mentioned above generally takes over. No Way Home is a prime example of a fun movie—between the character dynamics and all of the flat-out exciting elements and moments, it is easy to forget about the plot. Or, at least, it is easy to forget that you have quite a lot of questions about it. The weak plot, easy answers, and the highly questionable ultimate resolution of the main story do put a chink in the movie’s armor. But No Way Home manages to separate the plot from the experience enough that it is far from fatal.
Overall the action should certainly satisfy fans that felt like the MCU’s Spider-Man films were lacking in that element. Peter was allowed to be a bit more violent—it comes across at times as brutal and dripping with dark emotion that has built up over time. It’s another example of how the movie was able to explore and showcase the greater depth of Peter’s character development in the film. But the action sequence between Doctor Strange and Peter is the visual standout of the entire movie. It lacks all of the bells and whistles that come with a hero versus supervillain fight sequence, but it is visually stunning. It certainly manages to allow the film to take a break from the typical action sequences a Spider-Man movie delivers, without feeling like it takes place in a completely different film. Unfortunately, it is still missing so much of the iconic web-slinging visuals that Spider-Man has the potential to produce.
Spider-Man: No Way Home is a multiversal adventure that excites and delights. While its character dynamics are absolutely stunning, the action and story concept also makes for an exhilarating experience that won’t disappoint even the most anxious fans. It’s an adrenaline-filled serenade to Sony’s Spider-Man legacy that invokes nostalgia and joy as often as it can without destroying the heart of the film. Holland’s Peter Parker remains the core, even if he naturally gets eclipsed amongst the celebration. No Way Home only falters with its plot, its shaky backbone, and its many unexplained-yet-important details. Still, the film manages to do the usually impossible and deliver an experience that stays afloat above its sinking storyline. No Way Home is undoubtedly the superhero experience fans hope and expect it to be.