4 out of 5 stars

Marvel Studios have focused on introducing new characters into their recent movies —even Black Widow (2021) was most notable for having Natasha’s sister Yelena (Florence Pugh) make her debut — while the Disney+ TV series have expanded on second-tier characters like Wanda, Vision, The Falcon, Winter Soldier, Loki, and Hawkeye. That all changes with Spider-Man: No Way Home, which does exactly the opposite — obviously focusing on one of Marvel’s most popular superheroes, now joined by Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), but also in bringing back several characters from the earlier Sony-made projects. The result isn’t as progressive as Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021) or as fresh as Eternals (2021), but it’s a hell of a lot more entertaining and fun if you’re a fan of Spidey.

The fact Spider-Man is owned by Sony, who decided it was in their financial interest to loan him to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), certainly isn’t ideal for Disney-owned Marvel — who have almost all their comic-book characters under one roof after buying 20th Century Fox — but it does mean Marvel can utilise stuff from Sam Raimi’s beloved triptych (2002–07) and the two instalments of Marc Webb’s divisive reboot (2012–14). With No Way Home, it feels like Marvel are finally the ones receiving the benefit of a creative partnership with Sony, and not the other way around. 

Picking up immediately from the climax of Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019), Peter Parker (Tom Holland) has been exposed as the famous web-slinger and it’s all over the news — with right-wing reactionary J. Jonah Jameson (J.K Simmons) whipping up a media storm that Spider-Man’s a dangerous vigilante. Peter’s life instantly becomes a nightmare of press intrusion and a love/hate reaction from the public, but more importantly it starts impacting the lives of his girlfriend M.J (Zendaya) and best friend Ned (Jacob Battalion) because their connection to a controversial superhero costs them at a place at college. Wishing he could turn back the clock, Peter does the next best thing by persuading Dr Strange to cast a spell that’ll cause worldwide amnesia about his true identity…. but when the magic goes awry some inter-dimensional interlopers manage to cross over into our world. And it’s no spoiler to confirm these characters are Norman Osborne/Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), Otto Octavius/Doc Ock (Alfred Molina), and Flint Marko/Sandman (Thomas Haden Church) from Raimi’s trilogy, and Curt Connors/Lizard (Rhys Ifans) and Max Dillon/Elektro (Jamie Foxx) from the Webb duology.

In some ways I’m disappointed we might never see MCU versions of the Green Goblin and Doc Ock, but it seems hitting the nostalgia button has taken priority. However, it’s undoubtedly a thrill to see Green Goblin and Doc Ock back on-screen, in particular, interacting with a new Spider-Man. And while the way it happens it perhaps a little silly —with no truly satisfying “big entrance” for any of these villains —No Way Home takes an interesting approach to the story once three generations of Spidey sagas have collided. Rather than have Spidey face-off against the, uh, “Fearsome Five”(?), it’s not as straightforward as simply throwing familiar foes at Peter Parker and pals. The movie actually has a more intelligent way to tackle the concept, with Peter instead wanting to “cure” the supervillains rather than battle them. The fact these characters have also been sucked into the MCU, seconds before they died in their own timelines, also throws up ideas about second chances. And exploring the mental health of characters like Goblin, Doc Ock, and Elektro is a particular and unexpected concern throughout.

Even if you walk away thinking No Way Home was primarily just an excuse to do Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018) in live-action, one can’t deny the filmmakers attempted something atypical with a similar concept. The characters get another chapter of their individual stories (akin to what happened with Loki with his Disney+ show), and find ways to redeem themselves.

With so much going on, one might expect the core characters of this MCU Spider-Man trilogy to be given short shrift. But one of the best things about No Way Home is that Tom Holland gets a lot to do, and isn’t pushed off-screen by all the heavyweight actors supporting him. This film has some big emotional beats for Holland to sell, too, which he does so incredibly well, ending the movie on a bittersweet note that feels like this is the end of an era (no more “home”-titled films?) but with a new chapter brewing. Zendaya and Jacob Battalion are likewise given a fair amount to do and get funny lines to say, while Cumberbatch isn’t utilised in the same manner as Robert Downey Jr. in Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) to chaperone Tom Holland around his own movie. Dr Strange’s role is certainly significant, but he’s less prominent than expected and doesn’t overshadow what is a Spider-Man adventure.

There’s not much point continuing this review without getting into spoilers that ground the second half of the movie, so fair warning if you haven’t seen No Way Home yet. Everyone expected the multiverse angle of the story to allow for Toby Maguire and Andrew Garfield to appear as their versions of Spider-Man, and there might have been a riot if this didn’t happen! Maguire and Garfield to indeed reprise their roles, and not just for a brief moment towards the end, as they have sizeable parts to play in the third act. No Way Home becomes a joyful celebration of cinematic Spider-Men, almost 20 years since Spider-Man (2002) helped usher in this crazy decade of multi-million-dollar interconnected movies. The screenplay by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers has enormous fun with the in-jokes and references to stuff from earlier Spider-Man movies, most of which will make you smile, and there’s an uncynical vibe to No Way Home that makes it feel like the people making it have genuine love and affection for this material. There are even gags at the expense of a few misfires from the past, too — such as Rhino — and being self-deprecating is never a bad look for comic-book movies that want to have fun winking at the fans.

What’s most impressive about having three generations of Spider-Man in the same adventure is that each character feels like they’re at a different stage in their life—late-teens, late-thirties, late-forties—and the Garfield and Maguire versions act like older brothers to Holland’s youthful version, who’s now experiencing a type of trauma they went through as a foundational part of becoming a superhero. I loved the interplay between these three actors, and Garfield was particularly amusing and somehow more charismatic than he was in his own films. Maguire’s presence somehow wasn’t the big emotional peak I wanted it to be —as he’s the OG Spidey—but it’s through no fault of the actor. There’s a strange alchemy that has to happen on camera sometimes, and his Peter’s appearance just didn’t hit me right the right way. He also had a tougher job because he’s noticeably 14-year older now, whereas Garfield has barely aged in the seven years since The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014), but there are some great moments involving Maguire’s organic web-shooting and back issues.

Overall, Spider-Man: No Way Home manages the difficult trick of working surprisingly well even if you’ve never seen a pre-MCU movie with Spider-Man (as each character’s explained without it feeling laborious), and despite being crowded with so many villains and heroes the story doesn’t lose focus on what the MCU’s Peter Parker is going through. The VFX and action is what you expect from these movies— efficiently choreographed, expensive-looking, but sometimes lacking in creativity and often taking place in darkness —but what stands out about No Way Home is the surprising ways they deal with the villains and explore what it means to be Spider-Man through the lived-in perspectives of two men who know what it’s like to be Peter Parker… because they’re Peter Parker too.


Cast & Crew

director: Jon Watts.
writers: Chris McKenna & Erik Sommers (based on ‘Spider-Man’ by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko).
starring: Tom Holland, Zendaya, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jacob Batalon, Jon Favreau, Marisa Tomei, J.B Smoove, Benedict Wong, Jamie Foxx, Alfred Molina, Willem Dafoe, Thomas Haden Church & Rhys Ifans.