All three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s (MCU’s) standalone Spider-Man films have had tough acts to follow. Homecoming had Captain America: Civil War, and Far From Home had Avengers: Endgame. In both cases, director Jon Watts dealt with the pressure by taking Spidey in his own direction, rightly confident in the web-slinger’s ability to carry a film while blocking out any outside noise. That confidence has been eroded somewhat for No Way Home, and it falls into some traps that you can see coming from a mile away; yet still, this is easily this year’s most satisfying blockbuster, featuring an epic story and moments that fans will keep close to their hearts for years to come.
Dealing with the whole world now knowing his true identity, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) turns to Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), who says he can make the whole world forget who Spider-Man is. However, the spell fails, and instead brings together villains from across the multiverse all intent on bringing Spider-Man down. This includes the returning Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina), Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) and Electro (Jamie Foxx). Spider-Man has to round them all up so Strange can send them home. However, ol’ webhead and the master of the mystic arts clash over exactly how to put things right, and things take a tragic spiral from there.
An unapologetic but well-executed nostalgia drive, No Way Home sets itself the ambitious target of laying to rest not only Tom Holland’s Spider-Man tenure, but an entire generation of the character spanning different actors, directors and eras. Somehow, it succeeds, making sure that every character and story get the closure that they deserve. Amidst the slickly choreographed and eye-popping fight scenes – sometimes so eye-popping it’s a struggle to follow exactly what is happening – the characters are carefully balanced to make sure everyone gets their starring turn. Molina and Dafoe are wonders to behold, while Foxx’s Electro finally feels like a fully-fleshed villain after the disappointment of The Amazing Spider-Man 2. The only real loser is The Lizard (Rhys Ifans), who spends more than half of the film in a box and could be removed from the movie entirely without much needing changed.
There is, inevitably, a strong sense of fan pandering – some of it courtesy of badly kept secrets, others by more unexpected but welcome surprises. No Way Home was never not going to be filled to the brim with meta references and in-jokes that were heavily dependent on prior knowledge of the franchises. Some moments are toe-curlingly corny (the script bends over backwards to accommodate a Dafoe line now immortalised by the internet), and even the closing credits song is too on-the-nose. Subtlety escapes No Way Home and prevents it from reaching beyond being a great film into being a remarkable one. Regardless, really great it does remain.
Amidst the horsing around and unsurprisingly awesome action sequences, Watts remembers that Spider-Man’s own struggles and dilemmas are what makes him so inviting as a character. Suitably, No Way Home packs more emotional punches than either of the previous films. Holland outdoes himself to bring a powerful range of emotion to his character; he remains endearing, but is now able to elicit your sympathy and shock in equal measure. His dynamic with MJ (a flawless Zendaya) gives the film much needed heart and sets up a deeply moving conclusion. As an aside, Holland is reportedly due to return as Spider-Man in the MCU, despite No Way Home feeling like a near-perfect ending to his character.
Fan service of the highest order, Spider-Man: No Way Home mostly avoids setting itself up as a one-time gimmick. While it’s unlikely that a film like this could be made again, it is Spidey’s most satisfying outing since Spider-Man 2 and a riot for his legions of fans. A story of second chances and mercy hits all the right notes, pulling off a seemingly impossible task and doing it in a way that will have you crying with a mixture of unrivalled joy and unavoidable sadness.
Spider-Man: No Way Home is out in cinemas now.