Review: ‘Spider-Man: No Way Home’ (a spoiler-free review)

Spider-Man
by Keane Eacobellis
Review of:

Reviewed by:
Rating:
4
On December 15, 2021
Last modified:December 15, 2021

Summary:

Spider-Man: No Way Home occasionally creaks under the weight of its own ambition, but it's a monumentally entertaining installment of MCU multiversal madness that fans are going to adore.

Note: This review does contain several details that will come as a surprise if you’ve been hermetically sealed in cave for the last few weeks, rather than reading our coverage of the trailers that have been released in anticipation of this movie.

The levels of expectation surrounding Spider-Man: No Way Home have reached almost dangerous levels, with fans building something up in their heads that feels almost impossible to actually accomplish. The buzz has been nothing short of deafening for months now, and it’s reached fever pitch right as the movie prepares to unleash itself upon the world.

Is Tom Holland’s third solo outing as the friendly neighborhood superhero the greatest comic book adaptation ever made? Nope, not even close. Is it even the finest installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe? A lot of people will think so, but just as many will disagree. Hell, your mileage will vary as to whether or not it’s even the best standalone Spider-Man blockbuster to come along in the last two decades.

All that being said, No Way Home is Kevin Feige’s vision brought to life on an unimaginable canvas — a roster of old and new faces alike playing the characters you want to see them play, and doing it in exactly the way that you want to see them do it. Given the sheer scope of the narrative, you can virtually hear the film creaking under the weight of its own ambition more than once, but for the most part, it delivers on a gargantuan scale.

Of course, when the main event is five multiversal villains from the Sam Raimi and Marc Webb franchises finding themselves in a brand new universe, there are going to be casualties. In this case, it’s the after-effects of Far From Home, even though things pick up right where we last saw Peter Parker. He suffers some emotional turmoil, his actions hurt those closest to him and their potential futures, but then he simply decides to go visit the wizard he made friends with when they saved the universe to make it all better.

Benedict Cumberbatch wisely opts against playing Doctor Strange as the friendly father figure, but the machinations that bring us to the multiversal madness are more than a little clunky. There’s exposition, hand-waving, and interruptions, and it all blatantly feels like the table-setting that it is for what’s to come next. However, when the thing that comes next is Alfred Molina’s Doctor Octopus and Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin, you’re happy to let it slide.

We mention those two in particular because they’re the standout returning performers by a mile. Molina seamlessly slips back into the blend of pathos and righteous fury that makes his Otto Octavius from Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 one of the best villains the genre has ever had to offer, while it’s impossible to get tired of Willem Dafoe doing Willem Dafoe things, which in this case is leaning hard into the hammier Jekyll & Hyde aspects of Norman Osborn’s duality.

As for the rest? Well, they don’t really bring much to the table other than window dressing and opposition for our intrepid hero to battle, but that’s what they exist entirely to do. Electro, Lizard, and Sandman are ciphers more than anything else; plot devices brought back to trigger fuzzy feelings of nostalgia, although it would be a stretch to say that any of them make a stronger impression than they did the last time around, which is a particular shame for the latter because Thomas Haden Church’s conflicted Flint Marko was one of the genuine highlights from an otherwise disappointing Spider-Man 3.

We can’t forget about our core trio in all of these cross-timeline shenanigans, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to call No Way Home Holland’s best performance as the title hero yet. His Peter has always been defined by his over-exuberance rather than his genius within the context of the MCU, and he’s put through the physical and emotional wringer from the first to last scene.

Everything that happens in No Way Home, from the reveal of his secret identity to the fabric of reality being torn apart, not to mention everything that happens in between, is entirely Peter’s fault. He knows it, too, and as a result we get to see Holland plumb the depths of despair, with the character being broken down to his lowest ebb before he suits up, grows up and takes the destiny of everyone and everything he cares about into his own hands.

Zendaya also gives an MCU-best turn as MJ, who tries to share the emotional burden with her boyfriend but struggles to open up in the way that she should, and there are several genuinely heart-wrenching moments between her and Holland. As for Jacob Batalon’s Ned, he’s still largely used for comic relief, but that’s never an issue when you’ve got a performer that’s so relentlessly charming in an archetypal supporting part.

The climactic third act showdown showcases both the best and worst of the MCU in equal measure; each member of the principal cast gets some glittering action beats and smaller personal moments, but the action itself isn’t quite as inspiring or epic as you’d hope. It’s nowhere near the best finale we’ve seen from the series in terms of inventiveness, originality, or ingenuity, and yet another case of weightless CGI things smashing into other weightless CGI things, but the hope is that you’ll be much more forgiving than usual due to the sheer jaw-dropping events that unfold on a minute-by-minute basis.

The ending also puts Peter in a very interesting position for the next time we see him, with No Way Home definitely a conclusion to the trilogy that began with Homecoming. It’s not a perfect movie by any stretch of the imagination, but very few blockbusters this side of Avengers: Endgame will generate such a visceral reaction from audiences around the world, because there’s barely going to be a theater on the planet that remains silent when the next earth-shattering reveal, surprise guest or interaction you never knew you even wanted to see occurs.

This is crowd-pleasing entertainment on a monumental scale, even if there’s every chance that it won’t play as well on repeat viewings, and it certainly won’t provide the same jolts of electricity when you watch it at home. Spider-Man: No Way Home tried to hide as much as possible in the buildup to release, and yet it’s exactly what you want it to be, for better and occasionally worse.