Marvel comics have long utilized a device known as the “multiverse” that allows storytelling flexibility by having various iterations of its characters exist in alternate universes, then allowing them to cross over from one to another. That trait is put to good use in Spider-Man: No Way Home. A common criticism of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that its entries all follow the same general template. This installment is more unique, as it creatively plays with the multiverse concept, but also utilizes it for a greater thematic purpose.
Spider-Man: Homecoming ended with the villainous Mysterio framing Peter Parker (Tom Holland) for a devastating drone attack, then revealing the web-slinger's identity to the whole world. No Way Home picks up right where that movie left off. Unfairly shouldering the blame for Mysterio's death and aware that he's now a target for anyone who wants to attack his alter ego, Peter turns to Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) for help. There is a potential solution to the problem: Strange can cast a spell that will make everyone forget they know who Spider-Man really is.
That spell goes wrong, briefly opening up the multiverse. Villains from other dimensions are able to make their way into Peter's. In an effort to play on the entire series, those villains come from previous Spider-Man movies. Jamie Foxx is back (and redeemed) as Electro, as is Alfred Molina as Doc Ock. They're understandably confused as to how they got here and why the Peter Parker they meet is not the Peter Parker they know.
From there, No Way Home doesn't go quite in the direction you expect. Rather than simply becoming an epic “greatest hits” battle, the film turns its story into a thoughtful, and ultimately touching, meditation on human decency in a world where evil can seem overwhelming. The approach makes this the most emotional of the Spider-Man pictures. Peter recognizes that these foes have some semblance of humanity underneath their evil personas. He connects with how they “hide” their true identities.
Supporting the theme of connection is a subplot about friends MJ (Zendaya) and Ned (Jacob Batalon) trying to get into MIT, only to find themselves negatively impacted by their association with Peter. Trying to help them becomes as important to him as shipping his nemeses back where they came from. Both halves of the equation fuse together in the movie's final minutes, which may well get you choked up. They sure had that effect on me.
This is not to say that No Way Home lacks action. There's plenty of it, once again stylishly directed by Jon Watts. A freeway fight between Spidey and Doc Ock is particularly thrilling, as is the big finale involving...stuff I'm not going into detail about. What can be said without giving away specifics is that this movie is similar to Sam Raimi's 2004 Spider-Man 2, in that it focuses on how Peter Parker comes to commit himself to his crime-fighting lifestyle on a deeper level. The way Tom Holland's portrayal of the character has gone from terrifying genesis to full-on acceptance that he will never be “normal” has more fundamental humanity than anything else in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Many good qualities -- including the strength of Holland's performance and excellent supporting work from Marisa Tomei as Aunt May -- aside, the film does suffer from one specific problem that's becoming prevalent within the MCU. Namely, it panders to Marvel obsessives. So much time is spent on cameos and references designed to send hardcore fans into a tizzy that it occasionally slows down the pace of the story, while also leading to a bloated two-and-a-half hour running time. A few of these fan-service moments are cool, others pointless or distracting. The biggest (and, honestly, most obvious) of them is admittedly rewarding on a deep level for those of us who love seeing this character onscreen. That said, having to work in so many “moments” prevents the plot from having the break-neck pace that befits superhero adventures.
Of course, people who eat, sleep, and breathe Marvel won't mind one bit. After all, they're the ones being catered to. Casual viewers and non-obsessed fans might find their patience mildly tested at times. Wherever you land, though, Spider-Man: No Way Home offers more than enough fun to keep you entertained. It nicely pays off the investment viewers have made in this version of Peter Parker, and in the notion of a cinematic Spider-Man in general.
out of four
Spider-Man: No Way Home is rated PG-13 for sequences of action/violence, some language and brief suggestive comments. The running time is 2 hours and 28 minutes.