The fifth time was the charm. In the grand tradition that was 2021 and Marvel Movies, and their chaotic symbiosis, the best (five in all) was saved for last. After much hype, speculation, and overprotectiveness, the light at the end of the tunnel hits with Spider-Man: No Way Home. And it could not be any brighter, which is ultimately more a benefit than a deterrent. Certainly not only for the MCU and its future, but just as much for the Spidey name, what it strives to stand for then, now, and quite possibly tomorrow. Effectively and metaphysically bending the constructs of time to challenge, then paint the most accurate picture of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s cherished web-slinging super that may be put to live-action. And despite a rather incomplete personal history with the series in general, the ride very much lives up to its promises.
For director Jon Watts’ interpretation of Peter Parker (Tom Holland), we find conflict in achieving maturity and independence. He’s eager to stay close to his friends MJ (Zendaya) and Ned (Jacob Batalon), the trio in the thralls of senior year and college placement. Of course, there remains the lingering distraction that had left him, as well as audiences, dangling for two years at the end of Far from Home. The bombshell reveals that Peter is indeed Spider-Man. With it comes legal injunctions, the swath of paparazzi, and fears of academic ineligibility. Faced with a grim future, Peter looks to Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) for a likely solution. In pure Marvel fashion, even the best solution evolves into the worst disaster. And from there, the fates of many, be they individuals or timelines, are well under the microscope.
I can only hope that’s vague enough of a plot explanation, for there are many big swings in play for Watts and returning screenwriters Chris McKenna & Erik Sommers (The Lego Batman Movie), all of which will likely make the most sense if one has studied up ahead of time with previous installments. The marketing has already made note of Dr. Octopus (Alfred Molina), Sandstorm (Thomas Haden Church), and Electro (Jamie Foxx) making return appearances to wreak multiversal havoc. Any of them could instill valuable clues best left to the overall observer, regardless of their experience level. If like me, you both never quite grew up with neither Sam Raimi’s nor Marc Webb’s vision for the spandex-adorning arachnid, fear not. It’s still readily accessible, though heed caution for callbacks aplenty.
Beyond the need to intersect in the name of furthering a deep legacy of lore, Watts never loses sight of his root concept for this very coming-of-age iteration of Spidey. Many have tried, only this present MCU-friendly trilogy has iconized Parker as a real high school underdog, understanding both strength and weakness in short order, and certainly not too quickly, and done with a firm sense of humor. Continuing that John Hughes-esque, existential teen comedy angle, if Far from Home was the partial antithesis of Home Alone 2, by that logic No Way Home could be a diluted Breakfast Club. Where the only confined space could very well be the construct of time. Of which Parker may just have little, or none to spare while regaining his multiversal footing. But where also his character development blooms to adventurous corners never once considered fathomable. Even as Peter’s world crumbles, he must nevertheless grow up with dignity, on the fly. The challenge level is amped to compensate, and save for one key moment of poor judgment, his composure remains firm.
And by extension, so does Holland’s portrayal. He sees the chance to evolve Spider-Man into a newly adaptive territory, and runs with it, achieving an upfront sense of manhood, no longer weighed down in an apprentice role as Tony Stark would’ve done in the past. Breaking past the watchful eyes of both Happy (a wild Jon Favreau) and Aunt May (a graceful Marisa Tomei) is a major step forward. Ignoring the pervasiveness of one Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons) would be another. And a third would be identifying the sage concerns of Strange, whose own multiverse woes will only grow in the coming year. One wishes there was more trust amid Holland and Cumberbatch’s otherwise sparkling chemistry, and perhaps a substantive enough coda in closing out Mysterio’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) arc instead of it being abandoned to cover Peter’s stress. Mere minor quibbles that Watts is sure to address depending on what manner of future this timeless may offer, while a slower roll is enacted.
Opposed to its predecessors, it is clear enough Watts is aiming well for the heart versus just the funny bone, carrying a bit more weight while flying about. A careful choice, considering how much of Homecoming, as an example, relied purely on its eye candy and wit. That’s still there, thank DP Mauro Fiore (Infinite) for sealing up that opulent New York feel. Here, we see genuine conflict, the prevalence of real world-threatening evil around the gallery of trespassers. Especially Molina, who was a childhood hero to some degree, in taking on those metallic tentacles 17 years ago. The type of raw antagonist that’d force anyone to question their beliefs, and not just Peter. For as much as he evolves with the changing tide of life, so too must the lingering thread of insecurity. And any villain who steals the spotlight from Holland, if only briefly, has the best reason for it. Both Zendaya and Batalon remain steady on the virtue of moral support, while the set pieces appear to reallocate to be more about home and its invitational circumstances. Showing off a Statue of Liberty with awkward CG renovations, however? That would be suspect in any dimension.
What Watts is carefully insisting on for this current phase is that the future involves a location considered invisible to the human eye, but is spectacular, nonetheless. If nothing else grabs viewers’ attention by the end of Spider-Man: No Way Home, let it be that invitation to grow up, break free a little. Despite not quite matching the same innocent high bar of Homecoming, settling for second place past Far from Home, its desire to slow down, take stock of the place it belongs to, wins out against any leftover concerns. Its mentality runs a bit more diverse; I was left at times impressed, amused, and teary-eyed. Never all three at the same time, but the combination does scream volumes. If in 2022 Marvel’s cinematic coffers can be this loud, elevated, mature while still entertaining fans with its faithfulness, we may not have much to fear. (A-; 4/5 Horns Up)
Spider-Man: No Way Home opens in theaters this weekend, showtimes begin Thursday at 3 PM; As always with these Marvel films, do stay through to the end of the credits; rated PG-13 for sequences of action/violence, some language, and brief suggestive comments; 148 minutes.