Review: Spider-Man: No Way Home

An entertaining, surprisingly well-written and exciting watch, Spider-Man: No Way Home is the best Spider-Man movie made so far, honouring the character’s onscreen legacy and bringing a fresh, enjoyable and endlessly surprising watch that’ll have fans beaming.

No Way Home caps off the Tom Holland Spider-Man, introduced in Captain America: Civil War, and getting his own films in Homecoming, and Far From Home. Picking up straight from the latter’s shocking reveal of his secret identity, with his world and those of MJ (Zendaya) and Ned (Jacob Batalon) imploding, Peter desperately seeks out fellow Avenger Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) for magical help.

However, Peter’s luck always tends towards the awfully bad, and a spell cast to hide his identity from thre world goes wrong, unleashing a clutch of villains you might just recognise from across the multiverse, none of whom recognise him as their Peter Parker…

What No Way Home does so well is consider everything, good or bad, that came before it; balance a huge shared universe with new additions; and both understand and appreciate what makes Peter Parker tick. A plot that could have been a disaster in the wrong hands is not trite or boring, but instead a fantastic balance of spectacle that matters, characters that you care about, and an emotional resonance that works on multiple levels.

Director Jon Watts has directed all three of these movies, and here somehow effortlessly corralls an insane cast and a literally universe-ending plot together to create a funny, heartfelt and remarkable film. Writers Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers utilise all the material, characters and the comedic energy the collisions of these create for a storyline that starts simple, and ends up powerfully articulating the Peter Parker character in a brilliant way.

One big win is that the action is so much better because it’s clear, light on CGI until it’s unavoidably required, and always foregrounded in respect to the characters and their motivations. Two of the most impressive set pieces see allies or former allies battle over what needs to be done and what’s right, while the art of stopping a fight at one point perfectly summarises what makes Peter Parker such a strong character on the page and onscreen. It’s not just big smashy fights for the sake of it.

In a very strange way, and you’ll know what I mean when you see the scale, it all feels so much more focused than usual for a superhero movie. You don’t zone out – it’s fairly long, but there are no stretches of action where you might switch off. The deft script and sterling work of editors Jeffrey Ford and Leigh Folsom Boyd mean the film just flies, pausing only for important, well-acted interactions that further the plot. At times, the movie just sings – it’s like a love-letter to Spider-Man the character, as well as the adaptations we’ve seen before.

Watts knows this character so well now (only Sam Raimi has made this many Spider-Man movies). His Peter Parker is such a breath of fresh air that threading his character development into the larger Marvel saga and school life makes these films bounce with enthusiasm. They’ve been less grim, less grinding and more fun to watch, and that certainly still applies here – look out for dodgy teachers, idiot classmates and more that you’ll remember.

However, Watts has to balance all this with… intrusions into Peter’s world and our perception of these. You can’t help feeling a lesser director would have struggled with the balance he achieves. One minute we we can be watching schoolkids jokingly lecture the ever-arrogant Stephen Strange over manners; the next, tightly-written, dramatic scenes evoke the darker elements of Spider-Man’s life.

(Incidentally, my full, detailed thoughts on the stuff I just can’t discuss here can be found right at the end of this review)

A huge part of why this particular Spider-Man series works, beyond its connections to the larger Marvel universe, is Tom Holland. Without him, these three movies (and even Avengers: Infinity War) just would not work. The young Brit is just perfect as a younger, more innocent and less damaged Peter Parker – Holland gives him an infectiously upbeat perseverance that works perfectly with a more unconventional, less on-rails development compared to what we all know of the Peter Parker story.

Here, he has some more heavy, dramatic work to do and comes out a changed man, no longer a kid – and Holland shows how good an actor he is. His Peter reckons with far larger problems than any other – and the sacrifices and losses he’s suffered inform Holland’s tempered enthusiasm, this Peter a more world-aware, unsteady young man endeavouring to balance actions against what he considers the greater good for others before himself. I hope he continues to play the character, as what comes next could be fascinating.

Zendaya’s chemistry with Holland creates a couple you care about, and she’s also one of the best sources of the sparky humour (set-tos with Cumberbatch and villains are on point for Watts’ precocious, intelligent schoolkid vibe). Batalon has a little less of a role, but Peter’s “guy in the chair” is still the biggest source of laughs, whether attempting magic, questioning whether he might end up a supervillain, or check-mating himself in a police interrogation. Giving Peter a friend who isn’t evil and who’s just as smart was a masterstroke, and I hope we see Ned again.

Cumberbatch is the latest reluctant father surrogate, and Strange cuts a more amiable but less patient compatriot. His culpability in what occurs may be addressed in future, but otherwise Cumberbatch clearly enjoys preening around as the superior (not supreme…!) sorcerer, constantly bemoaning young people and being taught a lesson in how to solve problems of his own making. It might appear like he’s making rash decisions or choices, but you believe he cares, and Cumberbatch treads that fine line of arrogance, humour, disdain, anger and empathy.

On to the villains then… and into light spoiler territory. If you’ve not seen any trailers, STOP NOW. If you have…

It was a joy to learn Alfred Molina was returning as one of the best onscreen Spider-Man villains. Doctor Otto Octavius was part of one of the best Spidey films, Spider-Man 2, and with the aid of de-aging technology he effortlessly returns to a famous role. Brilliantly, his dark anger and malevolence is punctured by Peter’s optimism and cynicism, resulting in a more comic, though no less dark, return. Hints at the empathetic genius behind the tentacles resonate strongly, as we see him struggle to reconcile his new reality with a different Parker.

All of the same can be said for Willem Dafoe, who was fantastically disturbing as Norman Osborn/Green Goblin nearly 20 years ago. Nothing has changed – the actor oscillates effortlessly between the unhinged, psychotic Goblin and the desperate, broken Osborne with ease. Dafoe reminds us just how terrifying he can be – he shows here why so many supervillains in films gone by are so poor in comparison.

The rest have less to do and make diminishing impacts as a result. Jamie Foxx’s Electro is far superior to his previous incarnation, not being blue for a start, and undercuts a lot of the menace via quips and pointing out the madness of his situation. He’s also fairly menacing, but is completely overshadowed by Molina and Dafoe. Thomas Haden Church’s Sandman and Rhys Ifans’ Lizard are all CGI, and so voice work does most of the heavy-lifting, though neither are really allowed any depth (sadly, given the more tragic elements of their origins).

Back in an Alex Jones-style InfoWars-lite Daily Bugle is J.K. Simmons as J Jonah Jameson, bringing back his shouty shock-jock “journalist” style, and even managing to add extra depth to a few scenes with apposite discussion of the impact of Spider-Man’s actions. Marisa Tomei anchors the film’s moral core as May, teaching Peter the responsibility he needs to take and that empathy for all is important, balancing this out with a more ditzy, comedic side too.

Finally, Jon Favreau appears again as Happy Hogan, the everpresent link back to Tony Stark and the awkward “uncle” to Peter, providing that memory of father figures gone by and offering a friendly if inept hand when required. I’d also give a shout out to Michael Giacchino’s score, which continues the themes he established across the other two Spider-Man films, but also splices in his great Doctor Strange score as well as some other musical touchstones you might recognise…

There’s more below, if you’ve seen the film, but in summary: Spider-Man: No Way Home is one of the top films of the year for me, and one of the best superhero films in recent years. It’s a great balancing act that just works perfectly as blockbuster spectacle.


SPOILERS, SPOILERS, SPOILERS

To talk about this in most detail though, I need to enter into serious spoiler territory. I don’t usually do this, but if you’ve seen it you’ll no doubt want to discuss some of the bigger surprise elements.

Fair warning for anyone who hasn’t seen it: I can’t be held responsible for you reading anything below and ruining it for yourself…

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… so yeah, bringing back BOTH Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield, at the perfect point in the story, is a masterstroke. The two clearly relished being able to give closure to their abruptly ended turns as Spider-Man, and benefit and enrich this film. I’m certain it wouldn’t have worked half as well without them.

Maguire’s super-emotive, reactive and often dangerous Peter Parker was our first cinematic Spider-Man, and what’s brilliant here is that he gets to play the most experienced Peter, the one who’s seen it all and suffered the crushing lows but come out the other side. As the softly-spoken, kindly older brother Spidey, he gets to cut loose with humour (some of the film’s best), and it’s great to see him reunited with his top villains as well.

Andrew Garfield was the standout though. From his introduction onwards, he’s more jokey, but also much more emotionally-damaged, and his more complicated character improves everything once he’s introduced. From lovely script and plot points that address his sad end as Spider-Man, to his absolute joy at having “brothers”, it’s clear how much he loves playing the character.

His Peter’s lost more than the other two ever have, but carries on regardless – giving him and Maguire’s Peters that closure of story and character they were both robbed of, and connecting them to Holland’s great take. It’s fantastically written, well thought-out interplay between the three, and it’s absolutely astonishing that the filmmakers not only pulled it off, but that it works so damn well.

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