Simply put, movies do not have the capacity to recreate the experience of reading comics; the logistics are just impossible. While writers and artists behind the many, many, many titles at Marvel can monthly orchestrate all varieties of team-ups and spin stories with decades upon decades of specific precedent, live-action blockbusters are generally ensconced in limitations – from complex scheduling, to budgetary restrictions, to the simple existence of time forbidding characters from eternally existing at the same age as they do on the page.
What has made the Marvel Cinematic Universe such a special experiment, however, is that it creates the illusion that the impossible is possible. The restrictions of the medium all still exist (the franchise doesn’t have immunity from the laws of reality), but challenging logistics are matched by extreme ambition that aims to destroy as many walls as possible. The concept of assembling the likes of Iron Man, Captain America, Hulk and more in a big screen canon used to be an extreme pipe dream, but that idea seems exceptionally simple and obvious now that we are nearly a decade past the release of 2012’s The Avengers and have experienced everything that the MCU has accomplished, from Captain America: Civil War to Avengers: Endgame.
It’s from this still-nascent tradition that Jon Watts’ Spider-Man: No Way Home derives, and it is phenomenal. It’s a blockbuster that not only has the intention of moving forward the story of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Peter Parker in the aftermath of the character’s previous adventures, but also aims to examine the awesome and mixed history of the titular web-slinger on the big screen. It’s an exceptionally complex assignment, but one that makes the movie’s extreme accomplishments all the more impressive to behold.
Spider-Man: No Way Home begins by immediately connecting with something that has existed at the heart of the eponymous hero from the beginning of his existence: misery. Peter Parker (Tom Holland) may be a fun-loving quip machine, but he is also a teenager who would love to have a normal existence and can’t because of the responsibilities that come with his special gifts. And while he is typically also tortured by the fact that he has to keep his real identity a secret from those who would harm the people he loves, things are made a thousand times worse after controversial media mogul J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons) reveals Peter’s name and face to the world.
It’s bad enough that the kid can’t go anywhere in public without people snapping photos or leveling accusations at him, but a far worse source of pain for him is the effect that the news is having on Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), his girlfriend M.J. (Zendaya), and his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon). They are also harassed and are deemed guilty by association, and a true gut punch is delivered when Peter, M.J., and Ned all get rejected by their dream school, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, specifically because of their association with Spider-Man.
Not wanting to cause any more pain, Peter ventures over to 177A Bleecker Street to pay a visit to Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) – the two of them having previously fought side-by-side in Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. In an attempt to alleviate everyone’s suffering, the young hero requests that the wizard cast a spell that makes everyone in the world forget who is under Spider-Man’s mask… but things go sideways when he alters his wishes mid-procedure, hoping that Aunt May, M.J., Ned, and Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) can be exceptions to the brainwashing. On top of this indecision causing the magic to fail, Strange’s operation results in a number of fractures in the multiverse, allowing reality to be invaded by certain other notable individuals who possess the knowledge of who the friendly neighborhood wall-crawler really is.
Spider-Man: No Way Home faithfully adds to the awesome legacy of the character while also successfully improving elements of the past.
It’s no secret at this point that Spider-Man: No Way Home is stacked with villains who were previously established in the non-MCU Spider-Man movies – specifically those directed by Sam Raimi and Marc Webb – and while this creates an interesting juggling act for the film, much of what is impressive about it is both how it handles all of them, and how it puts the story in a position to reflect on the totality of the character’s big screen legacy. In addition to each of the antagonists properly getting their own special roles to play, their relationships to Peter Parker and their circumstances each have their own way at getting at the core of who Spider-Man is, and it’s a brilliant celebration. Though he is surrounded by conflict, he has a deeply embedded utilitarian philosophy that demands that he always try and do the greatest good for the greatest number (even if it means expanding his aforementioned personal misery).
It surely goes without saying that it is utterly delightful to see Alfred Molina’s Otto Octavius/Doc Ock and Willem Dafoe’s Norman Osborn/Green Goblin back in action, as those interpretations of the comic book characters left an indelible mark on pop culture in the early aughts, but what is actually impressive is seeing Spider-Man: No Way Home offer redemption for the villains from the… less appreciated Spider-Man movies. In this respect, Jamie Foxx’s Max Dillon/Electro benefits the most, as it strips away all of the unnecessary goofiness from Amazing Spider-Man 2 and unleashes a legitimate threat, but Thomas Haden Church’s Flint Marko/Sandman and Rhys Ifans’ Curt Connors/Lizard both get proper, exciting roles to play in the aftermath of Spider-Man 3 and The Amazing Spider-Man, respectively.
The movie is the most emotional MCU Spider-Man movie yet.
Following Spider-Man: Homecoming and Spider-Man: Far From Home, Jon Watts successfully delivers many of the key elements fans expect from the series – as there are thrilling, carefully choreographed action sequences that make you want to leap from your seat, and a spectacular number of laugh-out-loud moments – but it also stands apart by being the most somber story we’ve seen yet centering on Tom Holland’s Peter Parker. The threats are more extreme than anything he’s previously faced alone, but also amped way up are the emotional stakes and maturity – the protagonist plunged into multiple circumstances and decisions that fans will register with a pain in the middle of one’s chest. More important than anything else, it’s all earned.
Tom Holland, Zendaya, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Alfred Molina are all remarkable, but Willem Dafoe is the MVP.
An abundance of witty humor and sharp, character-driven drama means that the entire cast has fantastic material to work with in Spider-Man: No Way Home. Tom Holland delivers a wonderful turn that demonstrates fantastic evolution for the character; Zendaya gets a more substantial role as M.J. that highlights her fantastic weird energy; Marisa Tomei’s Aunt May gets a much appreciated enhanced role that delivers more agency and personality; and Benedict Cumberbatch is as funny as we’ve seen him in anything before. Just as he stole the show in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, however, the most phenomenal presence in the cast is Willem Dafoe’s Norman Osborn, who flips from innocent to psychotic with genius ease portraying the split personality villain. Every moment you’re watching him turns the screen into an eye magnet, and if there’s anything to complain about it’s that there isn’t more, more, more.
Every Marvel fans in the world has high expectations for Spider-Man: No Way Home, and expectations can be a devilish thing. While studios will always encourage them as a means of getting butts in seats, they can often be the downfall of a much-hyped project, as what is presented cannot live up to what exists in one’s imagination. It’s a subject that is directly addressed by Zendaya’s M.J. in the new film – who repeatedly remarks that if one expects disappointment one can never be disappointed – but such a pessimistic perspective is unwarranted in this particular case. Jon Watts’ blockbuster is the movie that audiences are presently mentally preparing themselves for, and one of the greatest Marvel adventures to date.