SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Tom Holland (Chaos Walking), Zendaya (The Greatest Showman), Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game), Jacob Batalon (Blood Fest), Jon Favreau (Chef), Jamie Foxx (Collateral), Willem Dafoe (The Lighthouse), Alfred Molina (Raiders of the Lost Ark), Benedict Wong (The Martian), Tony Revolori (The Grand Budapest Hotel), Marisa Tomei (My Cousin Vinny)

Director: Jon Watts (Cop Car)

Writers: Chris McKenna & Erik Sommers (The Lego Batman Movie)

Runtime: 2 hours 28 minutes

Release Date: 15th December (UK), 17th December (US)

There has probably never been a film as hotly anticipated as Spider-Man: No Way Home since…well, since Avengers: Endgame, and that wasn’t that long ago; I know the pandemic has warped everyone’s perception of time but…wait, where am I going with this? Anyway, ever since the film went into production, the internet has been awash in wild speculation, demanding to know the answers to its biggest secrets whilst also oxymoronically asking not to be spoiled. It’s made it an incredibly tough time for any Spidey fan who has wanted to see the final chapter of this trilogy knowing as little as possible, but whether you want to go in blind or knowing every last detail beforehand (why you would, I don’t know, but to each their own) …you will not be disappointed. No Way Home certainly delivers on almost everything the fans have been asking for, but its greatest strengths lie in its heart rather than its spectacle.

[From here on out, I will do everything I can to avoid giving away the biggest surprises, but it’s literally impossible to review this movie without talking about it a little, so here’s an incredibly mild SPOILER WARNING before you proceed further. If you just want a “yay or nay”, scroll down to my final verdict and make your own decision.]

Spider-Man's Multiversal Villains Return on New No Way Home Poster

Picking up in the immediate aftermath of Far From Home’s shocking mid-credits reveal, the third solo outing for the Spider-Man of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is simultaneously unlike any previous movie adventure for the wall-crawler and yet also a welcome return to the more heartfelt and earnest stories of his earliest outings. Whilst this is still clearly an MCU movie, quippy dialogue and constant self-deprecating abound, it hits an emotional core that Jon Watts previous two outings with Peter Parker only had brief dalliances with. It really focuses on both Spidey’s noblest characteristic and his most tragic weakness: his ability to see the good in people and help them even when they refuse, but also his tendency to cling on to everything he wants despite the sacrifice his superhero life requires. There’s been no film that has not only struck at the core of who Spider-Man is as a character, but done it so masterfully, since the Sam Raimi years, and anyone who’s been missing the sentimentality of those movies will be relieved to know it’s back here.

It’s especially remarkable that Sony and Marvel have pulled off such a powerful character-focused story, because No Way Home also has to contend with being easily the most content-packed Spidey movie ever, and yet it pulls off having a cavalcade of villains and subplots when Spider-Man 3 and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 buckled under less bulky material. Even with a two-and-a-half-hour runtime, there is a gargantuan amount of plot to get through. The first act is actually surprisingly bereft of action as it focuses on the interpersonal drama of Peter and his friends acclimating to their new status quo, but the John Hughes-style teenage angst takes a backseat once the villains start popping up like interdimensional rabbits and fists start flying. Whilst this does lead to some rushed storytelling at points and perhaps one too many coincidences, it’s all so well structured and paced that it’s easy to forgive and just go along for the ride; you can worry about parsing the fridge logic when you get home.

This leads us to what may be the greatest joy of No Way Home, but also its most crippling weakness: its copious amount of fan service. When it’s utilised effectively to move the plot forward or pay off character development, it works incredibly well and uses metatext to say things about Spider-Man as a character that can usually only be expressed in a critical analysis rather than an actual story; it truly is a mind-bending form of deconstructionism that only Into the Spider-Verse can challenge it to. At other moments though, the film gets incredibly self-indulgent and practically ruins any momentum it has so it can make references that feel more like bait for memes and GIFs than actually solid jokes. For the most part, Spider-Man: No Way Home is the dream movie fans have been dying to see for years, but in its weakest moments, it plays out more like the dopey fan fiction speculation of a diehard geek that somehow got mixed into the real script.

New Spider-Man: No Way Home Images Reveal Doc Ock, Doctor Strange And More  - We Got This Covered
Zendaya as Michelle “MJ” Jones Watson and Tom Holland as Peter Parker/Spider-Man in SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME (2021, d. Jon Watts)

Everyone has their personal preferences about who is the best cinematic Spider-Man, but Tom Holland has done a remarkable job in the role and reinvented Peter Parker for a new generation whilst retaining everything that keeps him timeless, and here he gives his best performance as the character yet. Though still in high school and packed with naïve ambition, from his prior adventures he now has the emotional maturity and sense of pathos that the character needs to step forward from those halcyon days into the adult world. Holland may understandably want to step away from the character at some point, but with the path No Way Home sets him on, he could honestly play the character for as long as he wants to. In the continuing spirit of the Homecoming trilogy pairing Spidey with another MCU heavy hitter, Benedict Cumberbatch steps up to the plate as Doctor Strange and, thankfully, the story picks and chooses well when to bring him in and when to let him fade into the background. He’s mostly here just to get the ball rolling on both this movie and his own upcoming sequel, but his scenes bickering with Holland on everything from how to deal with this new band of supervillains to how he should be addressed make for both some fun comedic banter and genuine moments of ideological disagreement. Even though he deals in the mystical arts, Strange is a realist whose dedication to maintaining the safety of reality comes into conflict with Spidey’s youthful impulsiveness and naïve optimism, and seeing Cumberbatch cut him down to size like a reluctant babysitter is a fascinating dynamic.

In terms of his returning supporting cast, everyone here is as good as they’ve ever been. Zendaya remains a delight as MJ, with her chemistry with Holland having bloomed from awkward flirting into a completely heartfelt romance that rivals those of his predecessors, and she is more involved in the action here than she’s ever been. Likewise, Jacob Batalon’s Ned remains the amiable but flustered best friend that sticks by Peter no matter what, still finding the time to shine even as the multiversal madness of the story threatens to completely take over. Jon Favreau is as charming as ever as MCU mainstay Happy Hogan, J.K. Simmons absolutely makes the most of his screentime as the MCU’s modernised take on Jameson, whilst Marisa Tomei’s Aunt May finally gets to step off the sidelines and be a part of the adventure to exciting results. There’s a lot of other characters who unfortunately step away from the spotlight this time around (Angourie Rice’s Betty Brant is little more than a cameo), but even their small parts to play are memorable. Tony Revolori’s Flash Thompson is still the conniving little posh boy he’s always been and takes advantage of Peter’s situation in exactly the way you’d expect, whilst the brief scene with teachers of Midtown High (played once again by Martin Starr, J.B. Smoove, and Hannibal Burress) is a hilarious aside and I hope the MCU finds some way to keep them around in some form.

Really though, you’re probably more itching to know more about not those who have returned from the Tom Holland films, but about those from Spider-Man movie history’s past. Saying nearly anything about them would be giving away too much, but they are responsible for some of the movie’s most memorable moments. Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock, who has for years held the title of best Spidey movie villain ever, holds on tight to that belt and is as simultaneously charming and frightening as he was back in 2004. Jamie Foxx certainly walks away as the movie’s greatest redemption, reinventing his Electro without just throwing away what the Webb series established when they easily could have started fresh. What was once a cringeworthy and laughable villain is now a force to be reckoned with, and Foxx absolutely eats up every piece of scenery he can grab. Sandman and Lizard don’t get quite the same love their fellow rogues get, but they still have their moments to shine and seeing them interact with all the other villains makes the idea of a Sinister Six movie even more tantalising. At the end of the day though, without saying too much more, Willem Dafoe’s return as the Green Goblin is the true MVP. What they do with the character here will absolutely delight fans of both the Raimi incarnation and his comic book inspiration. It’s just…just…*chef’s kiss*

Tom Holland as Peter Parker/Spider-Man and Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr Stephen Strange in SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME (2021, d. Jon Watts)

When it comes to the action in Jon Watts’ MCU entries, they are honestly amongst their weakest aspects. Sure, they’re entertaining and dynamic and Holland just exudes fun throughout them, but they lack the sense of wonder and high-flying thrills that Raimi’s films (and even Webb’s, to an extent) had in spades. The same, thankfully, can’t be said for the fight sequences in No Way Home. The much-advertised battle with Doc Ock on the highway is a great example, jumping expertly between Spidey battling the villain whilst rescuing civilians and trying to reason with his attacker that immediately brings back memories of Spider-Man 2’s legendary train in the best way…and just the tip of the iceberg. Really diving into detail on any of the others would be stepping into dangerous territory, but suffice to say that the brawls here can get pretty brutal by MCU standards as the stakes are raised and emotions fly high, and the climactic battle is one no Marvel fan is going to forget any time soon.

The whole film is just a visual treat, livened up especially by the integration of Doctor Strange’s trippy power set that leads to some pretty creative fight choreography and action geography. This movie is a true blockbuster on every level that makes Homecoming look like a mumblecore flick by comparison, bolstered further by Mauro Fiore’s stellar cinematography and some mind-blowing visual effects (apart from some occasionally dodgy compositing, that is). Once again, the way the film integrates elements of Spidey’s history into its aesthetics is a highlight, especially in how it recreates and updates the looks of the classic villains, and how Michael Giacchino’s music subtly and effortlessly weaves in melodies from previous Spidey films and his own Doctor Strange score to great emotional effect.

How Doctor Octopus Is Different In Spider-Man: No Way Home
Alfred Molina as Dr Otto Octavius/Doctor Octopus in SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME (2021, d. Jon Watts)

Is Spider-Man: No Way Home the best Spidey movie ever? To put it bluntly, no. It’s too reliant on nostalgia to reach the heights of Spider-Man 2, Into the Spider-Verse or Far From Home, but as a celebration of the character, it’s a sumptuous feast of superhero fun. All of the razzle-dazzle of the returning characters and further exploration of the multiverse may be what gets butts into seats, but what’s really stuck in my mind is the emotional arc of the wall-crawler himself. His journey from his humbler beginnings in Civil War and Homecoming to here feels gargantuan despite it all having happened in the past five years, and seeing him truly grow into the role of Spider-Man will stick in my heart and mind longer than any pop culture reference will. If this was the last time Holland ever donned the mask, it would be a satisfying way to say goodbye to the character, but it’s pretty clear both Sony and Marvel want to keep going. Let’s just hope they can continue to do it as civil partners and not risk another messy divorce.

FINAL VERDICT: 8/10

Author: Jennifer Heaton

Aspiring screenwriter, film critic, pop culture fanatic and perpetual dreamer.

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