REVIEW: Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021)

MJ (played by Zendaya) and Peter Parker/Spider-Man (played by Tom Holland) trying to escape the public eye in Spider-Man: No Way Home — Photo: Matt Kennedy / Sony Pictures.

Directed by Jon Watts — Screenplay by Chris McKenna & Erik Sommers.

Next year is the 20th anniversary of the first-ever live-action Spider-Man film, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, which catapulted an already immensely popular comic book and animation character into big screen superstardom. A lot has happened since then. At this point, three different actors have played Marvel’s beloved wall-crawler on the big screen, and all of them have devoted fanbases. This, Spider-Man: No Way Home, is the third solo film in Tom Holland’s tenure as Peter Parker, but it is so much more than that as trailers have revealed. Rest assured, this is a spoiler-free review that will not reveal anything you wouldn’t already know from promotional material. Promotional material — trailers and posters — have revealed that No Way Home will feature villains (and the actors that originally played those villains) from the previous two Spider-Man sagas and thus connect the different cinematic universes. It is a massive crossover event for Spider-Man fans. My one worry going into the theater was that this movie might be too big to work, but, ultimately, I don’t think that is the case. Because at its heart, this is very much a Spider-Man movie, and I think they manage to balance the various elements of the film remarkably well.

After the events of Spider-Man: Far From Home (also directed by Jon Watts), the public knows Spider-Man’s secret identity, and they have also falsely been led to believe that he killed Mysterio (in the previous film), the villain who is falsely regarded as a hero by the public. This is disastrous for Peter Parker (played by Tom Holland), so, in a last ditch attempt to get him out of this problem, Peter seeks out Doctor Strange (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) and asks him to cast a spell that can once again make his identity unknown. Strange eventually agrees, but as the spell is cast something goes wrong. Soon he and Parker find out that their spell allowed villains from alternate universes to make their way into ours. And these villains have one thing in common, they have animosity towards Spider-Man.

During and immediately after the opening scenes, the film can feel busy and a little bit clunky, but the character relationships prevent the film from getting stuck in the mud. Once Cumberbatch’s character makes his way into the film, the film picks up steam and feels less brought down by the previous film. What follows is a genuinely entertaining and thrilling reintroduction of the greatest big screen Spider-Man villains, as well as genuine improvements on one of the lesser villains. Indeed, somehow, I think this is the kind of film that can strengthen your connection with and your feelings for previous Spider-Man films.

However, it is also true that the film is indebted to all of the previous Spider-Man films. In that regard, it feels very much like the Spider-Man answer to Avengers: Endgame. It is built upon what worked previously. The dialogue borrows a lot from previous films (which is both good and bad, but it mostly makes way for some really heartfelt or funny moments), and, obviously, this film’s villains work because of our collective understanding and appreciation for their characters and performances in previous films. For example, I probably wouldn’t care as much about Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock as I do in this film were it not for the fact that he delivered a genuinely complete, complex, and unforgettable performance in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2.

Obviously, though, not all of the film’s many villains get as much screentime as others, and it is true that not all of them are as important to the film as others. Molina has a really nice supporting role to play here. Jamie Foxx’s Electro, who first appeared in Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2, is improved upon tremendously. But in this film, the shining star among the villains is Willem Dafoe’s Norman Osborn (aka the Green Goblin), who delivered an iconic superhero film performance in Raimi’s Spider-Man. Dafoe doesn’t miss a beat in No Way Home. He slips right back into his iconic role, finds the iconic intonation and voice, and he truly gives it his all, which is really nice to see. He is in the film a lot, and, even still, I wanted so much more.

This is a really rewarding film for long-time Spider-Man and Marvel fans. It hit me with several waves of nostalgia in moments that I’m going to think about for so, so long. There are so many scenes where I was just beaming with joy and satisfaction. It is obviously filled to the brim with great moments of fan-service and iconic characters. But what helps this film feel less bloated than it could’ve been is that the film isn’t anchored around the Doctor Strange magic plot device or the multiverse elements that it will forever be tethered to and indebted to. It works because it is anchored by Tom Holland’s Peter Parker and the character relationships that Jon Watts, the writers, and the core cast have built over the course of these three Holland-films. This film has a lot of humor, a lot of heart, and even some heartbreak. This is a film about growing up, learning that our actions have consequences, choosing empathy, and desperately trying to right our past mistakes. Spider-Man fans will be happy to know that it is also very much about responsibility. To reiterate, yes, this is very much a true Spider-Man movie. Furthermore, it is a celebration of the cinematic legacy of the character that does a fantastic job of combining the three distinct live-action eras of Spider-Man harmoniously and satisfyingly.

Tom Holland’s performance in No Way Home makes his work in Far From Home look lightweight by comparison. Holland’s action scenes feel hard-hitting and serious in this film (there is a truly brutal fight scene in an apartment that also features this trilogy’s best use of the Spider-sense), which goes much darker than Far From Home ever did (even though it is still very funny in moments). Holland has been great in this role from the start, and it’s nice to see him build his character’s own relationships with these iconic characters from Spider-Man‘s rogues’ gallery brought to life by, in some cases, the characters that originally popularized them. It also helps this film massively that these characters aren’t just hollow easter eggs and cheap callbacks, they are actual characters who make a difference in numerous ways that I can’t really discuss in a spoiler-free review.

Granted, the film is somewhat crowded and occasionally busy (and I do have some minor editing nitpicks), but what really makes this massive, overwhelming crossover event film work is that it has its heart in the right place. The wildly entertaining and undeniably satisfying No Way Home has the best Tom Holland Spider-Man performance yet, and also features a pitch-perfect performance from returning star Willem Dafoe. Michael Giacchino’s varied musical score really added a lot to the film’s most memorable scenes and developments. Frankly, there is a lot more that I want to say but cannot because I don’t want to ruin this film for others, but I will say that it is not just the best superhero movie I’ve seen in 2021, I also think it’s one of the very best Spider-Man films. I am very much looking forward to being able to rewatch it again and again.

9 out of 10

– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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