Warning: Light spoilers ahead, which are all present in the trailers for Spider-Man: No Way Home.
Just a little over four years since his debut as the newest friendly neighborhood webslinger, it is time to deliver a valedictory on Tom Holland’s turn as Spider-Man. Or, at least, his turn as the big screen’s youngest Spider-Man: If the Marvel Cinematic Universe can be credited for anything, it is for exploiting the idea that Peter Parker actually started out as a teenager. When Tobey Maguire first donned the skintight suit in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002), he was 27 and already facing the uncertainties of post-graduate life. When Andrew Garfield started formulating his webslinging fluid in Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), he was 29 and his high school-set romantic entanglements with Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy already had a slight cringe factor to it.
But Tom Holland was only 21 when he debuted in Homecoming in 2017; his pubescent looks and puppy-dog enthusiasm further sold the illusion that this Peter Parker could be capable of bone-headed decisions. Conveniently for producer Kevin Feige’s all-consuming mantra of synergy, this also meant that he could not be trusted to carry a whole movie on his own—Robert Downey, Jr.’s Tony Stark fulfilled the role of tut-tutting overseer in Homecoming; Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) played Peter’s blunt mentor in 2019’s Far From Home.
The same arrangement applies for Spider-Man: No Way Home. As the Marvel production logo unspools at the beginning of the movie, we hear Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) revealing Peter Parker’s identity to the whole world, framing him for the climactic destruction in London’s Tower Bridge. No Way Home picks up immediately after: Peter has his world turned upside down by voracious press and suspicious authorities. When MIT refuses to grant him, his girlfriend MJ (an always welcome Zendaya) and his best friend Ned (an increasingly irritating Jacob Batalon) admission due to the ensuing controversy, Peter hits upon the idea of asking Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to cast a spell that would make the whole world forget his secret superhero identity.
The spell, of course, does not go off without a hitch. Thanks to Peter hastily including codicils and loopholes in the spell while it is being cast, cracks in parallel realities allow villains like Doc Ock (Alfred Molina), Sandman (Thomas Haden Church), The Lizard (Rhys Ifans), Electro (Jamie Foxx) and, most significantly, Norman Osborn aka The Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) into the movie’s timeline. Cracks also appear in the relationship between Peter and Strange when the question of what to do with these reality-hopping villains comes up.
The idea of a multiverse was introduced more elegantly in 2018’s superlative animated feature Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse; here, it’s summoned with the clunkiness of an expedient deus ex machina. (Can we really expect an omniscient wizard like Strange—who predicted outcomes for victory against Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War almost down to the decimal point—to suddenly muck around with a powerful universe-transforming spell just because Peter has “been through enough”?)
Having said that, No Way Home largely avoids the overcrowded feel that plagued Sam Raimi’s disappointing Spider-Man 3. There is never a sense of a rogues’ gallery of villains jostling for attention, perhaps because the script by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers deposits them in a literal gallery with precious little to do.
Director Jon Watts, in turn, gives the whole enterprise an airy nimbleness. Two set pieces--one featuring Peter and Strange battling it out over the customary MacGuffin (a box that can transport the villains back to their timelines), and another following a blow-out fight across multiple floors and the exterior of a condominium—work spectacularly because they are staged with a firm grasp of the action. The climactic showdown, meanwhile, is blocked with a clear eye towards geography, devoid of the hollow spectacle of excessive CGI so endemic to superhero movies.
But if there is a downside to the presence of so many villains from Sony’s solo tenure over the Spider-Man franchise of the early aughts to the mid-2010s, it’s the fact that the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Disneyfied approach to the property has robbed it of truly memorable nemeses—not just in the current Spider-Man universe, but everywhere. (And before you jump down my throat and point to James Brolin’s Thanos, you can thank the comics for the existence of the purple, wrinkle-chinned behemoth, not Kevin Feige.)
The scenery-chewing of an Oscar nominee like Willem Dafoe and the mugging of a respected veteran like Alfred Molina also make me nostalgic for the Sam Raimi era, when these movies spent time letting us know what made these villains tick. To cite an obvious example, Dafoe was given leeway to sketch in the evil capitalism that drove Norman Osborn in the first-ever Spider-Man movie, the paternal remoteness that drove his own son to villainy and eventually to his family’s ultimate tragedy. No Way Home’s approach of reducing these villains to candidates for rehabilitation negates their original conception as multi-faceted characters.
Instead, No Way Home’s 148-minute running time is spent underlining its theme—the possibility of second chances—using Marisa Tomei’s Aunt May as the vehicle to stoke Peter’s idealism. It is a theme repeated so often through explicit dialogue and on-the-nose plot machinations that you almost wonder if Marvel trusts you enough to get what it’s trying to tell you.
Or maybe it’s Marvel projecting its essential lack of imagination onto its audience. If there is another piece of nostalgia for me from the Raimi regime, it is how gleefully it integrated New York into its story—how joyfully its visuals plunked you down into the sensation of flying above Manhattan’s crowded streets and around the wonky curve of the Flatiron Building. In Homecoming, Watts set an action beat on the Washington Monument that ultimately went nowhere; in Far From Home, he rushed through so many European locales like a guide shepherding tourists through the itinerary. Raimi strove for as close a virtual-reality experience as cinema could get. Watts, for all his fleet-footed grasp of narrative, can’t escape a feeling of corporate anonymity. (Here’s hoping Raimi keeps that pleasurable specificity when he directs Cumberbatch in the long-delayed Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.)
If there is one good thing to come out of No Way Home’s expert fan-servicing, it is a poignant mission statement for the existence of the friendly neighborhood webslinger. Tragedy has always followed Peter Parker, and at about the halfway point, all the adolescent misadventure of the previous two movies come crashing down, and No Way Home is transformed into a true coming-of-age story. If Superman is about embracing your alienness and Batman is about accepting your frailty, then Spider-Man is, ultimately, about overcoming your grief. No Way Home hits home when Peter finally puts aside boyish things and enters the world of grownups.