A Spoiler Free Review
Whether or not you’ve heard all the speculation flying around this particular feature, I urge you to throw everything you’ve heard in the bin and enter this movie with a clean slate. There’s plenty of surprises in here, and not necessarily from the sorts of places you may expect. Despite all the talk of “will this or won’t this happen” pottering about the internet, this is a once in a lifetime experience, one that will be all the more thrilling if you enter without any clarification on which rumours are or aren’t true.
Therefore, to reduce the likelihood of ruining Spider-Man: No Way Home, this review shall not discuss anything beyond what has already been revealed in the promotional material leading up to this feature. I will talk about the villains that have been shown in the two official trailers. Beyond this, however, I shan’t be diving into the specifics of any plot points or twists which Marvel Studios chose to keep under wraps prior to its release.
For a more spoiler-filled discussion, I shall be releasing a podcast later next week that’s intended to cover the more explicit details of this movie.
A Tale of Tragedy
The past several months have been rife with theorizing, and while they did sprinkle a handful of palatable breadcrumbs during their promotional campaign, Marvel Studios have largely opted to step back from all the conjecture. This has allowed fans to rile themselves up into a borderline-obsessive state. This has worked on a couple of levels. Firstly, it’s allowed the studio to save an absolute fortunate on advertising. Secondly, it means various other plot points that may have otherwise been figured out from analysing the promotional material has gone unnoticed. For a feature that’s been examined so thoroughly prior to release, it’s surprising how much has been overlooked.
People have been so fixated on whether certain aspects surrounding the more fantastical elements are going to play out, they’ve overlooked a great deal. Many have entered into this movie to see a big, blousy romp that breaks down the laws of reality and thrusts the live action Spider-Man franchise into territory it’s never dealt with before. While all of these promises are very much delivered upon throughout Spider-Man: No Way Home, this is not all the film manages to achieve.
Perhaps the most considerable standout regarding this film is the emotional arc of Peter Parker (Tom Holland). This is more of a coming of age story than it is a multiverse of madness tale; one intended to transition Parker from a cheeky high schooler into a young man donning significant scars. There’s an occasional criticism that this version of Parker has been much more fortunate than previous iterations of the character. Not agonising over Uncle Ben’s death, successfully establishing a relationship with MJ (Zendaya) without the emotional or identity-concealing complexities, having Stark resources at his disposal, and having an Aunt May entirely supportive of his crime-fighting antics makes for a version of Parker that’s often considered a little more fortunate when it comes to his circumstances.
No Way Home does a considerable job of taking that criticism and dismantling it, thrusting Holland’s version of Parker into a much more tragic place than he’s been accustomed to before. It’s here in which the title of the feature comes into play. Peter is leaving the world he’s come to know, entering an entirely new phase of his life. One that ends in a place that feels somewhat reminiscent to the version of Parker we saw all the way back in the Raimi trilogy.
There’s a dark undertone compared to the frothy nature of the past two Homecoming movies that slowly works its way into the narrative. We open in familiar territory, only for that tone to gradually deepen as the runtime progresses. There are several significant shifts that occur throughout the film which ease us into a new era of this Parker’s journey.
The script’s decision to transition from frothy to poignant puts a lot on its lead actors. From dealing with the traumas of being outed as a superhero amidst a Mysterio-shaped conspiracy to facing a future of uncertainty, this is a story that pushes our protagonist’s into territory beyond the witty one-liners and teenage dilemmas seen back in Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017). Fortunately for all, this is a task Tom Holland and company are more than capable of rising to. The performances are perhaps the strongest characteristic to Far From Home. Everyone here is on top form here, particularly Tom Holland is by far the absolute standout. He’s expected to tackle a great number of weighty subject matters here, which he’s more than capable of doing with a level of subtlety and believability achievable by only the most talented of performance. This is the moment in which Holland proves himself to be a performer with enough range and emotional depth to carry the character of Parker into the next era of this character’s life; setting up a more interesting and weathered interpretation of the character.
Other standouts include that of Jacob Batalon’s Ned and Zendaya’s MJ, who do a terrific job of portraying two people trapped amidst the turmoil of Parker’s crime-fighting identity having been revealed to the world. The chemistry between this trio of friends feels more organic than ever before, all of which leads to a gut-punching conclusion that’s made evermore touching in thanks to such performances. The same can be said for Marisa Tomei’s Aunt May, who shines bright during a number of scenes, one of which serves as perhaps the film’s most significant and memorable moments.
For all its high-concepts and fantastical characteristics, Spider-Man: Far From Home is reliant on its recurring roster of characters to make it a smash hit. This is the make or break moment in which the MCU’s version of this character has to prove its worthy of progressing to the next stage of Parker’s life. If the cast are unable to successfully transition from the style and tone established during its first trilogy of features, it runs the risk of becoming relevant in its next area. Lucky for all, this is absolutely not the case. Everyone is at the top of their game here, delivering some of the best performances we’ve seen in the MCU to date and moving the Homecoming era into bold new territory.
Spider-Man, Friend or Fan
If you’re entering into as a general fan of the past 20-years of this franchise, this is very much a film for you. This is the most expensive and ambitious celebration of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s we’ve seen to date, one which ticks plenty of the right boxes. Seeing this in a screening filled with like-minded Spidey fans is something of a treat. It’s next to impossible to recall a moment prior to this in which an audience has felt so emotionally in sync with one another. For lovers of Spider-Man, this is a movie that hits all the right notes with perfect precision, delivering one of the most satisfying nostalgia trips seen on the big screen to date. As an English cinema-goer who rarely experiences the same kinds of audience participation often found in cinemas elsewhere across the globe, this is the first time I’ve generally been in a room where viewers audibly responded to what was playing out on screen. The Star Wars sequels didn’t achieve this. Nor did the past four Avengers movies.
If you aren’t an avid Spider-Man fan, on the other hand, there’s going to be moments that may feel as though they’re dragging their heals for a touch longer than they should. These particular sequences are designed to function as prolonged slices of fan service; extended pop-culture assessments catering to those deeply invested in the Spider-Man franchise as a whole. What’s playing out here is a once in a lifetime opportunity, one that’s only ever possible once in a blue moon. While all of this is ecstasy to the more passionate members of the audience – myself included in that demographic – from a distance, some of these moments are going to feel as though they out welcome their stay somewhat.
The same can be said for the underlying premise driving the narrative. Strange’s spell is a plot McGuffin intended to get the story into a place where it can deliver the biggest helping of fan service as quickly as possible. Yet the more you consider it, the more you realise how little sense it makes. Sure, Strange is a magician, and magic is…well…magic, however the narrative logic behind his failed attempt to wipe the world’s memory of Spider-Man’s identity is nonsensical. The fact Strange’s botched trick seemingly handpicks a specific assortment of fan favourites from two (or three) universes, only to then have them conveniently turn up on Peter’s doorstep feels a tad too coincidental for its own good. Why those five villains? Why not more? What about all the other universes occupied with Peter Parkers? How come some are extracted at the end of their lives, while others not? I know the answer to these lies in the fact they are trying to celebrate the last three cinematic adaptations of the character, but they are still valid questions that render this plot mechanic somewhat nonsensical
The plot mechanics of No Way Home’s multiversal escapade also raises even more unanswered questions as the plot progresses, particularly in regards to the eventual fate of the film’s villains. Plucking them out of their own timelines may well be a neat way of rustling up a juicy serving of beloved baddies, but how porting these antagonists over to the MCU affects their place within their original timelines is a question that’s not only overlooked throughout, but is furthermore complicated by the time this movie is done with them.
Having said all of this, amidst all the throwbacks, whimsical plot points and winks to past eras, this is a thoroughly entertaining flick with good enough performances and emotional beats to keep all invested throughout. While several individual moments may not function as effectively for the less engrossed viewers, the overall experience outshines the more fan-centred segments of the script.
The Sinister Five
Thus far, Marvel Studios has done a decent job of steering clear from recreating any Spider-Man villains that have already been adapted for the silver screen. To avoid being compared to past iterations, the Homecoming series has aimed to keep moving forward with the times, focusing primarily on villains that have never had a big screen conception up until that point. Reimagining classics like Doc Ock or Green Goblin would be considered high risk decisions, particularly when the Raimi trilogy carved out what’s considered to be the definitive editions of those characters over a decade prior to Spidey’s involvement in the MCU. No Way Home tries to have its cake and eat it in this respect. It wants to play with the coolest toys from the Spider-Man playbox without having to assemble its own figurines. Porting over the best baddies from Spidey’s past allows the MCU to play with the best villains without having to reinvent them. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, after all.
For the most part, No Way Home does a remarkably good job of taking a large group of antagonists and getting them to operate within a single narrative. Past Spider-Man films have had a reputation for collapsing under their own weight due to having too many foes with opposing motives clogging up the screenplay. No Way Home manages to avoid this problem by assembling the antagonists under the same circumstances and giving them the similar goals to one another. They are lost souls, snatched from their realities after their power and ambitions have been snatched away from them by their respective Peter Parkers. Both their identities and physical forms are ghosts, clinging to the reality they’ve found themselves lost within.
The standout of the film’s villainous line-up is Willem Dafoe’s return as Norman Osbourn, aka the Green Goblin. No Way Home leans into the dual personality established back in 2002’s Spider-Man, only now, both Dafoe and the filmmakers are holding a magnified glass to the character. What’s most interesting this time around is how much the film invests in examining the human side to Norman’s state-of-mind. The earlier chunk of the movie gives us great insight into the confused and lost state of a man trying to cling to sanity. When the inevitable switch from man-to-monster finally does take hold, Dafoe delivers terrific performance caked in menace and cruelty. The shift from man-to-monster is more believable and more shocking than ever. In addition to being a physical threat, the taunts and actions he inflicts upon Parker throughout exposes a callousness beyond anything we’ve seen from this incarnation of the character before. He feels like a proper big bad; a heartless beast who’s crawled from the depths of a damaged mind.
Alfred Molina’s return as the dreaded Doctor Octopus is another of the film’s numerous standouts. Reprising this character from where he left off was something of a hefty gamble, particularly considering how his arc was resolved during the final act of Spider-Man 2 (2004). No Way Home manages to steer around this problem by emphasising the impact Octavius’s damaged inhibitor chip has upon his behaviour. A majority of his scenes tend to linger on the underlying frustrations crawling beneath his skin. Similar to Osbourn, there’s an inner war going on between the man and the machine. It’s a nice touch, and one that allows them to utilise his character for the boisterous action sequences as well as keeping from unravelling any of the plot points we saw wrapped up 17-years prior. Admittedly this is a character who feels slightly underused during the back half of the film. Beyond his extravagant introduction, Octavius quickly takes a backseat, allowing more room for Osborn to take centre stage. This is perhaps for good reason, seeing as allowing him to remain a villain for too long, particularly as the story ventures closer toward its final act, would increase the risk of undoing the resolution of Spider-Man 2. As bold as Far From Home may feel, there’s a hesitance when it comes to Doc Ock. As terrific as it may be to see Molina return to the iconic role all these years later, there’s a slight anticlimactic feel after the film decides to remove him from the forefront of the plot during its midpoint.
The three remaining villains – Electro (Jamie Foxx), Sandman (Thomas Haden Church) and Lizard (Rhys Ifans) – are perhaps less central to the film as a whole. That’s not to say they aren’t any good. Their presence within the narrative allows for some fun fan service in which each reflect upon one another’s places within their respective universes. Plus there’s a subtle re-invention to Foxx’s Electro that makes the character more appealing than he was in the Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014). Beyond these qualities, however, they often feel as though they are accomplices to character motives beyond their own control. They skip from being good or bad, largely depending on whatever Norman Osbourn is doing at that particular time. Electro is the most interesting of these three; as his moral shifting does seem to feel as though it’s coming from a man unsure as to what he wants or what he stands for. Flint Marko’s Sandman is a little less interesting in this respect, as he often feels like a good guy who becomes destructive whenever the plot needs a flashy action sequence. Dr. Connors Lizard perhaps contributes the least to the plot, so unwilling to play any part in the story, he even opts to stay behind in the van during key plot points.
Though their significance to the overall plot may not equal out between the five villains, none of this detracts from the overall quality of the film. Witnessing these characters return to the big screen from the very timelines we last saw them occupy is a delight from start to finish. Every interaction they make amidst themselves, or with the film’s protagonists generates enough glee to justify their inclusion within the script. These are remarkable characters played by great actors. Never in a million years did we expect they’d someday share a handful of scenes together. Yet here we are.
The MCU Lens
As many may expected, this film is overflowing with callbacks and nods to every Spider-Man live action film dating as far back as 2002. Unlike all the other nostalgia-rich films that have seen the light of day in recent years, No Way Home doesn’t appear to lose its way amidst all the referencing and tie ins. What prevents this feature from losing its identity amidst all the iconography it’s referencing is down to the fact that it is all filtered through the lens of the Homecoming series.
This is not a crossover of three film franchises, but an MCU Spider-Man movie that retains the same visual palette, non-diegetic soundtrack, pacing and tone established during the most recent Spider-Man features. The look and overall style is never once compromised to generate any of the nostalgia, relying instead on dialogue, references and a few musical cues that are only decipherable to audiences who’ve seen the films pre-dating the MCU’s interpretation of Spidey. We don’t get any flashbacks or glimpses into the villain’s home universes, nor do we get any direct visual recreations of the Mark Webb or Sam Rami universes. Spider-Man: No Way Home ensures that it functions first and foremost as a film within the Homecoming series, acting as though the references are mere side-note as opposed to central gimmicks. Even when the film mirrors various forms of iconography from earlier films, it’s done so with enough subtlety to suggest they are multiversal phenomenas as opposed to intentional recreations (think of George Lucas’ “it’s like poetry” musings during his time writing the Star Wars prequels, albeit from a multiverse perspective).
There’s an orchestrated nonchalance to all of this which allows the film to establish its own identity amidst all the nostalgia. It also generates more reward for audiences when they register various nods and references. Seeing as No Way Home isn’t rebuilding entire scenes from the ground up in a bid to ignite remembrance, only the audience members who’ve done their homework during the past 21 years are going to be able to get the most from these scenes. The connections to the Raimi and Webb universes hide in every corner of this script. The more intimate you are with these universes, the more visible such references will be.
Ensuring that No Way Home is presented primarily through a non-Raimi/Webb lens ensures that the final installation of the Homecoming trilogy retains its own identity, whilst simultaneously ensuring every hark-back feels earned within the minds of its audience.
Spider-Man: No Way Home is Marvel Studio’s most ambitious project to date. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity for a studio, one that pays off in spades. Every attempt to bedazzle and captivate its audience works. Kevin Feige and Amy Pascal set out to engineer a feature intended to make audiences gasp and applaud across the globe; something this film manages countless times over. This is a movie overflowing with grand ideas and otherworldly concepts. It’s also a surprisingly intimate movie under the hood. Beneath the universe-bending insanity, there’s a tale of personal tragedy playing out. From the relationship established between Parker and the villainous gang he’s crossed paths with, to the heart-wrenching atrocities our friendly neighbourhood hero finds himself confronting, this is a film about one boy’s cataclysmic transition into adulthood. This is a big, brilliant and bonkers movie. It’s also a sad, moving, and personal one.
The handful of flaws present throughout are fleeting and inconsequential to the overall experience. The many parts that do that work, absolutely sing. If you’re a casual superhero movie fan, this will be a solid slice of entertainment packed with plenty of emotional punches and zestful set pieces. If you’re a committed Spider-Man enthusiast, this may well be one of the most memorable cinema experiences you’ll ever get chance to witness.