Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021)

Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021)

Tom Holland’s Spider-Man encounters friends and enemies from another franchise or two

Director: Jon Watts

Cast: Tom Holland (Peter Parker/Spider-Man), Zendaya (MJ), Benedict Cumberbatch (Dr Stephen Strange), Jacob Batalon (Ned Leeds), Marisa Tomei (May Parker), Jon Favreau (“Happy” Hogan), Jamie Foxx (Max Dillon/Electro), Willem Dafoe (Norman Osborn/Green Goblin), Alfred Molina (Otto Octavius/Doctor Octopus), Benedict Wong (Wong), Tony Revolori (“Flash” Thompson), Andrew Garfield (Peter Parker/Spider-Man), Tobey Maguire (Peter Parker/Spider-Man), Rhys Ifans (Dr Curt Connors/Lizard), Thomas Haden Church (Flint Marko/Sandman), JK Simmons (J Jonah Jameson)

It’s been out long enough now – and Marvel are even advertising the Guest Stars – so I guess we can worry slightly less about spoiling this massive crossover event. Spider-Man: No Way Home became one of the biggest hits of all time. It’s not hard to see why, in our nostalgia-loving times. But its not just about nostalgia – lovely as it is to see all those old characters once again. It’s also a hugely entertaining, rather sweet film, crammed with slick lines and jokes, while also, like the best of Marvel’s films, having a heart. We’ve got a hero here so humanitarian he goes to huge risks to try and save the villains. That’s refreshingly human.

Picking up after the conclusion of Spider-Man: Far From Home, Peter Parker’s (Tom Holland) secret-identity is known. Parker finds himself at the centre of a massive, world-wide scandal, which ends the college chances of him and his friends MJ (Zendaya) and Ned (Jacob Batalon). Peter asks Dr Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) for help: namely can the world forget who he is? When the spell goes wrong, people who know Parker’s identity from other realities start appearing. And these guys aren’t happy, with villains like Dr Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), Electro (Jamie Foxx) and psychopath Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) arriving. But, when Peter discovers sending them back will condemn them to die in the battle against their Spider-man, he decides to do everything he can to try and save them.

No Way Home’s success partly lies on the nostalgia factor, especially for those of us who loved the early Maguire films. And you can sign me up to that: I can’t believe it’s been 20 years since the first one came out! No Way Home throws in characters from all five pre-Holland films and zeros in on the best of the bunch. The films has a lot of fun shuffling and realigning these characters in interesting new combinations, often allowing them to moan about things like origin stories (there is a very funny exchange between Electro and Sandman on the danger of falling into experiments) or just to get on each other’s nerves (Molina’s Doc Ock is spectacularly grumpy).

You pretty much have to have a heart of stone not to enjoy seeing most of these characters again – particularly as they are played with such lip-smacking aplomb. Above all, Dafoe relishes the chance to cement his place as one of the great villains, switching perfectly between gentle and psychotic as the schizophrenic Norman Osborn/Green Goblin (and becoming the nemesis of no-less than two Spider-men). Molina is equally good: pomposity and rage turning into avuncular decency. These two landmark villains from the two best films take most of the limelight, with a smaller share for Jamie Foxx (far more comfortable here than he was in Amazing Spider-Man 2). But every villain is given moments of tragic depth and seeing them react to news of their deaths is strangely moving.

It sets the table rather nicely for a film about redemption. Peter believes he can save these villains from death if he can cure them and restore their humanity. While the pragmatic Strange sees this as pointless, Peter can’t turn his back on a chance to save people. On top of this, No Way Home also serves as a meta-redemption arc for the two previous franchises: Maguire gets a third film worthy of the first two and Garfield is given the sort of rich material he was denied in his failed series.

Which brings us nicely to the biggest returns. Denied by both actors for the best part of a year, this film throws not one, not two but three Spider-men at us, with Maguire and Garfield reprising their incarnations. All three delight in sparking off each other, riffing on everything from web-slingers to making normal life work (“Peter time”) alongside Spider-manning. Maguire settles nicely into the Big-Brother role, giving a worldly experience to the others without losing his gentle idealism. Garfield is sensational – lighter, funnier and warmer than he was in his own films, with a hidden grief that plays out with genuine impact.

Who couldn’t get excited about seeing these three together – or to see the film make these scenes work as well as it does? It shuffles and reassembles things we are familiar with, but presents them in new and intriguing combinations and above all feels true to the characterisations established in previous films. Maguire, Molina and Dafoe in particular feel like they’ve not been away since their own films, while Garfield and Foxx deepen and improve their characters. But it became a mega-hit because it has a truly strong story behind it.

A story staffed by strong, relatable characters. There is a genuine sense of alarm around how Peter and his friends in the film’s opening act are hounded and persecuted by a population scared of them. Even here redemption is key, with Peter going to dangerous lengths to try and get his friends a second chance at getting into MIT. These three characters have a sweet, warm friendship and the chemistry, in particular between Holland (who is sensational, endearing, funny but bringing the role great emotional depth) and Zendaya is stronger than it’s ever been.

And that’s before we hit the film’s genuinely endearing message. Holland’s still-optimistic hero (another excellent contrast with his more damaged alter-egos) is motivated by saving people. And that includes the villains. Maybe it’s the years of Covid, but there is something hugely lovable about a hero who wants to give people a second chance. It’s a living demonstration of “with great power comes great responsibility” (words this film introduces into the Marvel universe with powerful effect, in a mid-film climax). In fact the film is, in some ways, the origin-story Holland’s Spider-Man never had: it gives him a foundational tragedy, leaves him in an isolated position, strips him of his Iron Man style tech and leaves him in a set-up (alone in a cheap apartment, struggling to make ends meet and superheroing on the side) familiar from the comics.

Watts directs the film with real confidence and zest, especially outside the action set-pieces: there is frequent use of ingenious-but-not-flashy single takes and the film’s patient momentum for much of its first half, focusing on character and emotion, really pay off in the second half of fan-service and fights. The camera effects used for Peter’s web-slinging and his spider-sense have a delightful quirky invention. What he really does well though is zero in on the emotion and when events get tragic, he isn’t afraid to commit to that. It gives the film an emotional force that really connected with people.

That heart is what sustains it. It’s a joyful nostalgia trip – that redeems elements of the previous films – but this is a film that really cares about its characters – all of them – and wants you to as well. That gives difficult, emotional struggles to all its Spider-Men, that searches of the humanity in its villains, even the worst of them, making us sympathise with them even as they do dreadful things. Combined with the action and adventure – and the electric pace of the best of Marvel – No Way Home rightly stands as one of the best entries so far.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s