Spider-Man: No Way Home may just be the greatest Spider-Man film, and perhaps among the greatest Marvel Cinematic Universe films in general.
In part, it’s weaponised nostalgia: drawing upon nineteen years of Spider-Man in film, No Way Home has the advantage of using the best parts of previous films, while respectfully making fun of some of the worse things we’ve seen before. For the rest, No Way Home manages to tell a strongly emotional story, with likeable characters and an easily understandable plot. The general assumption this film makes is that you’ve seen Sam Raimi/Tobey Maguire’s 3 Spider-Man films, and Marc Webb/Andrew Garfield’s 2 Amazing Spider-Man films – you can absolutely watch No Way Home without having watched these, but some of the referential humour, and the backstory of several characters will be lost on you. I highly recommend seeing this film, either way. If you haven’t seen it yet, don’t continue reading, because there are major spoilers further on.
No Way Home has a fairly simple and easily understandable story, in that the actions and goals of the characters can be summarised fairly easily. Where No Way Home excels is portraying themes and crucial character development for Holland’s Spider-Man through way of his motivations, and how they evolve throughout the story in reaction to the challenges he faces. Picking up right where we left off, No Way Home immediately presents Peter Parker the challenge of having his identity as Spider-Man revealed – the first act of the film revolves around the issues this creates, how he tries to solve them, and the way in which this motivates Peter.
Time and time again, Peter puts others first, even when it may actively harm himself to do so. This is really the core of Spider-Man’s character, more so than other heroes, and it shows an understanding of that character, as well as a great quality of writing, to repeatedly hammer that point home without coming off as obvious. When Peter goes to Doctor Strange to erase the world’s knowledge of his identity, he does so because Ned and MJ are suffering, not just him. When the spell fails, and the villains enter his universe, his first encounter with them involves him making active choices to save the admissions counsellor – at the cost of taking a few hits, and ultimately losing to Doctor Octopus if not for his nanotechnology.
He makes the choice to save the villains who would otherwise die fighting their versions Spider-Men, at great personal risk to himself, and continues in his resolve to do so even after experiencing great personal loss. At the end of the film, Peter, a seventeen year old who’s just lost the last remaining parental figure in his life, chooses to sacrifice his life as Peter Parker in order to seal off the multiversal breach and save the day, and he does it with little to no hesitation. It’s here we’re seeing the birth of Spider-Man: ushered in by his older and wiser counterparts; the tragic death of Aunt May; and his maintaining his morality, not killing the Green Goblin despite his causing him immeasurable suffering. With its top-notch portrayal of Spider-Man’s selflessness, sacrifices, and what it means to be a hero, No Way Home earns the words ‘with great power comes great responsibility’.
The action is mostly standard Marvel fare – good, solid, dependable, but not much to write home about. Among the best action scenes are Spider-Man’s fight with Doctor Strange, and his two fights with the Green Goblin. Doctor Strange’s powerset simply makes for amazing visuals and geography to wow the viewer, and allow the artists to flex their VFX muscles. The Inception-style folding cityscape continues to be an outstanding effect that’s simply visual wildfire, while also preventing Spider-Man’s signature use of web-slinging, forcing him to get creative.
The writers and choreographers also were fairly imaginative with how the two character’s powers interacted, with Spider-Man’s spidey-sense allowing him to reflexively dodge even while Strange had separated his astral form. I don’t know if movie tie-in videogames are still a thing, but I’d love to play a boss-fight like this, using these concepts (perhaps Sony should note that down).
That’s not to mention Cumberbatch and Holland’s chemistry, and the overall friendly/sparring tone of the match, despite the strong difference of motivation. One can only hope that the crew for Multiverse of Madness found just as much creativity and imagination for their action scenes.
As for Spider-Man’s first fight with the Green Goblin, it’s notably shorter, but far, far more tense, and emotionally weighty. Willem Dafoe is four times Oscar Nominated, and it shows: he gives off an almost “Heath Ledgerian” vibe, as if this is The Dark Knight and not Spider-Man. His facial acting and maniacal cackling, while getting hammered repeatedly in the head by Holland’s Spider-Man, and no-selling it all the way – it’s genuinely frightening, made all the worse for Aunt May’s presence, her mere proximity instantly ratcheting up the tension to a fever pitch.
The fight’s ending leaves Spider-Man destroyed: both physically and emotionally battered to a level we’ve never seen him at before. His second fight picks up right where it left off, but almost reverses the roles Spider-Man and Goblin play. I’ve never seen Tom Holland play an “angry” character, but you can’t walk away from the scene not admiring his chops for it – he’s brutal, almost feral in his blows. It provokes a visceral reaction, seeing an almost completely different person, wrought with grief and fury in equal measure. The emotional beat that follows – the older, wiser Spider-Man of Tobey Maguire’s films, stopping him right as he’s about to kill the Goblin – is one of the strongest in the film, perhaps second only to Aunt May’s death and deliverance of the famed ‘great responsibility’ line.
We can’t discuss No Way Home without mentioning the returns of Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield as their versions of Spider-Man in further detail. They’re the MVPs of the plot, delivering emotional beats, referential quips and in-jokes, as well as giving Holland’s Spider-Man much-needed motivation to continue his mission to save the villains. The three Spider-Men form an almost brotherly bond – it feels truly earned, like it’s the culmination of nineteen years of Spider-Man films, despite not being planned like that. It’s pure payoff: it allows us to see the continuation of characters we thought we’d never see again, not to mention their excellent portrayals.
Tobey Maguire is great, exuding inner peace and acceptance, in a character usually wracked with emotional torment, but Andrew Garfield may just be the greatest performance of the film, alongside Dafoe. He brings closure and weight to a character portrayal that suffered from less-than-excellent writing and directing. It’s amazing to see what Garfield’s Spider-Man can bring to the table in a film that isn’t “just alright” (Amazing Spider-Man 1) to “fairly terrible” (Amazing Spider-Man 2), and he’s retroactively made those films better in my eyes. His moment of saving MJ from her fall feels like the conclusion of a character arc we never got to see, yet still felt the satisfaction of seeing it finished.
Willem Dafoe and Alfred Molina’s performances pick up right from where they left off in ‘02 and ’04: Molina as the calculated, single-minded scientist, Dafoe as the cackling, raving madman. It’s as if no time has passed at all – which for the characters, it hasn’t. Molina’s performance is wonderful, excelling as a Freudian “Id” type, utterly driven by Otto Octavius’ desire to advance science, and utterly ignorant of any morality in achieving that objective. Upon being cured, he shifts back into the warm, kind mentor figure without skipping a beat, sharing emotional moments with both Holland’s Spider-Man, and especially Maguire’s, who he considered a friend.
Similarly, Dafoe’s performance is amazing, and arguably the best of the film, although hard to rank above or below Garfield’s. The Green Goblin will likely go down as one of the best MCU villains – he’s a terrifying screen presence, effortlessly posing a threat, with his echoing, hyena laugh and contorted smile, you’re given the impression he’s not quite there, reinforced by the blurry line where Goblin begins and Norman Osborn ends. Jamie Foxx’s Electro is perhaps the most improved character from the previous films, no longer an odd-looking blue-thing, but now just regular Jamie Foxx-looking Jamie Foxx, delivering solid comedy lines. Thomas Haden Church and Rhys Ifans as Sandman and the Lizard, are far less present than their three comrades, mostly because they were unable to be on set – understandable, with Covid travel restrictions and the like. Lizard gets away with it, with his already being a CGI monster. Sandman doesn’t – his constant use of his sand form is slightly jarring, but it’s not that big of a deal when Dafoe and Molina are working double-time with their outstanding performances, pulling us back in.
As for the hero’s side, Zendaya, Jacob Batalon, and Marisa Tomei turn in solid jobs as the sidekicks. Their role for the film is essential – without their presence, Holland’s Spider-Man lacks the motivation to do the things he does, and also lacks the emotional grounding that makes some of this film’s moments hit so hard. It’s made better that the chemistry between them is so obviously real, and clearly extends off-screen.
No Way Home is, ultimately, just an excellent film. Not only is it that, but it’s also a 150-minute character study of Spider-Man: His selflessness, his heroic idealism, his emotional struggles, his relationships with friends and family – and even more, if you just want to watch it for the fights and the big-screen action, it’s one of Marvel’s best. There’s something here for everyone, even if you’re not familiar with the characters, or the story, you absolutely will be by it’s end – and if you’re not a fan of Tom Holland’s Spider-Man, or just the character in general, I challenge you to still not be by the end of the film.