NOTE: This post contains a brief plot summary of Spider-Man: No Way Home, but no plot details that weren’t in the trailers.
Peter Parker has been through it.
To briefly recap:
- Tony Stark roped him into a “civil war” with Captain America;
- He crushed out on the villain’s daughter;
- He went to space to fight a giant purple space demon;
- The purple space demon “blipped” him out of existence for five years;
- He lost his begrudging mentor and father figure in a winner-takes-all fight for the universe;
- He found a new superhero mentor while on a European summer vacation, only for that mentor to not only try to kill him but also set him up for his murder and expose his identity to the world.
Despite all the trauma, Peter has maintained his youthful spirit and disposition. It allows him to remain everyone’s “friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.” It also keeps the complex consequences of his unique brand of superheroism at enough distance to claim plausible deniability. He’s “just a kid,” which means that his comprehension of Mysterio’s explosive revelation doesn’t reach further than its impact on his and his friends’ school lives.
Spider-Man: No Way Home puts Peter’s perception of himself and what he offers as a hero through the proverbial ringer. Once again, Tom Holland dons the red-and-blue Spidey suit, swinging through the streets of New York, trying to navigate a new normal where everyone knows Spider-Man’s identity. It doesn’t take long for Peter to seek the help of Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to reverse Mysterio’s actions and make the world forget that he’s Spider-Man. Strange agrees, but Peter’s frantic attempts to tweak the spell to serve his interests – specifically allowing May (Marisa Tomei), Ned (Jacob Batalon), and MJ (Zendaya) to remember the truth – rips through reality. Villains from multiple universes, each with a unique connection to Peter, or some version of him, arrive, wreaking an entirely different kind of havoc on the superhero’s already messy life.
Leveraging Spider-Man’s iconic rogues’ gallery across three generations of films is a stroke of synergetic genius that only Kevin Feige could pull off. No Way Home could’ve just been a Spider-Man greatest hits tour – Peter fighting Doc Ock (Alfred Molina), Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), and Electro (Jamie Foxx) – and it would still be an incredibly entertaining movie. Director Jon Watts takes the Marvel fan’s fever dream concept and peels it open to find the emotional stakes for Peter. The otherworldly villains allow him to grapple with the kind of hero he is rather than wants to be. Is Peter a pragmatist that achieves the greater good at the expense of the individual, or does he believe that every life is worth saving? Is he a hero alone, or does he lean on his loved ones, even at the risk of their lives?
Those are heady questions for a teenager to deal with – even one who helped save the universe – but they crucially push Peter further than he’s ever gone before, into murkier and more compelling territories. That isn’t to say Spider-Man is taking a Snyder-esque turn to the dark side; he’s still the bumbling, slightly awkward, effervescent kid that snatched Steve’s shield in Civil War. Yet, the growth he experiences and the choices and sacrifices he makes significantly deepen our understanding and appreciation of him. By the time the credits roll, you get a sense that the Peter Parker that’s emerged on the other side is one truly aligned with himself and his heroism. In fewer words, Peter Parker’s grown up.
And what an exhilarating journey that growth facilitates. No Way Home, for all its grounded character development, is a sparklingly great experience. It is Marvel at its finest, with plenty of humor, head-spinning action scenes, and heart to keep its rabid fan base hooting and hollering. The parallels to Avengers: Endgame are unmistakable, especially in paying off years of plot threads and points. I’d argue that No Way Home improves on the fan service, delivering a steady stream of jaw-dropping moments that will leave audiences hoarse and numb from the screaming and clapping. All of the moments feel earned, whether they are downright hilarious or surprisingly emotional.
No Way Home stretches Tom Holland as much as it does Peter, and he meets the challenge head-on. It is his best performance, as Peter or otherwise. Holland carefully maps Peter’s evolution while still wearing his emotions – joy, anxiety, heartbreak, and even menace – on his sleeve. The debate over which Spider-Man – Holland, Garfield, and Maguire – is best is wholly uninteresting given that they are all excellent in their ways, but Holland’s Peter feels the most balanced, and he conveys it well. Apart from Holland, everyone in the cast is terrific, finding their moments to make fantastic impressions. There is one standout performer who I won’t name for the sake of being spoiler-free, but you’ll know who it is the moment they appear.
No Way Home is a resounding success on several levels: as a capper to the Holland Spider-Man trilogy, a warm tribute to the superhero and what he represents, and as good old popcorn entertainment with moments of genuine depth. It is the best Marvel film of the year, and you can argue it is one of the best Marvel films, period. It is rare for a movie with such high stakes to meet, let alone exceed, expectations. No Way Home does just that.