If anyone has any doubts that Spider-Man is the greatest superhero ever created, just take a look at his battle with cinema’s most fiendish villain to date – the fittingly sinisterly-named Omicron variant. With the virus bulldozing through the UK, Peter Parker has proved steadfast and immovable, granting British cinemas one of their best ever box office weekends, pandemic or no, surpassing the likes of the Fast and Furious crew, the Eternals, and even James Bond. It’s an achievement that’s largely deserved for this trilogy-capper, which is a bit bloated and corny (and stands in the shadow of Into the Spider-Verse) but still manages to deliver some of the MCU’s most exciting and emotive moments within a surprisingly clever and affecting story.
Picking up moments after the ending of its underwhelming predecessor, No Way Home opens with Peter Parker (Tom Holland) outed to the world as Spider-Man and under fire for his apparent killing of big bad Mysterio in the last film. Dogged by reporters and the public, who are also making life hell for his best friends MJ (Zendaya) and Ned (Jacob Batalon), Peter turns to his old Avengers teammate Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, mostly wasted here) for a spell that will make the world forget his secret identity. This spell is then broken by Peter’s constant interruptions, a mistake that sends villains of other universes spiralling into the MCU.
Getting all this plot out of the way is probably No Way Home’s biggest stumbling block, director Jon Watts and writers Erik Sommer and Chris McKenna just sort-of handwaving quite a few story beats in order to get the villain collect-a-thon going, meaning it’s up to the moments of downtime to really grab your attention. It’s a gamble that does mostly pay off, the smaller stakes hitting home in the brief screen time they’re allowed – Watts and his young cast manage to conjure a particularly touching moment out of a group opening of college rejection letters.
It’s good grounding for the main event – bringing back the iconic villains of the previous non-MCU Spider-Man movies and *SPOILERS* their requisite Spider-Men. It’s fan service through and through, the script sometimes sacrificing depth for references, but it’s just so much fun that this feels like a silly nitpick. Whilst some of the villains – especially Rhys Ifans’s Lizard and Thomas Haden Church’s Sandman – are just there to make up the numbers, the returns of Alfred Molina as Doctor Octopus and the one and only Willem Dafoe Green Goblin are simply fantastic.
Doc Ock gets a nice, semi-heroic arc, and Dafoe brings his absolute A-game for the return of Norman Osborn. In what could have been a tired cameo, he is instead just as wild and intimidating as he was way back in 2002, granting the MCU one of its best ever performances. Matching up against all this villainy, Holland also gives probably his best Spider-Man turn, and he plays very well against Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield. Despite the vague attempts at secrecy from Marvel, Maguire and Garfield’s returns are hardly surprising, but they still feel pretty momentous, even if opening up this nostalgia well too much could prove a dangerous crutch for Marvel going forward.
It’s a lot of fun have Maguire back on our screens – it’s been a full seven years since his last live-action performance – but the real winner of the multiverse rumble is Garfield. Of course, he’s the best actual actor of the three, and he also manages to redeem his maligned duo of movies, mining their best moments for emotional depth whilst having fun at the expense of their mistakes in a way that just about crosses a meta tightrope without wobbling. If there is a letdown, it’s in the return of JK Simmons as J Jonah Jameson, who is nowhere near as charismatic and funny here as he was in Raimi’s trilogy.
Watts martials the best set-pieces of this MCU Spidey trilogy, keeping the scope relatively contained within the multiversal stakes, and cribbing from Raimi’s films for some properly crunching fights that seem to really hurt their participants. A lot of MCU action has felt weightless in the past, but that’s not an issue here. Green Goblin in particular was always a very violent villain, and that legacy is very much honoured upon his return, all blades and bombs and brutal beatdowns.
Within all this, there was a risk that the down-to-earth ‘friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man’ aspect that makes this character so enduring would be lost, but Watts and his writers keep it at the forefront. Peter is fearful yet oh-so heroic, and his mistakes have deeply personal costs, and the ending is both emotionally impactful and the perfect way to set up further Spider-adventures down the line. In a year in which the previously untouchable Marvel has struggled through quite a lot of mediocrity and even some disappointing box office takings, No Way Home is an important reminder of what they can do at their best, even if they’ve needed to bring in some old friends to do so.