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Spider-Man: No Way Home Movie Review

Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021) movie poster Spider-Man: No Way Home

Theatrical Release: December 17, 2021

Running Time: 148 Minutes

Rating: PG-13

Director: Jon Watts

Writers: Chris McKenna, Eric Sommers (screenplay); Stan Lee, Steve Ditko (comic books)

Cast: Tom Holland (Peter Parker/Spider-Man), Benedict Cumberbatch (Doctor Stephen Strange), Zendaya (Michelle "MJ" Jones-Watson), Jacob Batalon (Ned Leeds), Marisa Tomei (Aunt May Parker), Jon Favreau (Happy Hogan), Andrew Garfield (Peter Parker/Spider-Man), Tobey Maguire (Peter Parker/Spider-Man), Willem Dafoe (Norman Osborn/Green Goblin), Alfred Molina (Otto Octavius/Doctor Octopus), Jamie Foxx (Max Dillon/Electro), Thomas Haden Church (Flint Marko/Sandman), Rhys Ifans (Dr. Curt Connors/Lizard), J.K. Simmons (J. Jonah Jameson), Benedict Wong (Wong), Tony Revolori (Eugene "Flash" Thompson), Angourie Rice (Betty Brant), Charlie Cox (Matt Murdock), Hannibal Buress (Coach Wilson), Martin Starr (Roger Harrington), J.B. Smoove (Julius Dell), Paula Newsome (MIT Administrator), Tom Hardy (Eddie Brock/Venom), Elizabeth Olsen (Wanda Maximoff/Scarlett Witch), Rachel McAdams (Christine Palmer)


Like computer generated imagery or the existence of cell phones easily undoing most horror scenarios, spoilers appear to be an inevitable part of present day filmmaking. Spider-Man: No Way Home sets out to change that. This threequel in Sony and Marvel's oft-rebooted franchise imagines a world where people can go to the movies and just be utterly surprised. It used to happen all the time. The Sixth Sense.
The Empire Strikes Back. The Crying Game. Those were all released in the days when people got their information from other people. Fan-oriented movie coverage was limited and you weren't likely to be tipped off by Siskel and Ebert or your local film critic assigned 30 seconds on air or a few paragraphs on the page. Today, entire networks of movie web sites thrive on leaks and scoops and set pics.

The cornerstones of contemporary Disney, Marvel and Lucasfilm, have managed to keep "no spoilers" a mantra to be upheld by nondisclosure agreements, deep pockets, and very clear directions on how to answer press queries. But none of their surprises have been on the scale of those of No Way Home. The Internet has been abuzz for months with questions of "will they or won't they?" with regards to some iconic character reprisals. The marketing was deliberately coy on the subject, revealing some major villains of Spider-Man movies past would be returning with their original actors in tow. But would it just be villains? Did a set pic reveal more or was it faked? Did a subscription dog treat service let it slip? How many actor denials would it take for people to believe the rumors were false? Would a studio subject a $250 million sequel to rampant disappointment if all the epic rumblings proved to be just viral wishful thinking?

I'm not going to be the one to answer these questions and ruin what is the juiciest real life mystery regarding onscreen lore in recent memory. Watching this whole phenomenon play out has been fascinating, both before and after seeing this, unquestionably the season's most anticipated film. In a way it's like that scene in The Dark Knight where the Joker rigs two ferries with explosives and gives each boat's detonator to the other one. It's a social experiment and though no actual lives are on the line, individual jobs are, and more significantly, so is the sanctity and purity of cinema, something the last two years have done much to dismantle as studios figure out how to cope with slipping profits and increasingly direct the public to the more direct revenue of streamlined streaming. Can movies still be magical and important or are they destined to become a niche activity for the old and nostalgic?

If the movies are as good as No Way Home is, then the latter is impossible. This is a movie with a capital M, much like those early 2000s Tobey Maguire Spider-Man movies from which at least a couple of villains are confirmed to resurface here. The Internet existed back then and movie fan and scoop sites were abundant, but it's still easy to get misty-eyed about the beginning of last decade, a time when movies opened at midnight, people still lined up, and for a while we'd get a new Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter film every holiday season. Maguire's original Spider-Man, the first in a trilogy from director Sam Raimi, was one of the biggest blockbusters of all time when it opened in May 2002. It didn't exist in a bubble; though Batman had fizzled out at Warner, Fox was experiencing some success with the X-Men and New Line wasn't losing money on their R-rated Blade movies. But Spider-Man's numbers (over $400 million domestic, over $820 million worldwide) were on another level, its ticket sales comparable to game-changers like Star Wars and E.T.. Driving that business were agreeable creative choices and a surprising reliance on practical effects (surprising given the stakes and budget, but not by Raimi's background in low-budget horror fare like the Evil Dead trilogy).

While 2002 was a landmark year for superhero cinema, it was 2008 that foretold the current state of it. That year gave us Iron Man, retroactively the first building block of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that has become more behemothic than anyone could have imagined and, from Warner Bros. and DC, the even more commercially successful The Dark Knight, proof that as with any moviegoing trend, competition would be considerable.

Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) shows Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) a different level of consciousness in "Spider-Man: No Way Home."

Marvel Studios' big, decades-long plan has kind of turned individual movies into must-see cliffhanger episodes and so-called "phases" into the most expensive seasons of programming ever conceived. There are nuances to it all, of course.
Not everyone who saw 2019's Avengers: Endgame is carving out time and funds to see Eternals on the big screen or paying extra to see Black Widow when it first hit Disney+. But regardless of your degree of commitment, you know that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is overwhelmingly huge. It is the single biggest force in moviemaking today and it is showing no signs of going away anytime soon nearly ten years after the first Avengers movie seemed to be its own game changer.

This is the backdrop against which No Way Home arrives and it's a lot to wrap your head around. Years ago, Sony and Disney came to an agreement to allow Spider-Man to be in the MCU Avengers movies. And although that agreement briefly appeared to be in jeopardy, it made too much sense (and too many dollars) for them not to figure out how to extend it. That relationship places the three Spider-Man films directed by Jon Watts and starring Tom Holland inside the Cinematic Universe but also as its own adjacent thing. Watts' trilogy has had its own DNA, shaped as much by John Hughes' 1980s teenage movies as by all the whiz-bang of the escapades of Spider-Man's older and more seasoned fellow Avengers.

Watts' first two Spider-Man movies were fun without being overly tied to all the other MCU goings-on. The beloved Iron Man (played by Robert Downey Jr.) featured prominently in 2017's Spider-Man: Homecoming and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) was a key figure in 2019's Spider-Man: Far from Home, the bubbly summer palette cleanser we needed after the heavy Avengers: Endgame. No Way Home gives us New York wizard Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) as a central ally, but it's less concerned in following its predecessors' blueprint than in exploring the concept of the multi-verse, something on Mark Zuckerberg's mind lately and at the heart of the best Spider-Man movie ever, 2018's Best Animated Feature Oscar winner, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

In the fallout of Far From Home's end credits bombshell, high school senior Peter Parker has to cope with the fact that J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons) just revealed his identity to the world. Public sentiment is divided, with about half the people angry and blaming the youth and his Stark Industries drones for the death of Jake Gyllenhaal's Mysterio. Peter and the two classmates who already knew his secret -- his girlfriend MJ (Zendaya) and his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) -- do not enjoy being the center of largely negative attention. The trio's plan to all attend MIT together upon graduating is foiled by their media scrutiny. Their rejection letters drive Peter to consult Doctor Strange and implore him to cast a spell that erases his identity from almost all public consciousness and gives him a chance to return to his less overwhelming double life and his friends a chance to get the higher education opportunities they deserve.

Spider-Man (Tom Holland) employs robotic limbs to do battle with a mysteriously resurrected Doc Ock in "Spider-Man: No Way Home."

Some last-minute haggling over the specifics of Strange's spell instead opens some rifts in the multi-verse, which brings Spider-Man face to face with Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina), Electro (Jamie Foxx), and other foes of franchises past, all of whom are confused to find Spider-Man isn't their Spider-Man. As he collects these formidable villains in the dungeon of Strange, Peter considers an alternative fate for these once-slain individuals, seeing the humanity trapped within their assorted monstrosity. It's the shakiest story idea raised here, but one which allows for the magnificent fan service you've been dreaming of whether you realize it or not.

The Avengers and its sequels raised the bar on movie crossovers. No Way Home gets to even outdo them with the grand coups it pulls off. Watts and Holland's trilogy were never intended to build upon the Raimi/Maguire one or the 2012-2014 Amazing Spider-Man duo of films starring Andrew Garfield as the webslinger. The lack of calculation in it makes what goes down here all the more magical and exciting.

Two years ago, Martin Scorsese received a lot of flak when he seemed to slight Marvel movies, saying they were more akin to theme parks than cinema. The comments angered some people, mainly those too young to remember a film industry without "cinematic universes." Scorsese, 79 years old, clarified his remarks but he never backtracked, popping out 2019's best piece of cinema along the way. You'd be a fool to question Scorsese's opinion on any matter regarding film and his Marvel assessment seems especially pertinent here, although not in any kind of negative way. No Way Home absolutely feels like a theme park. It is the longest and most epic of rides, full of twists and turns and drops and rises. You are basically part of the experience because your existence over the past nineteen years and your familiarity with Spider-Man movies past is critical to all the emotions that are summoned. Without nostalgia and the memories of the wonder and excitement you felt when you were younger, this would not soar the way that it does. But only the old and curmudgeonly can remain immune to the spectacular charms of this dynamic adventure.

Dazzling visuals are delivered in spades, but they are not what distinguish No Way Home from the rapidly expanding canon of superhero movies. That would be the screenplay by Chris McKenna and Eric Sommers, which invents a way to contemplate Spider-Man's rich legacy on the big screen, unearthing stronger sentiments for this universe than you realize, and does so that doesn't feel like it was pitched in a board room up in the clouds. It would take a volume of cynicism that even I -- a professional film critic who's lost just about all hope in humanity -- cannot concieve of to not get swept up in the pure and exhilarating delights of No Way Home, which is as funny and poignant as anything released this year. Whether you call it cinema or a theme park, this top-tier superhero film is something you will forever cherish seeing on the big screen unspoiled and with your hopes dialed up.

It probably goes without saying you'll want to stay through the end of the end credits, but all you get for this time investment is a tease involving Tom Hardy's Venom and basically a trailer for the next Doctor Strange movie.

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Spider-Man: Homecoming Spider-Man: Far From Home
The Amazing Spider-Man The Amazing Spider-Man 2
Spider-Man Spider-Man 2 Spider-Man 3

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Reviewed December 16, 2021.

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