Spider-Man: No Way Home
With his life destroyed by the public revelation of his secret identity and his girlfriend MJ (Zendaya) and best friend Ned (Jacob Batalan) suffering as a result, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) seeks the magical intervention of Dr Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to re-write reality and make the world forget he is Spider-Man. But when the spell goes awry the walls between universes start to come down, forcing Peter to confront a series of adversaries he never knew he had: among them Doctor Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina) and Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe).
So, Far From Home was my favourite film of 2019. It was the perfect Spider-Man movie for me, encapsulating what is so great about that character and letting actors like Tom Holland and Zendaya really imbue their roles with everything that was required between the action, the comedy, the fledgling romance, and at its heart was one of the most pitch perfect commentaries on misinformation and fake news you are liable to ever see in the medium. Because of all that, it is enough to say that my expectations were sky-high for No Way Home, a film from a creative team and with a cast that have nailed it several times.
Well, I would go so far as to say they have nailed it again, if it possible to be both completely satisfied with a movie and also think it isn’t approaching the level of Far From Home. No Way Home is an enthralling spectacle, an ambitious effort to, if we are being honest, ape the multiverse success of Into The Spider Verse that succeeds on nearly all fronts. These crew, this cast, get Spider-Man. But it does have a few problems that we need to talk about.
The good though: this is one of the best cast superhero franchises ever. I’ve loved watching Tom Holland’s journey as a young man growing up amid this spectacular circumstances and this continues here, as his Parker struggles under the weight of being, suddenly, the most famous person in the world. He brings everything that you need for this character, most importantly an appropriate mix of an extremely strong moral centre – the MCU Parker is the most heroic character in their canon, without a doubt – and a frustration over the pressures of the role. He’s joined by so many others that I could spend an entire review talking about them: Zendaya as a truly brilliant MJ, perhaps a sidelined a bit here compared to Far From Home but still one half of one of the infectiously endearing romantic plot lines I have seen recently; Batalon as Ned, again a little sidelined but still giving us the required comedy beats along with everything else; Marisa Tomei’s Aunt May who gets a bit more to do than usual; Jon Favreau yucking it up as required as Happy Hogan.
They are joined by a host of newcomers, including nearly every major Spider-Man villain since Sam Raimi brought the character to life back in 2002, and you won’t be disappointed. No Way Home has a cast list almost as big as that for Avengers: Endgame, with five separate villain characters to talk about, Dr Strange and his hangers on (No Way Home serves as a backdoor prologue for The Multiverse Of Madness), J. Jonah Jameson (now an Alex Jones-style malcontent) and a few other surprises as well. What’s amazing about the script and the editing is that the film allows it all to breath without seeming overly elongated: there really is the right mix of action beats, fan service interactions and plot heavy drama to keep you from getting too restless. You won’t ever be bored, or even too overawed by what No Way Home presents. These kinds of franchise crossovers are practically old-hat at this point really, but No Way Home finds a way to keep them inventive, and marks itself as something akin to a celebration of 20 years of Spider-Man movies (and, per mid-credits scenes, Spider-Man adjacent movies).
At the heart of it is an amazingly insightful effort to one-up what has come before, by presenting Parker’s mission as one of trying to save the bad guys from his past, all of whom have their own little mini-arcs to play out here. Dafoe’s Osborn is a guy caught between warring personalities, one evil, one benign, who needs help not a punch to the face (and how good is it to hear the Goblin voice again?); Molina’s Octavius has some nasty voices in his head that need removing more than he needs destroying; Jamie Foxx’s Electro is still a decent man addicted to having the power denied to him by a humdrum life; Rhys Ifans’ Lizard has a positive motivation corrupted by an induced insanity; Thomas Haden Church’s Sandman wants to go home to his daughter. And Peter Parker has had too positive an upbringing to let Dr Strange send them back to their respective universes just for them to be destroyed.
I don’t want to spoil anything, but it suffices to say that large-scale battle sequences involving these characters and a few others who turn up somewhat unexpectedly, are a real delight, and perhaps represent the most invested I have been in an MCU apocalypse since the conclusion of Endgame. Moreover, they represent a well-carried off effort to redeem some of the negative qualities from the Raimi trilogy and most especially The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (one particular scene in that regard is bound to stir the heart-strings a bit). I didn’t like that film at all, but No Way Home makes me think better of it. That’s something to applaud for sure.
The unlikely Sinister Five group drive the film forward, as Spider-Man spends his time trying to fix everything around him, be it something as grand as a cracked universe or something as relatively minute as his friends’ MIT applications. It’s here that the film errs a bit though. One of the key great qualities of this Jon Watts’ Spider-Man franchise is that it depicted a young man who revelled in being the titular webslinger, who encapsulated an optimistic outlook in terms of a positive person who enjoyed being able to help people. Tom Holland’s Spider-Man liked being Spider-Man in other words, and we didn’t need to see any tragic backstory to force the point. Other films went down a darker path, and No Way Home does a bit of this too, unfortunately. It’s all in service of a decent narrative of course, but I couldn’t help but be disappointed by a re-thread of the “With Great Power…” theme that dominated Raimi’s trilogy and The Amazing Spider-Man series. It all gets a little grimdark, which I don’t think serves this character all that well: this Spider-Man shouldn’t have to be routinely miserable, before, during or after one of his adventures. And there’s a bit too much misery for the movie’s own good, and even if the messages are positive, one feels that the creators bowed a bit too much to pessimistic pressures. Maybe its just the times we live in, but in a few moments this film is more Batman: No Way Home than Spider-Man: No Way Home, and that grates.
The grimdark also comes into the cinematography a bit too. A lot of the action scenes take place in dimly-lit environments, especially the finale, which wasn’t the very best choice really. Once you get beyond that, there is a lot to enjoy, in every suit, every bit of magic used, every robotic tentacle and leering Goblin mask. Cinematographer Mauro Fiore, best known for Avatar, clearly has a ball with parts of this property, and with the opportunity to be a bridge between three very different kinds of franchises: you can see it in all the swooping, in all of the affectionate framing of New York City and in the care taken with details as small as crumbling masonry. The score, from experienced superhero composer Michael Giacchino is also pretty great, incorporating some new pieces to the rip-roaring central theme we are all used to at this point.
Ultimately No Way Home is about the importance of connections, whether it is the people who helped raise you with a strong altruistic centre, the people in your life who make you want to be a better person or the people who are willing to reach out and lend a helping hand to those in need, even if those in need are willing to bite that hand if it comes to it. Those connections go beyond the barriers of the multiverse, and they go beyond death too. I really appreciated that kind of message, just as much as I appreciated most of everything else about No Way Home. It could stand to rein in the constant impulse that creators have with Spider-Man to occasionally act as if he should be a tragic figure on a par with Bruce Wayne, but other than that this is yet another example, from Watts and his team, from Holland and the cast he leads, from a studio that somehow manages to hook me back in whenever I start to think I might be approaching the endpoint, of the kind of big, brash, unapologetically complex superhero epic that reminds me why I fell in love with this character in 2002, and have repeated the experience several times over. I suspect I have another such swooning in me yet. Highly recommended.
(All images are copyright of Sony Pictures Releasing).