Spider-Man: No Way Home review – exhilarating, messy, fan-pleasing

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Spider-Man: No Way Home is jam-packed film that’s gold to devoted fans of the character, not quite gold to everyone else.

The only spoilers revealed in this review are things that have been in the trailer for the film.

Marvel is good at expectations. When the chips are down, modern Hollywood’s heftiest franchise tends to deliver on its most outlandish promises. There have been missteps, sure – Iron Man 2 and the other, mediocre solo Spider-Man outings – but the biggest and most important movies have managed to connect in a way that satisfies hardcore comic book fans and the wider public alike.


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With that said, there had perhaps never been a weight of expectation bigger than the one placed upon the shoulders of Spider-Man: No Way Home. It almost collapses under the weight of fan speculation and internet theories, but keeps its heart going via a bloodstream packed to the gills with white-hot fan service.

From the first whisperings of what the movie would be, it was clear that returning director Jon Watts was set to deliver something ambitious. The film appeared poised to mark the MCU’s first real dive into the possibilities of the multiverse, with a drip-drip of casting announcements revealing that there would be villains aplenty – and not just from the MCU canon. It would be wrong to say much more about the movie’s plot than that, but to add that the arrival of these villains – including Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock and Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin – is brought about when Peter Parker (Tom Holland) enlists Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to magically zip away the revelation delivered to the world that he is Spider-Man. Soon, the errant hex has invoked chaos and the inter-dimensional floodgates have been torn asunder.

Many of the best Spider-Man films deal explicitly with the notion of what it means to be a superhero – the sacrifices a spandex-clad avenger has to make and the impact of their deadly line of work on those around them. Tobey Maguire’s decision to break MJ’s heart at the end of his first movie still lives long in the memory. No Way Home takes this idea and gives it an intriguing twist, with Peter Parker forced to confront a rogue’s gallery of baddies whose fate in their own worlds is to die at the hands of people wearing a suit very similar to his own. “Everything Spider-Man touches turns to ruin,” one character solemnly intones.

This provides Holland with the material to deliver what is definitely his best and most complete performance as Marvel’s webslinger – tearful goodbye in Avengers: Infinity War notwithstanding. This take on Parker is grappling with the injustices foisted upon him in the wake of his trial by media at the hands of internet shock jock – and lover of a dramatic video billboard – J Jonah Jameson (JK Simmons), who dubs him a “web-headed war criminal”. Simmons, interestingly, is something of an elephant in the room in a movie which explains everyone’s multiverse connection, but leaves his return from the Sam Raimi-verse unexplored.

Holland, though, delivers an intense and mature performance, given aggression, rage and a sense of vengeful recklessness he has never really had before. This isn’t him fighting alone, or with the Avengers, it’s the people he loves most in the firing line – MJ (Zendaya), Ned (Jacob Batalon) and Aunt May (Marisa Tomei). When people this important are in danger, there’s little time for the “friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man”. It’s a new side to Holland’s wall-crawler, and a welcome one.

Unfortunately, the film in which Holland’s performance appears is something of a mess. It’s choppy, episodic and seems to lurch around from scene to scene as if someone dropped the script on the floor of the editing room and crudely tried to piece it back together from memory. There’s also some deeply ropey use of green-screen which, given Marvel’s history in this arena, may well be a symptom of scenes being shot in such a way that certain secrets are kept away from cast members who didn’t necessarily need to know.

And secrets there are, though they will not be spoiled here. While No Way Home isn’t a particularly coherent beast, it is a crowd-pleaser in every sense of that word and features some of the most exhilarating and whoop-worthy moments in recent movie history. For fans of Marvel and superhero movies in general, it’s a feast of fan service, inside jokes and meta nods to the most devout Spidey fans sitting in the front row. In a way it’s like Deadpool, but this time Doctor Strange’s mildly potty mouth is as bad as the cursing gets.

When Watts leans on spectacle, he delivers here in a way he hasn’t in his previous Spider-Man outings. A scuffle between Spidey and Strange in the mirror dimension glimpsed in the trailer is a truly fantastic set piece and the third act finds some bravura, web-swinging moments in amongst the strange narrative missteps and clunky effects shots.

When it slows down, No Way Home is something of a mixed bag. It somehow manages to have enough plot that you need a Marvel encyclopaedia to decode the minutiae and simultaneously boasts so little narrative framework that it trundles regularly off track. The comedy stuff works as well as it ever has, but it’s the emotional beats which suffer a little – especially as they’re often built on nostalgia and nods to the past more than stakes created within the actual film in front of you. Spidey fans can add a star to this review, but those without a deep love for Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s creation can probably take one off.

In many ways, this film is a symptom of a running contagion within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s increasingly a self-fulfilling beast where the quality of each of its movies is directly proportional to how much affection a particular audience member has for the last decade of MCU storytelling and the last two decades of wider Marvel movie adaptations. As a fan of the character, I found tears in my eyes and blood pumping through my veins during No Way Home's biggest moments, but I acknowledge that’s something that can’t be true of someone who only vaguely remembers the Sam Raimi trilogy and can’t even recall who played the baddies when Andrew Garfield was in the red and blue suit.

As an individual, standalone movie, Spider-Man: No Way Home doesn’t work. It’s ungainly, muddled and lacking in a clearly structured plot by virtue of its extraordinary ambition, with tendrils snaking off into the future of the MCU – not least via one of the most frustrating examples of the studio’s trademark post-credits scenes to date.

But for those with an abiding love for this character and this franchise, No Way Home is everything you could possibly want – and probably more besides. It’s at times a soaring love letter to the cinematic legacy of Peter Parker, which rides a wave of audience adoration through its rather rickety storytelling. It’s another victory lap for a studio which knows exactly how to keep its fans happy and, for the most part, wields its enormous risk-taking freedom wisely. With great power, as a certain mentor might say, comes great responsibility.

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