When “Spiderman: No Way Home” released in December, casual and avid Marvel fans alike walked into movie theaters with a lot of questions.
For one thing, “No Way Home” is the first big-screen installment in Phase Four, the current stage of the Marvel storyline, to deal directly with pre-established characters in the aftermath of “Avengers: Endgame.”
Following a slew of mediocre television shows on Disney+ and relatively less critical movies such as “Black Widow” and “Shang-Chi,” Peter Parker is the first Avenger to return to the primary MCU storyline in a big way.For another, complications with lead actor Tom Holland’s (“Cherry”) contract have led fans to believe that “No Way Home” will be Holland’s last appearance as Spiderman in an MCU movie for the foreseeable future. On top of that, Holland’s well-beloved character has been left with questions of his own, with many of the original Avengers gone and a path of succession to Tony Stark’s role clear.
“No Way Home” picks up right where the second Spiderman film, Far From Home, left off: with Peter’s identity being broadcasted — and disparaged — to all of New York City. When Peter’s life and the lives of those around him begin to unravel in consequence, he comes up with an airtight solution: asking Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, “The Imitation Game”) to cast a spell that will simply make everyone forget that Peter Parker is Spiderman.
Spell-casting and memory manipulation proceed about as well as can be expected in a Marvel movie, and Peter finds himself with an unstable multiverse, a cabal of iconic Spiderman villains and a couple of familiar extra-dimensional Spidermen on his hands.
Does the film deal with the questions it set out to answer? Yes, if clunkily. It wraps up Holland’s character, but in a way that leaves an opening for Spiderman to return to the Avengers if the studio heads can work things out. The film also segues into Stephen Strange’s forthcoming “multiverse of madness,” which Marvel has been building towards for a while.
Peter himself goes through the angsty character development that he needs to stand on his own, apart from Marvel — though in the context of the MCU and in light of his arc in “Far From Home,” another origin-story-level tragedy seems redundant.
But when one considers the very high expectations that No Way Home” shouldered, the film falls flat.
It tries to do a lot and ends up missing several crucial elements along the way.
One cannot help feeling a little skeptical of the motivations that set up the key conflict of the film — it’s a stretch to think that Peter, fresh off the turmoil of the Blip and the space-time
manipulation of “Endgame,” would be so eager to mess with timelines once again. After all that he has gone through and considering his character development so far, one expects a little more maturity and foresight.
It’s even more of a stretch to believe that Dr. Strange, Sorcerer Supreme and Master of the Mythic Arts, would agree and that when Peter starts to make exceptions, Strange would rather farcically go along with it.
And the farces don’t end there. The inclusion of traditional Spiderman villains like Green Goblin and Doc Ock makes “No Way Home” one of the most epic conglomerate crossovers in superhero history.
It’s certainly fun to see Tobey Maguire (“The Great Gatsby”) and Andrew Garfield (“TickTick…Boom!”) reprise their roles, bringing the three generations of Spidermen together for the first time.
But the fun and games can only carry the movie so far, and about five minutes into Maguire and Garfield’s first entrance, it becomes obvious that they’re there more for fan service than anything else.
“No Way Home” suffers from the same problems that have plagued all of Marvel’s offerings since “Endgame:” that they don’t seem to know how to dial things down from the existential threats of Phase Three.
The latest Marvel movies and shows have been doing a lot of heavy lifting to open up the multiverse and introduce new characters. They have done so in such broad strokes and on such a massive scale that they’ve left behind the attention to detail that sets Marvel superhero films apart.
There seems to be an abundance of villains with world-ending power and nebulous motives who can be disposed of easily enough. “No Way Home” is no exception — like its predecessors, its shiny action sequences, high stakes and cross-franchise gimmicks seek to compensate for a lackluster plot and characterization that does not make sense.
But none of this makes “No Way Home” an unenjoyable movie by any means.
In fact, the film, which is chock-full of references and classic Spiderman humor, is wildly entertaining, largely due to Holland’s performance as its leading character.
Holland has carried Peter from his first appearance in “Captain America: Civil War” to the present with dexterity, creating a character of tremendous heart who is more believable and relatable than any of his predecessors.
Holland is one of the most compelling actors of his generation.
As he stitches together the film’s lighter moments with Peter’s emotional reckoning, one can’t help but wonder if he’s outgrown the character.
Opposite him, Zendaya (“The Greatest Showman”), Jacob Batalon (“Blood Fest”), and Marisa Tomei (“The Wrestler”) all reprise their roles, and contribute to a depth and maturity that the film might lack in less skilled hands.
Zoomed out, “No Way Home” is just a really fun ride, and required viewing for even the casual Marvel fan.
Zoom in, and its underlying issues become apparent.
However, they are franchise-wide issues that Marvel is going to have to resolve at some point if it wants to create movies of the same caliber as those of the past.
With “Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” on the horizon and a brand new group of Avengers in the works, Marvel still has not made clear how its new characters and contexts are going to come together.
Hopefully, they can accomplish bringing the MCU forward with the alchemy that makes its earlier movies so special.