Movie Review: SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME 2021

You have to hand it to Marvel Studios for understanding one crucial thing about the people who go to see their movies: Those people also went to see their other previous movies, and are most likely going to see their subsequent movies. “Easter eggs” and other red meat for the base are simply understood to be part of the formula; nowhere else in American multiplexes will you find everyone waiting through seven minutes of special-effects credits to see another couple of minutes teasing what is coming next. Marvel built a monolith by building on the interconnections of its comic-book universe and allowing audiences to revel in their familiarity with that universe. There is no better way of ingratiating yourself with someone than to congratulate them on “getting it.”

Spider-Man: No Way Home is the natural culmination of this approach, allowing viewers the giddy experience of watching multiple super-hero universes collide and interact. It’s silly and self-serious, epic and exhausting. It’s a movie that somehow manages to think it’s surprising to give people exactly what they want while doing a pretty good job of giving people exactly what they want.

Unsurprisingly, this Spider-Man begins exactly where the previous Spider-Man ended: With Peter Parker (Tom Holland) revealed to the world as the man behind the Spider-Man mask after the catastrophic battle in London that ended with the death of Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal). Having his secret identity public makes him miserable for Peter, Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), and his friends MJ (Zendaya) and Ned (Jacob Batalon), so Peter goes to old pal Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) seeking a magical memory-erasure. Then the spell ends up going sideways, inadvertently opening a door to alternate realities with villains like Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina) and Electro (Jamie Foxx) seeking revenge on a Peter Parker different from the one they knew.

It’s best not to dwell too long on the hows and whys of these alternate universes, like why these bad guys are back from the dead, or why J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons) is the only one whose version in this universe looks the same as the one from another. No Way Home is meant as a party to which parts of the pre-Tom Holland Spider-Man cinematic universes are invited, with the audience happy spectators to the occasion like one of those omnipresent TV series reboots. Most movies are about creating new experiences; this one, even more so than most franchise entries, is almost entirely about tapping into the ones you’ve already had.

And that’s not the worst thing in the world, especially since director Jon Watts and his screenwriting team do a pretty good job of it. Watts has been a solid director of action even back to the first entry in this particular series, and he manages some lively sequences whenever things aren’t irritatingly dark. Holland’s Peter Parker remains endearing as the chaos unfolding around him feeds into a familiar but still affecting journey of realizing the sacrifice that comes with his powers, beyond his teenage delight at how cool they are. By the time the climax comes to focus on the inevitable big stakes of the universe-shattering into pieces, the small stakes of one guy’s happiness have also made an impression.

It’s inevitable, though, that everything that happens in No Way Home is also going to remind you about the better—and worse—things that you’ve seen when different guys were wearing the red-and-blue tights. No good can come from evoking the elevated-train battle from Spider-Man 2, which is simply the best, most emotional action sequence any comic-book film has ever created. Nor is it particularly wise to count on nostalgia for the Amazing Spider-Man films, which were never exactly beloved in the same way that Sam Raimi’s original trilogy was. There’s some fun involved in watching these filmmakers try to stitch together pieces from 20 years’ worth of Spider-Man films, but not all of those seams are going to hold.

It feels a little bit like an exercise in futility trying to decide whether Spider-Man: No Way Home is a good film on its own merits because it’s not even trying to be a good film on its own merits. It’s pretty good at exactly what it is trying to be, which is a celebration of cinematic Spidey in all his various incarnations, and his mantra of “with great power comes great responsibility.” Marvel has that great power now and has made it clear that the only great responsibility it feels is to the expectations and perpetual enthusiasm of its most loyal fans—for better, or for worse.

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