This review addresses, with a fairly free hand, plot elements that I, for one, wouldn't really consider to be "spoilers" for Spider-Man: No Way Home, but I imagine somebody hoping to enter the film wholly pure and ready for surprises would be outraged to learn some of these things. Proceed accordingly.

For a movie that represents everything aesthetically, financially, and spiritually corrupt about major studio filmmaking in the 2020s, I have to be honest and say that Spider-Man: No Way Home could have been worse. Heck, it's not even really the worst of the three films with Tom Holland headlining as Marvel's most iconic superhero; 2019's Spider-Man: Far from Home has the same weaknesses and none of the strengths, though Far from Home at least does not share No Way Home's grueling 148-minute running time.

As has become de rigueur for the Spider-Man films set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, No Way Home feels like it's being forced to serve as a narrative machine getting things lined up for the rest of the MCU rather than just being permitted to do its own thing. To wit: now the MCU has a multiverse, and the degree to which this functions as a trailer for the impending Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness is fucking impossible to miss, not least because in lieu of the traditional MCU post-credits scene, this has a literal, actual trailer for that movie. Much as 2017's Spider-Man: Homecoming and Spider-Man: Far from Home felt an awful lot like Iron Man movies wearing Spider-Man clothes, so too does an awful lot of the first hour of Spider-Man: No Way Home (my GOD what a bad title) play as a Doctor Strange movie guest-starring Spider-Man. But at least it's guest-starring Spider-Man, and not Iron Man (Spider Edition), so that's already an improvement.

The story, anyway, is that Peter "Spider-Man" Parker (Holland) has just had his secret identity outed by the spittle-flecked online conspiracy theory muckracker J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons, who is not reprising his character from 2002's Spider-Man and its sequels, a distinction that is about to start mattering, and becomes needlessly distracting, I think, once you notice it). This has some negative effects on his personal life: helicopters outside his apartment, high school administrators being aggressively excited to have a celebrity student in their midst, rocks getting thrown at him. The worst, though, is that because of the ongoing controversy surrounding the morality and legality of his actions as Spider-Man, he and his two best friends/criminal co-conspirators, MJ (Zendaya) and Ned (Jacob Batalon) have been rejected from every college they applied to. M.I.T. even wrote a personalised letter (this wouldn't happen) specifying that it's because of the Spider-Man thing. So a distressed Peter goes to his sometime ally in fighting authoritarian madmen from outer space, Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, continuing to steadily improve every time he appears as the character), to ask if it's possible to rewind time and hide his identity again. Strange says no, but he can cast a magic spell to make everyone alive forget that Peter Parker = Spider-Man. This sounds like a good deal until Peter realises this means that "everyone" includes MJ, Ned, and his dear aunt May (Marisa Tomei). So he starts spitting out provisos during Strange's casting, and eventually this breaks the spell, in the process ripping apart all of space-time. In short order, everybody who knows that any version of Peter Parker from any parallel universe is that universe's Spider-Man is going to be warped over.

This is a stupid, cumbersome way to get us to the point that No Way Home is aiming for, which is basically: bring characters from the 2002-2007 Spider-Man trilogy directed by Sam Raimi and the 2012-2014 The Amazing Spider-Man dyad directed by Marc Webb over to this film, so Tom Holland can interact with them and give the audience a huge jolt of nostalgic pandering. Although the constituency of people who feel a nostalgic tug from The Amazing Spider-Man and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 surely cannot be so large as to significantly impact the financial bottom line of an MCU film. But presumably it would have felt intellectually dishonest not to include them. Anyway, the way this plays out is that the villains of those films get warped over just barely one moment before they died, and we meet them in this order: Otto "Doc Ock" Octavius (Alfred Molina), from Spider-Man 2, Norman "Green Goblin" Osborn (Willem Dafoe) from Spider-Man, Curt "Lizard" Connors (Rhys Ifans) from The Amazing Spider-Man, and Flint "Sandman" Marko (Thomas Haden Church) from Spider-Man 3 & Max "Electro" Dillon (Jamie Foxx) from The Amazing Spider-Man 2 almost simultaneously. This proving to be too many villains for one Spider-Man to handle (not to mention one movie, but we'll get there), it's lucky that some of the other people who know that Peter Parker is Spider-Man and have thus been zapped over are the Peter Parkers of those universes, Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield, in the absolute least-surprising "surprise reveal" I have seen since Cumberbatch said that his name was Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness. Because, Jesus Christ, if you're doing this, the only reason to do it is to have Spider-Man fighting alongside himself.

Anyway, that part comes a long way into the long movie, after all of that sloppy, idiotically-motivated "we had better rip apart the universe now, I guess" plotting and making Dr. Strange a co-protagonist and a script by Chris McKenna & Erik Sommers that is so blatantly following the narrative logic of a video game that one has to wonder if that's how the writers initially pitched it. There is, as we know, a better way of doing all of this, because it was done by literally this exact same studio with literally this exact same property only three years ago, with the magnificent Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse; to be perfectly frank, even if I was the kind of person who heard the pitch of No Way Home and felt excitement rather than gnawing dread, I would still have to ask the question of what in God's name a live-action Spider-Verse picture could possibly bring to the table that the 2018 animated masterpiece didn't already do to perfection, and the answer turns out to be: fuck-all nothing. Oh, I mean, it brings pandering, it brings the dull serotonin hit of recgonising "oh boy, that's Tobey Maguire". But even as far as chemical stimulation goes, I prefer the cocaine jolt of "BY GOD THAT SPIDER-MAN IS A PIG" to anything the member berries of No Way Home have to offer. But that is me.

The point, anyway, is not whether replacing storytelling with nostalgic fan service is disgusting or not - I should certainly say it is! - but that No Way Home huffs and puffs and dawdles for like a half an hour on the college application subplot and eventually jerry-rigs some kind of contrived and arbitrary excuse for mashing together three Spiders-Men together; Into the Spider-Verse pretty much just says "hey, multiverses are cool" and we're off to the races. Now, obviously, being weaker than the best theatrically-released superhero movie of the last ten years or more is no real sin, but it does speak to how much of, just, a trudge the new film is when there's a much fleeter, brighter, funnier, and infinitely more colorful version of basically the same thing sitting right over there.

That all being said, I did mention that there are strengths, and while every single one of them is borrowed, they are nevertheless real. No Way Home ultimately becomes something of a pastiche to, or homage of, the Raimi films - the first two, in particular. And setting aside nostalgia, those are two very good things to pick as your model to copy. Some of the borrowing is about as obvious and straightforward as possible: we have, after all, Willem Dafoe and Alfred Molina coming back to play the exact same characters, pretty much exactly the same way. And for Dafoe, in particular, the results couldn't be better. He's basically just recycling the character work he did so well for the 2002 movie, and, if anything, he's even better here: the Jekyll-and-Hyde madness is executed more craftily, the desperation in his eyes as he begs to be put out of his misery and freed of his compulsion to do evil more moving and terrifying. In one stroke, he becomes both the single best villain in the spotty history of the MCU and gives the franchise one of the three or four best performances it has ever enjoyed. Molina is merely quite good in comparison, and Doc Ock is let down a bit by the writing; with five, count 'em, five villains to balance, McKenna & Sommers's strategy is basically to give up, and there is a long stretch of the film where Doc Ock basically vanishes, only to come back with his goals having been revised in the interim. Pragmatically, only Green Goblin and Electro actually make sense as written (Sandman, especially, is barely in the movie at all and it looks for all the world like Church's body, as opposed to his voice, has been brought back exclusively through stock footage), and Electo suffers from Foxx's terrible performance; he wasn't good in TASM2, and he's worse here.

But anyway, when the film can just look at the Raimi films and go, "oh, that worked", and the do the same thing, the results are at least functional, and occasionally good. Dafoe and Molina are part of that (Maguire is not; he's barely acted in the last decade, and you can see the gears turning as he labors to remember how to play, not just Peter Parker, but literally any movie character at all). But so is the film's conception of its action setpieces and its approach to the title character himself. The MCU Spider-Man pictures have barely been about Spider-Man in any meaningful way; No Way Home is an improvement only compared to two very dodgy originals, but it is an improvement. Admittedly, by the time it wraps up, it leaves the impression that it took three feature films to accomplish what the 2002 film did in 20 minutes, and "okay, so the next one will actually be a proper Spider-Man movie" isn't the stuff of which full-throated enthusiasm is made of. Still, this film's blunt moral philosophy and its emotional arc for Peter actually feel like something - something Raimi and Maguire already did, but compared to the hollow desert of Far from Home, the ostensibly warm moments here land, actually, sometimes.

The problem still arises that Tom Holland is playing Spider-Man, and with every subsequent trip he's made to the role (counting crossovers with the greater MCU, this is his sixth), the rewards have diminished further. It's hard to say if it's the character or it it's the actor - the appalling Cherry suggests the latter - but there's some hard limitation on Holland's bag of tricks, where he can only really figure out how to play Peter as a set number of "gee willickers!" tics, pantomiming guileless adolescence rather than actually evoking it, and giving him a much bigger emotional arc to play here is a reckless move. I am tempted to say, if it works, it is only because there are two other actors present to carry the same arc, and while Maguire just does what he can to get through, Garfield is honest-to-God fantastic here; certainly better than in either of his actual movies, and I am tempted to say, second only to Dafoe out of the whole cast (though even Molina in not-quite-there mode is still an awfully fine thing). Given only a scattering of big beats to play, he connects all of them into a surprisingly coherent, rich character arc; there's a late moment where the film even kind of gets to do something subtle in playing around with his guilt at the death of Gwen Stacy, and it's pretty much entirely on Garfield that the moment ends up working whatsoever, let alone ends up working as one of the best parts of the entire film.

The other thing the film is able to steal, besides good character work: watchable action. I am comfortably of the opinion that the first two Holland Spider-Man movies have the very worst action in the MCU (only Captain Marvel seriously challenges them), so the bar to clear for being the best of the three isn't high. And honestly, No Way Home doesn't do much other than clear it - I'd take the action in any of Raimi's three films in a heartbeat over the action in this one. Still, the ideas behind most the setpieces feel right, evoking the first two Raimi films a lot, and generally relying on somewhat less incoherent editing than you tend to get in these movies. The big finale, with three Spiders-Men versus a variable number of villains while Zendaya and Batalon have some random business to do, ends up being far more than the filmmakers can cope with, and it ends up becoming a slurry, one that frequently abandons characters when they get hard to follow rather than try work them back in. But even here, it's never worse than any given moment from Homecoming.

It's ultimately still very drab; director Jon Watts, making it three-for-three on these movies, is the most anonymous journeyman working with Marvel Studios (at least as far as their features go), and I think you could very easily argue that his three Spider-Man pictures are, in whatever order you like, the three worst-directed films out of, whatever we're up to now, all 27 entries in the MCU. Especially given how readily this film invites comparison to the Raimi movies, the sheer brownness of it is hard to shake, as is the almost complete absence of interesting shots drawing on comic book iconography. Which is just as well, given how those two things come into contact: at one point near the end, Watts and cinematographer Mauro Fiore attempt to backlight Holland and Zendaya with a sunset, and the end result is such a ridiculous smear of lens flares and washed-out digital yellows that I think I would prefer them to make a merely ugly film to the showily hideous thing that happens when they attempt to do "style". And this ends up being the largest problem with No Way Home - well, no. No, that's a lie. The largest problem is that this kind of robotic recombination of "do you remember that?" elements assembled with an almost complete lack of proficiency or grace represents the freshly-dug grave of cinema. But the second-largest problem is that there's just enough in the film that goes right, evoking the memories of movies where such a huge number of things went right, that the badness that's merely routine in so many of these films ends up feeling magnified and more aggravating.

Other MCU reviews (Phase 4)
Black Widow (Shortland, 2021)
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (Cretton, 2021)
Eternals (Zhao, 2021)
Spider-Man: No Way Home (Watts, 2021)

Other Sony Spider-Verse reviews
Spider-Man (Raimi, 2002)
Spider-Man 2 (Raimi, 2004)
Spider-Man 3 (Raimi, 2007)
The Amazing Spider-Man (Webb, 2012)
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (Webb, 2014)
Spider-Man: Homecoming (Watts, 2017)
Venom (Fleischer, 2018)
Spider-Man: Far from Home (Watts, 2019)
Venom: Let There Be Carnage (Serkis, 2021)
Spider-Man: No Way Home (Watts, 2021)