Marvel’s multiverse is a concept that, creatively and strategically, allows for endless reinvention and massive proliferation, both of which are the guiding principles behind Spider-Man: No Way Home, a gargantuan sequel (in theaters Dec. 17) that sets the franchise on an alternate-realities course by expanding to include not only its own characters but also those from Sony’s earlier web-slinging series. Chief among that cast are Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) and Doc Ock (Alfred Molina) and Electro (Jamie Foxx)—oh my!—yet there are many more surprising faces populating this would-be blockbuster, some of them wearing arachnid-y masks. The past and the present smash together in Jon Watts’ tentpole, begetting a future of infinite Frankensteinian superhero remixes and do-overs—and resulting, in the here and now, in the finest wall-crawling MCU effort to date.
[Spoilers Invariably Follow]
Like 2018’s animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Spider-Man: No Way Home unites multiple Spideys: Tom Holland’s MCU-approved version, of course, as well as—public press tour denials to the contrary—Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield’s prior iterations. That gimmick is the undeniable highlight of Watts’ film, spawning an amusing mirror-image dynamic fit for self-referential banter and sweet believe-in-yourself uplift. Back in their red-and-black costumes alongside Holland (who primarily favors his armored Iron Spider get-up), Maguire and Garfield prove a weathered, brotherly pair, their doppelgängers excited and eager to partner with their multiversal self, if somewhat beaten down by years of assuming the great responsibility that comes with great power. With a playful sense of humor that stops just short of directly winking at the audience, the duo’s endearing turns do much to enliven this sprawling CGI-crazy saga.
Reconnecting with yesterday in order to carve out a fresh tomorrow is the thematic focus of Spider-Man: No Way Home, which picks up precisely where 2019’s Spider-Man: Far From Home left off. With Mysterio having framed him for murder and outed him as Spider-Man, Peter Parker finds himself in the crosshairs of global media scrutiny, revered as a champion by supporters and reviled as a killer by those who believe Mysterio’s lie. This causes quite a bit of chaos for Peter and loved ones like Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), who’s just broken up with Tony Stark’s former right-hand man Harold “Happy” Hogan (Jon Favreau). Nonetheless, it’s not until this crushing attention costs him—and girlfriend MJ (Zendaya) and best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon)—admission to MIT that Peter takes matters into his own hands. Or, rather, he puts such matters into Doctor Strange’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) twirling hands, successfully begging his fellow Avenger to cast a magic spell that will make everyone forget about his secret identity.
Thanks to Peter’s meddling, that ritual goes awry, opening up doorways to countless multiverses through which individuals who know that Peter is Spider-Man are pulled. First up is Doc Ock, who’s as angry as ever but also hopelessly confused by the discovery that this Peter isn’t the one (i.e. Maguire) that he knows. Similarly befuddled are Peter’s ensuing adversaries, Electro and the Green Goblin, who after run-ins with their teenage nemesis wind up imprisoned in Strange’s “wizard dungeon.” There, they reveal that they were all zapped out of their realities at the moment before their Spider-Man-clash deaths. That news strikes Peter hard, such that when Strange devises a device to return these monsters to their rightful worlds, he revolts, convinced that he can alter their fates by curing them of their nefarious natures.
Spider-Man’s intrinsic goodness (which usually wreaks further havoc) is convincingly embodied by Holland, who’s confidently grown into his MCU role. The same can additionally be said of Watts, whose direction is more assured and dexterous than in his two previous installments; his action sequences are fleet and lucid, and his character drama is poised and modestly poignant. He’s aided by an agile script from Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers that adeptly blends its numerous dictates—romance, rumbles, world-building and plentiful franchise-hybridizing nostalgia—and a Michael Giacchino score that integrates Danny Elfman’s original Spider-Man themes into its mix. Although it runs two-and-a-half hours long, Spider-Man: No Way Home is speedy and nimble, its set pieces inventive (especially an early kaleidoscopic tussle between Spidey and Strange) and its many shout-outs clever without being corny, from an allusion to Miles Morales to everyone’s mild disgust at Maguire’s Spidey’s organic web-shooting capabilities.
Watts’ film has been tailor-made for fans familiar with—and fond of—Sam Raimi’s Spidey trilogy and Marc Webb’s subsequent reboot pair, even as it rewrites the endings of those adventures and humanizes its famous fiends, casting their villainy as less an inherent trait than a consequence of unfortunate circumstances (in the proceedings’ funniest line, two evildoers agree, with regards to their origins, “You gotta be careful where you fall”). Spider-Man: No Way Home’s operatic gestures don’t always pay off; its finale lingers too long on teary farewells in a vain bid to achieve Avengers: Endgame-style emotional peaks. Still, its optimistic celebration of selflessness and sacrifice is well-earned, due largely to Holland’s skillful lead performance, which navigates Peter’s descent from upbeat youthful exuberance to grief- and guilt-stricken fury—a trajectory that’s only corrected, ultimately, by his ability to maintain focus on who he is (of which there are more than one).
A collection of unexpected good and bad guys (and comics-faithful outfits) eventually factor into the overstuffed equation, the most welcome of which is J.K. Simmons’ J. Jonah Jameson, who in this 21st-century tale is the star of the InfoWars-ish TheDailyBugle.Net, where he spends his time spouting conspiracy theories and peddling snake-oil diet supplements. Despite being the collaborative byproduct of three separate entertainment goliaths, the film operates on a relatively smooth and seamless track. In a mid-story calamity, it harkens back to Spider-Man’s formative (and oft-told) tragedy as a way of bridging the gap between disparate eras and artistic visions. Its conclusion, though, is less interested in what’s come before than in resetting everything for yet another fresh start. In a multiverse of endless possibilities, Spider-Man: No Way Home suggests—with a measure of heart and verve that surpasses its predecessors—that what’s old can always be new again.