‘Spider-Man: No Way Home’ Spins Past and Present for a Multiverse Adventure of Fan Favorites

With the kind of hype other franchises would gladly kill for, Marvel and Sony’s “Spider-Man: No Way Home” finally arrives. Lengthy introductions aside, this one delivers on expectations. Very essential is that it understands two important things: Where it’s coming from and what Spider-Man means to his legions. It has the intricate scope of a grand comic book arc, where multiverses collide and beloved characters return. But in the end what matters is that Peter Parker is an entrapped hero. He’s a kid who would like both a normal life and the thrill of being Spider-Man, but what usually happens is that someone gets hurt, or much worse. Not everyone gets a happy ending in the spiderverse and romantic dreams can easily be dashed. 

We’re back where 2019’s “Far From Home” ended, as Peter Parker (Tom Holland) has been exposed to the world as Spider-Man, thanks in no small part to editor turned social media firebrand J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons), following his destructive battle against the villain Mysterio. But the revelation of his secret identity also exposes those closest to Peter, including girlfriend MJ (Zendaya), best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) and Aunt May (Marisa Tomei). Thanks to his newfound notoriety, Peter, MJ and Ned can’t even get into college, with MIT explicitly turning them down over all the controversy. Desperate to alter the past, Peter visits Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to see if there’s any way they can simply erase the world’s knowledge of him being the crime-fighting webslinger. Strange begins to conjure a spell which Peter goofily botches. Thus the “multiverse” begins to crack open. First to make it through is Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina) or “Doc Ock” from 2004’s “Spider-Man 2,” who is shocked to see that this Spider-Man is not the one he was battling when time warped. He’s soon followed by Norman Osborn aka The Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) from 2002’s “Spider-Man” and Sandman (Thomas Haden Church) from 2007’s “Spider-Man 3.” From yet another universe we get The Lizard (Rhys Ifans) and Electro (Jamie Foxx) from 2012’s “The Amazing Spider-Man” and 2014’s “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” respectively. Doctor Strange immediately prepares to send them back, but Peter learns if they return it is to certain deaths caused by their villainous actions. Maybe he can change them to save their lives.

As a superhero film “No Way Home” is innovative in how it works as both a loving homage to the last 20 years of Spider-Man movies and as a rather profound continuation of the Tom Holland incarnation. Director Jon Watts, writers Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, and undoubtedly MCU guru Kevin Feige, have found a way to make a movie that works like those special comic arcs where various worlds and characters cross paths, leading to some momentous event that marks a new phase in the title. It’s an immensely difficult task because if done the wrong way, this could have been some rotating fan service movie where someone could have been shouting “and now here’s…” every five minutes. The villains that pop through the multiverse are from the other movies, but they’re more than cameos. They pose for Peter one those dangers his idealistic young self can easily trip into. He doesn’t want them to die, because he realizes they’re only villains because of what ails them individually. For example Doc Ock’s brain needs to be detached from the control of his indestructible tentacles. Electro needs the electricity that’s turning him mad to be taken out of his system. If made human again, they don’t need to return where the other Spider-Mans defeat them.

Now, if you’re a longtime fan this film is a pure delight. In terms of the story the platter is immense. The dialogue is full of inside references to the other movies and the second act contains the greatest surprise of all. IF YOU DEFINITELY WANT TO AVOID SPOILERS PLEASE STOP READING NOW. After a particularly grueling battle, desperate to find Peter, Ned opens two portals which (drum roll) bring into this universe the previous two cinematic Peter Parkers, Tobey Maguire from the 2002-2007 films and Andrew Garfield from the 2012-2014 titles. When it comes to sheer fun at a blockbuster, nothing this year tops what follows. Those who have come of age watching the previous “Spider-Man” movies will surely be moved by the dialogue connecting the experiences of the Maguire and Garfield incarnations with Tom Holland’s take. Beyond a fun combination of actors who have all inhabited the same iconic role, as with the villains the script incorporates them fully into a wider story. All three Peter Parkers suffer from their own insecurities and losses. Andrew Garfield’s Parker remains haunted by the fate of Gwen Stacey in “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” while all three feel responsible for the hurt their decisions have caused others. The ghost of Uncle Ben is a presence in their memories. Being so used to life as loners, they also struggle with learning teamwork. Jokes about their individual films are also seamlessly incorporated, as if the screenwriters want to play around with fanboy movie lore. How does Maguire’s webbing shoot out of his wrists, while the other two have to make it themselves? That’s just the tip of the winks thrown around this movie. 

Amid all the shots designed to inspire fist pounds and cheers, “No Way Home” manages to never lose sight of what makes this particular comic book character so likable. Peter Parker is not just a young hero. He’s also a very tragic one. His identity can be a curse and this is the movie where Peter is forced to really grow up, through heartbreak combined with incredibly hard decisions. The required climactic showdown in the third act becomes riveting action featuring multiple Spider-Mans, but it all builds to an ending that is quite emotionally wrenching. Tom Holland and Zendaya are excellent actors. They find the pathos in what non-fans tend to dismiss as “comic books.” Yet good pop art has appeal because it touches something relatable in the audience. As cultural critic and comics expert Douglas Wolk demonstrates in his great new book “All the Marvels,” these stories are fantastical interpretations of our everyday lives and daydreams. They capture how we wish the world could be while acknowledging its darker corners. “No Way Home” as a title has a double meaning. It is about the crisis involving the multiverse and how by the end credits, Peter has learned what loss truly entails when everything changes and nothing will be the same. For a film that is so much fun, the ending becomes a sobering, somber transition point for our favorite web slinger. 

There is indeed so much story in “No Way Home” that in recapping it, one can easily forget to mention its other noteworthy parts. J. Jonah Jameson is continued to be reimagined as a riff on right-wing talking heads like Ben Shapiro. Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) goes through his own epic crisis in which May has decided their fling has run its course. Veterans of the franchise like Dafoe and Molina seem to be having genuine fun reprising roles that helped launch those early days of Marvel as a pop culture force. Maguire and Garfield are so good at bantering with each other they deserve more films together, even as other characters. Out of all the recent “Spider-Man” movies, this one comes closest to the skillful combination of visuals and heart that made Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man 2” one of the best superhero films ever. Stay for the two post-credits scenes, which hint at the grandiose designs for the new phase of the MCU. But this movie can be enjoyed even if you haven’t been keeping up with all the other movies. It will bring back memories from earlier web slinging adventures at the movie theater, while closing on some surprising, genuine moments of real drama.

Spider-Man: No Way Home” releases Dec. 17 in theaters nationwide.