Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the film’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the film’s own trailer. However, if you want to completely avoid potential spoilers, skip over the second paragraph.
Stories built around nostalgia are at times controversial in the filmmaking industry. On the one hand, the level of enjoyment can be greatly enhanced if the viewer’s memories of earlier films are evoked, but on the other hand it can be used as a bandaid to cover up narrative issues. For example, Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) successfully used nostalgia to inform the character arcs, whereas Rogue One (2016) used nostalgia to make up for its lack of compelling drama. In some cases, the very idea of nostalgia as a storytelling crutch is often decried, as it suggests the filmmakers are relying on the creativity of their predecessors instead of their own. So it’s interesting to see Marvel Studios, the most carefully managed franchise in history, is here to prove that nostalgic storytelling can be original, creative and amazing. The film in question is Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021).
Following the events of Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019), the entire world now knows that high school student, Peter Parker (Tom Holland), is in fact the web swinging crimefighter known as Spider-Man. This revelation has made life particularly difficult for Peter, girlfriend and best friend, MJ (Zendaya) and Ned (Jacob Batalon) respectively. Feeling that his friends shouldn’t suffer for being associated with him, Peter approaches the magic user Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), asking that he cast a spell to make the world forget he’s Spider-Man. As to be expected, the spell doesn’t exactly go as planned and results in supervillains from other universes appearing all over the city. Dr Strange wishes to send them all back, but these particular villains are all from dimensions where they died fighting their own versions of Spider-Man, thus putting Peter in a moral quandary.
With the success of the brilliant animated film Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse (2018), it was only a matter of time before we got to see a live-action attempt of the same multiverse concept. The cartoon was so deftly handled that it resulted in an unprecedented Academy Award win, so the bar was undoubtedly high for this one. Happily, director Jon Watts doesn’t disappoint, as Spider-Man: No Way Home expertly juggles an inordinate amount of plot threads, characters and arcs, many of which didn’t even originate in this particular trilogy. It’s nothing short of a cinematic miracle that No Way Home successfully pays off this many emotional beats in a satisfying way, let alone even makes sense on a basic plot level. Even with all the moving parts, Watts never loses sight of what’s important to the story and never misses an opportunity to hit a crowd-pleasing note.
With that in mind, it’s to be expected that No Way Home would cause longtime fans of the franchise to get swept up in the action, given the entire thing pretty much feels like a celebration of the character’s proud history. While this may sound like it’ll leave casual viewers out in the cold, that can’t be further from the truth, as every moment is layered with all the necessary narrative context. Whether it’s a world-building element from the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe, or thematic closure from an ancillary character, Watts makes sure the audience is caught up on not only the details but also the meaning. Whether you’re a hardcore Spider-Man fan or a first timer, you’ll all experience the same excitement, humour and emotional weight at all the correct moments. The result is a film which practically interacts and speaks to the audience, eliciting a collective reaction which can only be experienced in a packed theatre.
Despite No Way Home‘s position as the most complex exercise in brand management, screenwriters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers haven’t forgotten the importance of Peter Parker’s heroic journey. Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) and Spider-Man: Far From Home only developed the character far enough to get the action off the ground, whereas No Way Home puts him through the wringer in ways we haven’t seen since Spider-Man 2 (2004). The character has always been at his best when struggling with the desire to be selfless while trying to sidestep the personal consequences. This is the first time the Tom Holland trilogy has truly milked that arc for all its worth, even improving the previous films by association. On that note, Holland has never been better in the role, finally coming into his own and making his mark on the Spider-Man legacy and his career in general.
Holland isn’t the only majorly improved element, as the camerawork, action sequences and visual effects are nothing short of spectacular. Granted, there’s the usual overuse of green screen, but that hasn’t prevented Watts and his team from leaving the viewer in awe. While many Marvel films resort to the standard formula, No Way Home feels like it’s received special treatment, with deliberate pacing, motivated direction and show stopping action beats. In a way, it’s almost like the studio is completely aware of hype and has gone out of their way to deliver the goods, as nearly every moment is tailored to create the most exciting viewing experience possible. Marvel is the only studio which can still make films feel like events, and they may have one-upped themselves here.
When all is said and done, No Way Home is simultaneously the end of an era as well as a new beginning. Sure, The Avengers (2012) and Avengers: Endgame (2019) can claim that distinction, but Spider-Man alone has been a cinematic cultural fixture for a lot longer than his friends in the famed superhero team. It’s from this perspective that No Way Home feels most unique, given that it effortlessly turns its loving homage to the Spider-Man legacy into its main narrative force without ever feeling tacky or hollow. The only other film remotely similar is its own cartoon counterpart, Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, and even then there are many things separating the two. Spider-Verse may have the edge by being an epic standalone piece, but it’s hard to deny how effectively No Way Home conjures the audience’s sense memory while also leaving them wanting more.
Ultimately, Spider-Man: No Way Home is proof that you can still tell creative, thrilling and breathtakingly enjoyable stories while playing to the audiences preconceived feelings. In a way, crafting a blockbuster which successfully reminds us of happier times while still giving us plenty of brand new surprises is to be applauded. Rest assured, Jon Watt’s film will be receiving applause for years to come as Spider-Man: No Way Home ranks among the best of the Spider-Man films, which in turn means it’s among the best of entire superhero genre.
Best way to watch it: With childhood friends.