Superhero movies often evoke the feeling of childhood play, of breaking out a couple of action figures and thrilling in imaginary team-ups and surprise villain cameos. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, a staggering piece of storytelling that shows no sign of abating after 27 films, has figured out how to bottle that feeling and sell it to grown-ups and kids alike, provoking cheers every time Iron Man gets a croissant with the Hulk. Spider-Man: No Way Home, however, has a maniacal sense of glee that not even prior Marvel movies possessed.
In this third entry in the third Spider-Man series, which features Tom Holland as the web-slinging do-gooder, one cinematic universe simply isn’t sufficient. Jon Watts’s film collides with Spidey flicks of the past, roping in old villains from other franchises to deliver a turbocharged, 148-minute nostalgia rush. Spider-Man: No Way Home unfolds as though it were written by a room full of children who had just eaten a whole bag of sugar; it’s a hectic series of plot twists and deus ex machinas that overturns an entire bucket of action figures and smashes them all together with delight. The film might be a new nadir of cinema—but it’s also an undeniably watchable good time.
No Way Home begins with some semblance of the teen hijinks that powered the last two films featuring Holland as Peter Parker. He’s worried about getting into college; he’s trying to maintain a healthy relationship with his girlfriend, MJ (Zendaya); and his life as Spider-Man has been thrown into disarray by the revelation of his secret identity by the enraged journalist J. Jonah Jameson (J. K. Simmons, here reimagining the character as a vlogger type hawking dietary supplements). In search of a quick fix, Peter hits up his pal Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), demanding a magic spell that will erase the knowledge of his secret identity from the world.
Everything, of course, goes very wrong; the barrier between universes cracks like an egg and various realities start to ooze into one another. If you’re wondering why a super-intelligent grown-up like Doctor Strange would deign to get mixed up in all this, the answer is corporate synergy; sure, there’s vague dialogue about the inexorable bond Strange and Spidey share after teaming up with the Avengers, but that’s just an excuse for Sony to break out some fan-favorite performances from past films. Did audiences enjoy the villains of the Tobey Maguire–starring series? Do you even remember the ones from Andrew Garfield’s run at the character? Well, then you’re in luck, because they’re on their way back to say hello.
Sony has a long history of getting ahead of itself on the Spider-Man front. Both the Maguire and Garfield series ended up collapsing under their own weight, piling on too many villains for their final installments and planning for massive franchise expansion a little too quickly. For the Holland iteration, Sony allied with Disney to squeeze him into the existing Marvel world, an approach that lets the character bounce around in a bigger sandbox, though at the risk of being overshadowed by bigger stars. No Way Home is a ridiculous celebration of all the highs and lows the character has experienced over the years, and though seeing the return of Willem Dafoe as the Green Goblin or Alfred Molina as Doctor Octopus is certainly pleasant, the returns of Jamie Foxx’s Electro, Thomas Haden Church’s Sandman, and Rhys Ifans’s Lizard are a lot more bizarre.
Is the nostalgia sometimes forced? Absolutely. The often-baffling narrative swerves between deep emotion and zany humor, and though Holland’s impression of an excitable teenager remains on point, I did want the movie to settle down a little and pick a thematic lane. Despite its ample running time, No Way Home doesn’t really do that; instead, the approach is a grab bag of Spider-Man’s greatest hits, riffing on his inherent nobility and his well-known mantra of great power and great responsibility going hand in hand. As supervillains trickle in, Doctor Strange pushes to return them to where they belong, but Peter balks once he learns that he’d be sending them back to narratives that end in their death.
So the stakes of No Way Home become, essentially, cosmic dramaturgy—Peter, MJ, and their plucky pal Ned (Jacob Batalon) trying to rewrite these villains’ fate and give them a happy ending. Any plot holes in that convoluted-sounding scheme are covered up by the screenplay’s frenzied nature; why fret over logic gaps when one can luxuriate in Molina’s grandiose monologuing, or Dafoe’s echoing cackle? The final act of the film piles on more surprises and fan service, and although the pandering is clear, any viewer who has a history with these characters (i.e., most cinemagoers of the past 20 years) will likely have trouble resisting the joy of it all. No Way Home is less a movie and more a fun-house ride through our collective memory tunnels. I won’t blame anyone for giving in and letting the serotonin flow.
Listen to David Sims discuss Spider-Man: No Way Home on an episode of The Atlantic’s culture podcast The Review: