This review has SPOILERS concerning what characters appear in this movie. Plot-wise, it's spoiler-free.
When the whole world is told that Peter Parker is Spider-Man, that doesn't turn out so well for Peter. But it's not until his best friend Ned and girlfriend MJ are tainted by association—rejected by MIT for reasons of "controversy"—that he decides to act. What he does, with help from Dr. Strange, doesn't turn out so well either. They open a rift in the multiverse, and people start filtering in who know that Peter Parker is Spider-Man. Strange, villainous people who Peter doesn't know. (But we do!)
|Time for Peter to make some choices and mistakes of his own.|
I've long been on the outs with the MCU. But I have maintained a hope (a faint and fading hope, as Gandalf would say) that Tom Holland could make a great Spider-Man under the right circumstances. So even though I'm not interested in the interconnected Marvel universe anymore, I wanted to continue giving Spider-Man a chance—and I'm glad I did. My favorite aspect of Homecoming was that director Jon Watts seemed to be working hard to keep Peter grounded, even through the over-sized stakes and "bigger is better" and "connect everything" worldview that the MCU brings. In this third installment, Watts connects things, makes it bigger, and ups the stakes like he's supposed to, but he also has reason to. He uses the required method to give me what I want—a Spider-Man that isn't under the thumb of the MCU.
At least, not as much. This story asks the question, "what does it REALLY mean, to be Spider-Man?" and then it answers it, by using past Sony Spider-Man's (Spider-Men?) Spider-Men as the standard to be measured by. Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield make real appearances, not just cameos, and they're treated with reverence and respect. Holland's Peter makes well-intentioned mistakes and tries his best and then learns from the Spider-Men that his good intentions and trying his best is the Spider-Man way. He learns that bad things happen despite his efforts but is encouraged by them to keep going, because "with great power comes great responsibility." And his efforts cease to be a joke or some fun side-gig where he gets his suits made by Iron-Man, his missions from Nick Fury, and team-mates from the famous Avengers roster. He grows into a full-fledged Spider-Man, and it's a little bit glorious.
|Holland has always been the best thing about this iteration. This movie aspires to be worthy of him.|
The path taken to get him there... is a little bit messy. One by one the past hang-ups are put to rest. No more Stark glasses. No more voices inside suits. No more adults making decisions for Peter. No more villains whose real beefs are with Iron Man. No more double life. And with every step taken, the movie feels more and more like a classic Spidey film, and less like a Marvel drone. The jokes are funny sometimes. The characters are like real people, not awkward or unfunny on purpose. There are dramatic moments that aren't undercut by humor. There are humorous moments that have underlying pathos. There is an end goal throughout besides "make money with CGI." Gosh, even the more blatant fanservice moments didn't make me angry, because they were calling back to the old classics with genuine glee.
It feels messy because the movie is about cleaning up a mess—in the storyline, and in real life! The process is not streamlined. There are moments when it's a chore, but the end result is satisfying in the same way all things are when they're clean and used to be messy. And as the mess dwindles, we get a look at how Holland's Spidey works unencumbered. And he's fantastic. Peter uses his fast thinking in creative ways during the fights, and Holland's physicality plus the magic of modern effects and choreography make the action land in real and entertaining ways. And the character dynamics between him and his friends and family take on a more serious edge as he weighs the consequences of his actions and relationships.
|One of few MCU films that actually needs most of its 2 & 1/2 hour runtime. It's a big mess to clean.|
The returning villains weren't my favorite thing ever, but I appreciate that they were not turned into jokes (which was what my cynicism expected) and instead added real value to the story. Especially Alfred Molina's Doc Ock and Willem Dafoe's Goblin. Spider-Men Maguire and Garfield steal the show, so I'm glad they aren't in the whole thing. Most of the movie's best, most engaging emotion comes from them—maybe because of nostalgia, maybe not. All I know is they leave the current Spidey in a place I'd like to see more of. It feels like a set-up for a fresh start. One that already has a good cast in place, and has proved it understands the Spider-Man mantle better than past endeavors indicated, and is ready to take the character in some more conventional, classic, SPIDER-MAN directions.
No Way Home is a messy, sprawling, fun, and ambitious film with a determined goal, real stakes, real consequences, and a real end result. It stops trying to reinvent the character and embraces what's always been this version's strengths, while bringing back some of the classic strengths of Spider-Man, as well. It has brought our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man back to his friendly neighborhood life.