This review contains minor spoilers (including a revelation of the main villains) from the movie Spider-Man: No Way Home.
With each passing year, the Spider-Man movies directed by Sam Raimi look more and more like glorious anomalies. To watch them today is to stare into a whole other dimension of soulfully eccentric comic-book adaptations. Among the various out-of-vogue pleasures of Raimi’s Spider-Man films (especially the first two) are wonderfully hammy villains played by world-class actors. The CGI may now appear dated, but the real special effect of these early-2000s blockbusters was and remains the scenery chewing: the cackle and crooked grin of a slumming Oscar winner, the tortured megalomania of a West End stage veteran refusing to be upstaged by his mechanical limbs.
In Spider-Man: No Way Home, Willem Dafoe and Alfred Molina reprise these iconic roles, returning to respectively portray gliding mad billionaire The Green Goblin and the multi-armed mad scientist Doctor Octopus. They aren’t playing new versions of the heavies. They aren’t even playing older versions of them. Digital makeover aside, they are roughly as we remember them from the Raimi movies. That’s less a spoiler than the whole hook of this latest trip to the endlessly chugging Marvel Cinematic Universe: Having exhausted the Avengers novelty of mixing and matching characters from its own vast ensemble, the company is now plucking them from separate continuities.
The Goblin and Doc Ock are only a portion of the rogues gallery Peter Parker (Tom Holland) squares off against in No Way Home. His problems also include an amorphous sandman, a talking reptile, and the human battery Electro (Jamie Foxx). Those last two hail from yet another cinematic universe—the one that cast Andrew Garfield as Spider-Man, just a few years after Tobey Maguire hung up the spandex. (Emma Stone aside, these movies inspire, and deserve, much less rapturous remembrance than Raimi’s.)
No Way Home picks up right where Far From Home left off, with Peter reeling from the public revelation of his secret identity. The fallout has scuttled not just his dreams of MIT attendance but also those of his best friend, Ned (Jacob Batalon), and his new girlfriend, MJ (Zendaya). For a while, the movie remains in the charmingly low-key register of Holland’s previous two solo adventures in the suit, which at their best played like teen comedies with some middling superhero action running in their margins. The stakes here feel similarly scaled to the divided priorities of an adolescent Avenger; college admission woes are as pressing as any Manhattan rumble.
It’s when Peter convinces the sorcerer Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to fix his problems with a spell—which of course goes horribly awry— that the movie begins yanking foes from defunct franchises into the fold. This is, again, just a new variation on the Marvel business model of extended universing. Which isn’t to deny the fun No Way Home sometimes scavenges from the synergistic strategy. Dafoe and Molina both look vaguely uncanny, their faces smoothed through the still-imperfect black magic of deaging tech. But maybe that’s fitting for how their villains are presented: as phantoms blinked from one reality to another at their moment of fatal defeat. Anyway, it’s nice to watch these two finely cooked hams drum up some of that old cartoon theatricality, even as the movie keeps its sinister five on a surprisingly tight leash.
No Way Home is messier than the average adventure off the MCU assembly line. It has more in common with Raimi’s overcrowded Spider-Man 3 than just a certain sentient storm of minerals (played by… well, it’s not entirely clear, even after a climactic desanding). At times, it feels like there are as many movies competing for screentime here as there are villains, with returning director Jon Watts attempting the herculean (or just Peter Parkerian) task of balancing a large cast of old friends and family with a new roster of adversaries with whom the audience is assumed to be familiar. The tone veers all over the map, turning the supervillains into quippy frenemies one minute, plunging Peter into narrative and meteorological darkness the next. The whole thing is pasted together with a volume of magical and scientific hooey (and MacGuffins) that’s high even by the standards of this extended franchise.
Will Tom Holland ever get a Spider-Man movie that’s all his own? His run in the role has been categorized by looming mentor figures and larger MCU maintenance; if Homecoming (and, to a lesser extent, Far From Home) doubled as Iron Man movies, this one feels like half a Doctor Strange story, adding a skirmish in the Inception-ish mirror dimension to an already crowded two-and-a-half hours of plot and spectacle. Here, Holland’s winning coming-of-age arc is further overshadowed by the aspirations to a live-action Spider-Verse, pulling in characters from different series. At least the script, by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, folds the borrowed bads into a dilemma that feels catered to the earnest empathy of Holland’s version of Parker: Can he save these displaced monsters and mistakes from their grim destiny?
The paradoxical truth is that No Way Home’s extended exercise in franchise-agnostic fan service is at once an ominous precedent for future event movies and an at-times rather poignant gimmick. There’s something oddly moving about the film’s attempts to tie up the loose ends of two aborted series that came before its own. The crass crowd-pleasing of Marvel dumping action figures from different lines into the same playpen is partially redeemed by the emotional closure some of the returning cast members carve out for themselves… even those who seem to have forgotten exactly how to play the roles they occupied so many years earlier.
Suffice to say, No Way Home hits its hoot-and-holler beats about as skillfully as Endgame did. There are moments here that will probably inspire comparable choruses of applause; by opening a wormhole into the multiverse of past Spider-Man movies, Marvel and Sony have made something like an all-purpose Spider-Man sequel, shrewdly designed to hit a whole range of nostalgia centers. Thankfully, that exploitation of IP and fond memories alike includes a platform for some fine character actors to get back into the malevolent mojo of their past contributions to the genre. If only the film lifted some of the oddball visual splendor of Raimi’s trilogy while it was rounding up its most memorable antagonists. Here’s hoping the guy’s superhuman eccentricity survives next year’s plummet into the Marvel industrial complex.