Unlike most heroes in the MCU, Spider-Man has been showing up in movies for decades. The first film in Sam Raimi’s trilogy premiered in 2002, making it approximately 20 years old and giving me a mild heart attack upon doing that math. This is a character with a long history in the minds of many viewers, most of whom grew up reading the comics, seeing the movies, or watching the Saturday morning cartoon. When it comes to Spider-Man movies, you have to get it right. And holy cow, “No Way Home” gets it right.
We pick up right where “Far From Home” left off – Mysterio’s final broadcast reveals Spider-Man’s identity to the world and Peter Parker’s life is turned upside down. Peter, Ned, MJ, May, and Happy are all questioned by Damage Control. Lawyer extraordinaire Matt Murdock, aka Daredevil, helps Parker and his friends escape legal trouble but Peter still finds his world shattered. In his desperation, he turns to one of the single most powerful characters in the Marvel universe for help.
Strange attempts a spell, but Parker’s interference makes the magic unstable. Unable to pull off the magic, Strange abandons his attempt to make everyone forget Spider-Man’s identity. Of course, the magic has some unintended consequences. It pulls people who know that Peter Parker is Spider-Man from other universes into the MCU, specifically five villains: Doctor Octopus, Green Goblin, and Sandman from the Sam Raimi trilogy in addition to Lizard and Electro from the The Amazing Spider-Man films. Strange recruits Spider-Man, Ned, and MJ to capture the five villains so they can be returned to their own universes. Peter, spurred by his Aunt May’s compassion, realizes that the villains will most likely all die if they are returned. He endeavors to reverse the damage that has been done to them and help them heal rather than simply send them back to their deaths. Doctor Strange and Peter don’t see eye to eye on this, and they fight over the box containing a spell that would send the villains home. Although Strange is powerful, Peter has a few surprises. His spider-sense works even when his astral self is separated from his body, protecting the spell from Strange. They continue their fight in the mirror dimension where Peter webs Strange into a geometric trap and escapes with the spell. Now able to focus on his plan, Peter is able to fix Doc Ock’s inhibitor chip before Green Goblin sends everything sideways.
The villains scatter and in the ensuing fight Green Goblin kills Aunt May. A devastated Peter flees, defeated and alone. Meanwhile, Ned and MJ have been guarding the spell in case they need to trigger it and return the villains to their universes. Ned, holding the sling-ring stolen from Doctor Strange, accidentally creates a portal to “Peter Parker”. Except this isn’t our Peter Parker, it’s The Amazing Spider-Man himself, Andrew Garfield! Naturally Garfield is soon followed by Tobey MacGuire’s Peter Parker, and together the Spider-Men go find our Peter.
The heroes lure the villains to the Statue of Liberty, currently being fitted with a Captain America shield, in order to cure them all. At first, the fight goes poorly. After all, Spider-Man isn’t used to working in a team. But after regrouping they begin picking off the villains one at a time. Things almost go wrong again when Lizard nearly kills Ned and MJ, but in the end each villain is restored. Tobey-Spider-Man prevents Tom-Spider-Man from exacting revenge on Green Goblin, and they all live happily ever after.
OH WAIT NO THEY DON’T. The magic that brought the villains into this universe continues to break down. Every person from every universe who knows Spider-Man’s identity is being brought through cracks in space. Even a recently returned Doctor Strange is unable to do anything but slow it down, and Spider-Man hatches a desperate plan: if a spell went off that made everybody forget his identity, it could be enough to reverse the magic. This means Ned, MJ, and all of the Avengers will forget that Peter Parker exists. The friends promise to reunite after the spell, but when Peter goes to tell them the truth he sees them happy and safe, he doesn’t go through with it.
I loved this movie so much that it’s hard to know where to start with it. Spider-Man fans have been begging for a live action Spider-Verse movie since the webhead joined the MCU. It bears noting that the Miles Morales-led “Into the Spiderverse” tackled this idea first and did it so masterfully that I almost think it upped the pressure on “No Way Home”.
Let’s start with the villains. Green Goblin, Doc Ock, and Sandman from the Raimi-verse and Electro and Lizard from the Amazing-verse all reprise their roles. In a movie this packed, each of them gets at least a few moments on screen to shine. Green Goblin is probably one of Spider-Man’s most iconic villains, and Willem Dafoe makes him shine just as well as he did in 2002. Goblin absolutely chews the scenery in every moment, but in a way that adds instead of detracting. Alfred Molina’s Doctor Octopus is the first villain to be “cured”, and his return to mild-mannered Otto Octavius is brilliant, including the moment when he helps the Spider-Men and shares a touching reunion with Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker. Electro stands out from the Amazing-verse, skeptical of Parker’s “cures” and ultimately seeking the power promised by an Arc Reactor. But once he is cured he shares a touching moment with Andrew Garfield’s Parker, including his wish that Spider-Man was black.
Let’s address the main event: This movie brings us three Peter Parkers, and all three of them are at the top of their game. Tobey Maguire steps seamlessly back into the awkward Peter Parker from an era when comic book movies were not guaranteed money machines. Andrew Garfield plays a Peter Parker from the “Amazing Spider-Man” films who is still haunted by the death of Gwen Stacy. Garfield has said he looked forward to playing a “darker” Spider-Man who admits in the film that he “stopped pulling his punches”. Tom Holland certainly carries the weight in this movie, but seeing the other Peter Parkers get a chance to redeem themselves is a high point. Maguire’s Parker went out on a low point, considering “Spider-Man 3” was absolutely the weakest installment of the Raimi trilogy. Garfield’s series ended abruptly after “Amazing Spider-Man 2”, so for both of these Parkers we get glimpses of character growth and a continuation of their stories.
Tom Holland shines in this movie. Personally he has always been my favorite Peter Parker, so I’m certainly biased. But I think there are several highlights – he defeats Doctor Strange with a combination of spider skills and math knowledge. Inspired by his Aunt May, he is determined to cure the villains rather than letting Doctor Strange, in his aloofness, simply send them back to die. Holland’s emotional performance after Aunt May’s death, his murderous rage at Green Goblin, and the devastating look on his face when he chooses not to tell MJ the truth all punch you in the heart.
Some MCU films are entertaining but reliable and slightly predictable. This is not one of them. I don’t revisit my rankings regularly, but next time I do I am positive that this movie will be near the top.