Fear not — nothing will be revealed in this Spider-Man: No Way Home review that hasn’t been in a trailer or on a poster. But the general overall secrecy does feel a bit out of control. Marvel movies and their fans have come to overly rely on surprises and swerves, when one of the primary appeals of the Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise is its rewatchability. Mysterio can only surprise us by being a liar one time, but watching Spider-Man navigate his illusions remains a joy the sixth time around. All of which is to say the third installment of Tom Holland’s Spider-Man “Home” trilogy might not have the same rewatch factor as its predecessors. But in the moment, it offers pleasures galore.
The real joy in all three movies has been the dynamic between Holland’s Peter Parker, Zendaya’s MJ, and Jacob Batalon’s Ned, along with Betty Brant, Flash Thompson, and whatever dorky teachers butt in. Their moments together remain the best parts of the latest installment, even with Doctor Strange now involved. Both Zendaya and Batalon appear to have finally succumbed to a Hollywood diet mandate, but even slimmed and glammed, they retain their endearing awkwardness. As with so many Marvel and Sony superhero movies, the fun, smart-sitcom interactions of the first half of the film eventually give way to large-scale CG stuff. And normally, that’s fine. This time, it feels a bit like obligatory noise when we’d much rather watch the characters in smaller-scale interactions.
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Anyone who reads this site already knows that classic villains from non-MCU Spider-Man movies return for this one, chief among them Willem Dafoe’s Norman Osborn, Alfred Molina’s Otto Octavius, and Jamie Foxx’s Max Dillon. Though the movie initially takes place a week after Far From Home‘s summer vacation escapade, time passes and eventually Christmas trees dot the landscape, and the villain interactions play like a Yuletide treat of holiday ham. They may not number up to a Sinister Six…yet…but they’re a funny five. Entering the MCU as a result of Peter ceaselessly badgering Doctor Strange during a delicate magic spell, they present different sides of themselves to complicate things. Should the current Peter Parker sympathize with the nice guys they mostly once were, or fight the villains they later became?
There’s no superhero movie without fighting, of course. But some prove more sympathetic than others.
Cynical fans have joked about the fact that in prior superhero franchises, multiple villains often signal the end of the road. So why get excited for it this time? Obviously, fans trust Kevin Feige and Amy Pascal to do it right. But they’re not complete magicians — multiple villains invariably do water down the central conflict. When everyone’s a compelling movie star, and the story has to find screen time for all, including J.K. Simmons’ new version of J. Jonah Jameson, it’s easy for the narrative to lose some focus. Jameson as a comics character was ahead of his time — his paranoid skewing of the news to demonize actual heroes and extol villains feels shockingly modern. But we don’t get nearly enough. Here’s hoping Simmons signed on for more than two movies.
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As for the CG fest, it feels more awkward than usual at times. Certain scenes looks as if they utilized bluescreening solely so the actors on set wouldn’t even know what was happening. When a movie requires that level of secrecy under the impression that the slightest revelation would totally ruin the story for everybody, something feels broken about the way we consume stories. Nobody’s not going to see the new Spider-Man just because they know the plot.
But without mentioning said plot, what we can say is that No Way Home follows many laws of threequels. It’s much bigger, features unusual and over-the-top story developments, and delivers the possibility of closure on a completed arc. (Though of course there’ll be more.) From a visual standpoint, it’s the biggest of the three. From an actual story perspective, it’s the weakest. But while the whole may not exceed the sum of its parts, some of those parts are great indeed. And yet moments that clearly seem meant to evoke big emotions mostly don’t. The one that works best relies on knowledge of a previous film. This feels mostly an issue of pacing. Emotions can be tough to build if they have to be sandwiched between favorite character actors mugging and wise-cracking evil slogans at each other.
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Like Venom getting forced on Sam Raimi, director Jon Watts feels like he was obliged to incorporate a laundry list of elements rather than create a totally organic follow-up. Some characters’ motivations drastically change for no apparent reason. Lingering threads get dropped completely. But in the end, this is still the MCU Spider-Man most fans now love. And even if this is a patchy, overstuffed adventure, it delivers the way a pinata at a party might. Despite several awkward beatdowns, it ultimately delivers the candy.
CORRECTION: An initial version of this review confused the passage of time from summer to Christmas in the movie.
Spider-Man: No Way Home opens in theaters Thursday night. Needless to stay, sit through the credits.
Recommended Reading: Amazing Spider-Man by Nick Spencer Vol. 1
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