In the world of Marvel Comics, the character of Peter Parker (AKA Spider-Man) has always had amazing everyman appeal because he’s young, inexperienced, and struggles to manage the “great responsibility” that comes with his great power. Brian Michael Bendis’s “Ultimate Spider-Man” comics, launched at the turn of this century, underlined all of that even more by plopping Peter down in high school. What teen knows who he or she is, let alone would know how to assume two separate identities? Sony Pictures presented all that writ large in their series of Spidey movies starting in 2002, and in most ways, those starring Tom Holland have made the most hay out of Peter’s relatable teen angst.
That angst is on display writ even larger this time as Peter must contend with being falsely accused of murdering the villainous Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) from his last adventure in 2019’s SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME. Tabloid journalist J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons, hilariously barking every line) calls him out and continues his long-standing dislike of the web-slinger. Now, because of that spotlight, the whole world knows the name Peter Parker, but they’re starting to wonder if their “friendly neighborhood Spider-Man” isn’t the nice guy they assumed he was.
When the pressure on Peter gets to be too much, with helicopters following him everywhere, and slurs accusing girlfriend M.J. Zendaya) and Ned (Jacob Batalon) of being accomplices, the desperate teen turns desperate. He reaches out to superhero wizard Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) for some otherworldly help. Strange, you see, has the power of the fog in his hands and he can cast a spell to make everyone on the planet forget Petey is Spidey. Of course, the jittery teen screws up the spell by trying to change it mid-casting with requests that his two buds stay in the know.
That last-minute adjustment screws up Strange’s sorcery, opening up a multiverse that enables various characters from various alternate realities to invade ours. What that really means is that characters, plotting, and tropes from previous films can now be folded into this movie, and it makes for a self-conscious hoot and a half.
Now, if you’ve seen the trailers for this outing that spoil more than tease, you know at least one recognizable face has returned. I won’t spoil the rest of the juicy surprises that await, but suffice it to say, the returning characters hauled in are very welcome, by and large, and multiply the fun of this fare exponentially.
Still, what drives this adventure forward more than anything is the continuing struggle of Peter to navigate into adulthood. He’s bucking to get into MIT this go-round, and he’s trying to manage all his problems with a maturity not seen in previous Holland takes, but it’s not easy. Peter’s relationship with M.J., Ned, and Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) gets endangered by all of his heroics, and here, the three are connected to Peter/Spider-Man throughout all the chaos and battles all the more. There’s a lot at stake this time, and the emotional ringer Peter goes through is at the heart of this film.
Jon Watts’ direction is deft throughout, finding the right balance between humor, heartbreak, and heroism, sometimes all in the same scene. All of the actors here shine, particularly Holland, who aces all the emotions he’s asked to show. The screenplay by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers contains some of the funniest writing in the franchise, particularly in the way their script comments on past films. I’d quote some of the best lines here, but it would give away too many of the delightful surprises.
Cumberbatch is having quite a year already with his superb work in THE COURIER, THE ELECTRICAL LIFE OF LOUIS WAIN, and his award-winning turn from THE POWER OF THE DOG. Here, he plays light and succeeds well too, making for a prickly but amusing foil for Peter. Strange is written a bit too much like Tony Stark here with the constant quips, but with that character long departed, someone has to pick up the slack, I suppose.
A few things are working against this film, including a running time that could have been trimmed. Additionally, a few of the returnees aren’t quite as interesting or essential to the proceedings. (Two are, however, and will be the talk of the film.) Finally, the biggest issue hurting SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME is that the novelty of the multiverse is already a bit old-hat. This film, despite all the returning folks, doesn’t do as much with the premise as the Oscar-winning animated film SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE did in 2018, and WANDAVISION, LOKI, and WHAT IF? ran with alternate universes brilliantly too during their episodic runs on the Disney + streaming platform. Parallel lives? Been there. Done that.
Nonetheless, familiarity is an issue for any franchise, particularly ones fronted by superheroes. But for all of its versions and incantations, Spider-Man remains one of the best and beloved because he’s such a vulnerable and lovable everyman, and this film makes the most of all the good things the franchise does so well. Spidey will ensure that audiences stick with him far into the future, no matter what plane its on.