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Film Review: “Spider-Man: No Way Home” Delights with Both Power and Responsibility

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | December 14th, 2021

Film poster: “Spider-Man: No Way Home”

Spider-Man: No Way Home (Jon Watts, 2021) 3½ out of 4 stars.

The 2018 animated masterpiece Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse introduced a much-needed breath of fresh air into the enjoyable (enough), if repetitive, superhero fairy tale of a certain friendly neighborhood webslinger. As the title implies, we plunged headfirst into the multiverse with a new incarnation of Spider-Man, one Miles Morales, as our protagonist and guide. Though without any direct connection to the massive Marvel franchise that began to blossom with the 2008 Iron Man, the movie was a delight, both uniquely its own thing and a playful jab at the many iterations of Spidey that had come before.

Now comes the latest chapter in the official cinematic Marvel canon, Spider-Man: No Way Home, with the current mighty arachnoid star, Tom Holland (The Devil All the Time). When last we saw him, in the 2019 Spider-Man: Far from Home, he had just defeated the villain Mysterio in a classic pyrrhic victory, the bad guy sending out a posthumous video message that not only outed Peter Parker as Spider-Man, but also made it look as if our hero were the cause of the concluding destruction over London. That’s where we pick up the narrative here, with Parker’s life—and that of his loved ones and friends—upended by Mysterio’s revelation.

l-r: Tom Holland, Zendaya and Jacob Batalon in Columbia Pictures’ SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME

So what is a 17-year-old Avenger to do when his identity is no longer a secret? Just sit around and watch as girlfriend MJ (Zendaya, Dune) and best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon, The True Don Quixote) get rejected from MIT because of their association with a compromised superhero? Never! With great power comes great responsibility, right? I believe someone once said that, somewhere. Rather than allow a cruel world its spite, Peter goes to see the one man he feels could change their circumstances: Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, The Power of the Dog).  

Unfortunately, Strange no longer has the Time Stone (see Avengers: Infinity War), with which he might have been able to reverse Mysterio’s damage. But he has other tricks up his sleeve, including a spell that would wipe the memory of Peter from the entire planet. Whoops! That’s not quite what young Parker wants, and in the ensuing argument between wizard and teen, something goes more than a little wrong.

l-r: Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Holland in Columbia Pictures’ SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME

What follows is a supremely enjoyable, if deadly, visit from an array of Spider-Man’s enemies from the previous two series, the first one starring Tobey Maguire, the second Andrew Garfield. As confused as Peter may be as to why he now has to fight the heretofore unknown likes of Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe, The Lighthouse), Doc Ock (Alfred Molina, The Water Man), Electro (Jamie Foxx, Project Power), and others, they are no less surprised to find themselves facing, under the mask, a kid they’ve never seen before. Still, though he may not be familiar, that doesn’t make them are any less murderous. Forget loss of privacy, Spider-Man has multiple new problems on his hands.

This third stand-alone Holland-as-Spidey adventure—helmed as were the first two by Jon Watts—proves both gloriously entertaining and profoundly moving, by far the best of the actor’s outings (and the first two were pretty good to begin with). It’s time for Peter Parker to grow up and face the melancholy music of adulthood, events taking a turn for the somber even as the surrounding story is ever lively. Jokes abound in the midst of violent mayhem, but whether they will propel Peter to a happy Hollywood ending or something less cheerful is never certain until the final moments. And that’s all to our benefit, as we watch intently to see how it all plays out. The movie tackles weighty issues of responsibilities (and yes, power) that come to us all as we grow older. Maturity comes at a cost, sometimes.

l-r: Electro and Spider-Man in Columbia Pictures’ SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME

Fans of Spider-Man, Marvel, and superheroes in general should enjoy every second. I think everyone else will, too. It’s true that the originality factor is less than it might have been given the aforementioned Spider-Verse film, but there is still plenty of cleverness (and wonderful surprises) to go around. These are the myths of our time, and from the Gods’ struggles we mere mortals learn valuable lessons, while also having a great, rollicking good time. Ready, aim, swing!

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), as well as a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is a former cohost of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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