'Spider-Man: No Way Home' review: A wild ride across the Spider-Verse

The 'Spider-Man' series holds a mirror up to itself in this world-exploding trip into the heart of the Spidey character. (Review is spoiler-free!)

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

The "Spider-Man" cinematic universe folds in on itself in "Spider-Man: No Way Home," a wildly fun and surprisingly resonant entry in the webslinger series. 

Spoiler culture renders it extremely difficult to talk about the movie in any depth without giving away major surprises, and the surprises here are worth preserving. But let's just say "No Way Home" deals with themes that dive deep into the very nature of comic book heroes and villains, and it acts as a bookend to the last two decades of "Spider-Man" films, which launched in 2002 and kicked off our modern obsession with superheroes.

Tom Holland in Columbia Pictures' "Spider-Man: No Way Home."

It's difficult to imagine Marvel movies taking over the landscape the way they have without the success of Sam Raimi's original trilogy of "Spider-Man" films, which brought the genre out of its '90s doldrums and put it front and center on Hollywood's radar.  

"No Way Home" is the third "Spider-Man" film to star Tom Holland as Peter Parker, following 2017's "Homecoming" and 2019's "Far From Home." (Holland debuted as the character in 2016's "Captain America: Civil War," and he played Parker/ Spidey in the final two "Avengers" films.)

Following his big identity reveal at the end of "Far From Home," the world — and New York in particular — now knows that Parker is Spider-Man. This causes major issues for the anonymity he largely enjoys, and suddenly the modest Queens apartment where he lives with his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) is swarmed by news crews and helicopters, and his school wants to turn his senior year into a sideshow. 

Benedict Cumberbatch, left, and Tom Holland in Columbia Pictures' "Spider-Man: No Way Home."

But what irks Parker the most is the way it affects his friends. Due to their affiliations with the crimefighter and their resulting notoriety, MIT denies the admissions of his girlfriend, MJ (Zendaya), and his best friend, Ned (Jacob Batalon), not to mention himself, spoiling their plans to study together after high school. (Gotta love a superhero on a college path.) 

Since he's an Avenger, Parker hits up his co-worker Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) — it pays to have friends in high places — and asks him to whip up a spell to undo the whole thing where his cover is blown and it wreaks havoc on the lives of his loved ones. Begrudgingly, Strange agrees. But Parker keeps amending himself as Strange is casting the spell, creating hiccups in the magic — the mechanics of all this are a little sloppy — and a wormhole in the Spidey-time continuum is opened up. 

Parker soon comes face-to-face with Alfred Molina's Doctor Octopus, who squared off with Tobey Maguire's Spider-Man in 2004's "Spider-Man 2." But rather than just going with it, Doc Ock confesses he doesn't recognize Parker, an outward acknowledgement of the various storylines (and Spider-Men) within the world of "Spider-Man." Jai guru deva om, they're suddenly traveling across the multiverse, and anything is possible.  

Alfred Molina as Doc Ock in Columbia Pictures' "Spider-Man: No Way Home."

Doc Ock isn't the only one to show up from the past, but in the interest of national security it isn't fair to say much more. But what transpires goes beyond mere fanservice, and it gets to the heart of the "Spider-Man" series — both on-screen and off — and to the core of what makes both the franchise and the character of Peter Parker himself tick. 

The gargantuan achievement and success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which has allowed for a massive cast of characters to freely pass in and out of each other's films, helped laid the groundwork for "No Way Home," and screenwriters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers go a step further by exploding the "Spider-Man" franchise timeline and picking up the pieces to see how they can make them fit back together.

And it goes beyond mere fantasy booking: "No Way Home" gives its characters a chance to live and breathe and interact with one another, and what emerges is both a playful wink-wink as well as a soulful rumination on the great power/ great responsibility thread that has been a constant in the series, and which forms the conscience of the Parker character and the entire "Spider-Man" idealogy. 

Holland, whose on-screen work has struggled outside the Spider-Man realm (especially in this year's "Cherry" and "Chaos Walking"), is perfectly at home here, imbuing his Parker/ Spidey with kindness, heart and heroics. It's his best performance in the role yet. 

Director Jon Watts, who also helmed the previous two chapters in the series, mixes humor, action and human moments well, and he keeps the film moving nimbly, despite its nearly two-and-a-half hour running time. "No Way Home" takes on fate and redemption, life and death, good and evil and spins them all into a durable web, which its lead character uses to swing freely through the air and, when the time comes, land firmly on his feet. This super story is a massive treat: all gift, no curse. 



'Spider-Man: No Way Home'


Rated PG-13: for sequences of action/violence, some language and brief suggestive comments

Running time: 148 minutes

In theaters