Underwhelming outings aren’t uncommon in the MCU these days, but at least Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021) delivers something differently underwhelming. The concluding volume of the latest Peter Parker trilogy, buoyed by the charisma of its young stars, is a slapdash metafiction that tries something ambitious, but the execution is far from seamless. Peter Parker (Tom Holland) already had plenty of problems juggling his personal life with being a superhero when his identity was a secret; now that firebrand journalist J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons) has publicized his true identity, those problems take on a whole new magnitude. The controversy surrounding Spider-Man hasn’t just tarnished Peter’s reputation, though; it’s rubbed off on his girlfriend MJ (Zendaya) and best buddy Ned (Jacob Batalon). When Peter’s ignominy prevents them all from getting into college, he turns to Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) in the hopes of revising reality. Swayed by his avuncular fondness for Peter, Strange agrees to cast a spell to make his true identity private once again. Unfortunately, the attempt misfires spectacularly when Peter frantically tries to change the spell’s parameters mid-cast. This cosmic meddling tears the fabric of reality, drawing numerous villains out of the multiverse into confrontation with Peter. Strange is convinced that the interlopers need to be returned to their home timelines in order to undo the damage, but when Peter learns that would mean their certain doom, he goes another way—with tragic and profound consequences.
Make no mistake: Spider-Man: No Way Home is fun. It’s also nonsense. (Spoilers ensue.) Peter’s selfish goals, Strange’s too-convenient complicity, the extremely specific way the spell just happens to fail, the ease with which “antidotes” for supervillainy are concocted—oh, there are no ingredients here that break the insane non-laws of comic book writing, really, but it all feels like one long, marketing-driven contrivance. It’s in service to a terrific idea, though: transporting the villains from previous, pre-MCU Spider-Man franchises into the canon. This leads to great reprises from Alfred Molina (as Dr. Octopus) and a spectacular Willem Dafoe (as the Green Goblin), among others. Ultimately, it even brings in previous Spider-Man actors Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire as “alternate” versions of Peter Parker—which doesn’t exactly make sense, but leads to plenty of amusing Spidey banter from the group. The problem is that once you strip out that tasty concept—which, by the way, requires a certain familiarity with the Sony Spider-Man films to fully appreciate—there isn’t much to the story beyond its impressive Hollywood logistics. Those same logistics dictate the plot’s more predictable turns, as well, as characters “end their contracts” in the MCU. Despite all this, there are effective emotional beats, funny moments, and eyeball kicks galore, but it largely plays out like a fan service Easter egg hunt. Holland, Zendaya, and Batalon are a winning trio with great comic chemistry, and their exploits are always entertaining. And the unique “resurrection” of the previous Spideys, aside from the nostalgia kick, provides a reminder of what previous actors brought to the iconic role—and how Holland ultimately proved to be the best of them. It’s just unfortunate he didn’t get a more coherent and memorable narrative to conclude his trilogy, though, the story upstaged by the concept—and the cagey Hollywood marketing fingerprints all over it.