It’s amazing to look back on how much Spider-Man has grown over the past couple of decades. In 2002, it was hard to imagine Spider-Man making his leap to the big screen while retaining the same sense of awe, wonder, and inspiration that he did in the comics. Yet not only did Spider-Man become one of the biggest blockbuster smashes of all time: it also spawned multiple sequels, two distinct reboots, an epic cinematic crossover with the Avengers, and even an Academy Award-winning animated film.
To say that Spider-Man was an important part of the foundation of superhero cinema is a severe understatement. In many ways, he paved the way for many superhero films to come after, including Daredevil, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, Captain America: even The Avengers.
Today Spider-Man continues to pave new paths forward, whether its Andrew Garfield and his quick-witted, off-brand sense of humor in the Amazing Spider-Man movies or Miles Morales crashing into other multiverses in Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse. Now Tom Holland is doing his own multiverse-crashing in Spider-Man: No Way Home, a movie that is bigger and bolder than anything we’ve ever seen from Spider-Man in the movies yet.
WARNING: This will be a very spoiler-filled analysis of Spider-Man: No Way Home. If you have not seen Spider-Man: No Way Home yet, don’t read this article. I have a shorter, spoiler-free review you can read here. You have been warned.
When Spider-Man: No Way Home begins, we think the premise speaks for itself. The whole world now knows that Peter Parker is Spider-Man, his family and friends’ lives are ruined just because they know him, Peter enlists in the help of Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to try and make the world forget his secret identity only for it to go horribly, horribly wrong in every way that it can. Now all of these villains from other Spider-Man movies are pouring into Peter’s universe trying to kill him. The whole plot seems pretty straightforward… until it isn’t.
One of the most brilliant aspects of this movie is easily its villains. For years, Sony has struggled to reboot Spider-Man’s villains as successfully as they did with Tom Holland’s Spider-Man. After all, Willem Dafoe and Alfred Molina already gave us the definitive versions of Green Goblin and Doctor Octopus in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies. Even in the unpopular Spider-Man 3 and Amazing Spider-Man films, Thomas Hayden Church, Rhys Ifans, and Jamie Foxx also delivered excellent portrayals of Sandman, Lizard, and Electro respectively. How could the MCU possibly hope to reboot these characters and make them feel more realized than their previous iterations?
Well, they don’t. The genius move that No Way Home pulls is bringing all of these villains into the MCU while retaining the original essence that made them excellent characters in the first place. When Doc Ock reappears on the bridge after Peter’s spell goes haywire, he remains driven by madness and tragedy like he was in Spider-Man 2. Lizard is more animalistic and savage in his reappearance and has reverted to an even more reptilian state since The Amazing Spider-Man. And when Electro and Sandman surface at the power plant, their respective themes blossom into nostalgic bliss as they lash out in confusion at this new world they stumbled onto. When these villains are reintroduced, we not only don’t have to waste time with their backstories since we already know them: we’re able to quickly cut to the chase and get to the heart of this story.
And what exactly is this movie about? Mercy. When these villains are brought into the fold, Doctor Strange tells Peter that they all die fighting their respective versions of Spider-Man. So by sending them back to their world, they would essentially be dooming them to their deaths. By imposing this moral dilemma, the movie is introducing a conflict much more interesting than the usual punching and acrobatics you’re using to watching in most superhero movies. Instead it asks if you could save the life of a total stranger, would you?
Now if it were me or any other cinematic cynic out there, my response would be to hit the button, say “adios” to these loonies, and then sleep like a baby afterwards. But Peter is better than most people and believes in second chances, even for people that don’t deserve them. That’s why he’s committed to helping these people, even if they are quote-unquote “bad guys.”
This fundamental difference leads Peter to one of the most interesting fights in the movie — not against another villain, but against Doctor Strange himself, who sees this issue more like a cosmic inevitability rather than a moral question that has to be answered. Pitting their ideals against each other was one of the more interesting moments of the movie, and seeing them fight against each other in the upside-down physics of the the Mirror dimension made excellent use of each other’s abilities.
And the way Spider-Man beats Strange is just so darn clever, using his geometry smarts to spin a web and trap Doctor Strange inside his own spell. To see this kid who used to need a hand from Iron Man now overcome the Sorcerer Supreme himself shows just how much the character has grown over the years and how much he can stand on his own without needing help from another Avenger.
Peter and his friends resolve that the only way to send these villains back home without killing them is by curing them of their abilities so they’re less of a threat to their own Spider-Men. He starts by replacing Doc Ock’s inhibitor chip, placing him in control of his arms rather than the other way around. Then he puts a power dampener on Electro that will revert him back to normal.
Peter begins to move on to curing the other villains when a sinister persona emerges from the deep recesses of Norman Osborn’s mind: the Green Goblin. Willem Dafoe’s return to this character was one I was most looking forward to, not just because this is his first time playing the role in 20 years, but also because his costume design looks starkly different from his last big-screen appearance. I knew from the trailers that he wasn’t going to have his iconic mask from the original Spider-Man movie. The question I was left with was how well that would work for the film overall? Would he be as terrifying, as loathsome, as unsettling a presence as he was in the first movie, or would he just be stuck feeling like wimpy old Norman Osborn?
Well surprisingly, the omission of his mask actually added to his portrayal. When the Goblin reveals himself, Willem Dafoe’s twisted, sinister expression emerges from Norman’s warm and friendly face, his sick and disturbing laugh echoing from behind his throat. It reminded me of that scene from the original Spider-Man where Norman was talking to himself in the mirror. It also reminds the audience that the thing to fear most about the Green Goblin isn’t his suit, his glider, his pumpkin bombs or even his mask: it’s his bloodlust and his vicious capacity for violence.
Peter and the Goblin fight, and man this fight is hard to watch: easily the grittiest and most brutal fight out of the entire Homecoming trilogy. Goblin is throwing Peter through walls, Peter is frantically punching him in the face, only for the Goblin to maniacally laugh at his feeble attempts to stop him.
Then at the very end of the fight, Goblin does the most shocking thing of all: he kills Aunt May. He summons his glider, stabs May in the back, and even chunks a pumpkin bomb at her for extra measure. And before May collapses in Peter’s arms, she passes on that iconic line “with great power comes great responsibility” before she dies.
This scene is so great for so many reasons. One is because Willem Dafoe’s performance as the Goblin is just so frightening and sadistic. He genuinely feels like the Green Goblin from the comics, the one that hates Peter so much and desires nothing more than to hurt him in the deepest and most personal ways possible. The fact that he specifically targets May just to hurt Peter makes him feel that more nefarious as a villain. In many ways, Dafoe’s performance as the Goblin here outdoes previous adaptations of the character. That does, by the way, include his appearance in the original Spider-Man.
But on a deeper level, this is a much more significant character-defining moment for Peter. By uttering that iconic line moments before she dies from a villain born from Peter’s mistakes, she becomes the catalyst for his growth as Spider-Man. She’s essentially become the MCU’s Uncle Ben, which is why I’m okay if he’s never referenced again in future Spider-Man movies: because Aunt May’s death has now become Peter’s main motivation for continuing his crusade as Spider-Man, not Uncle Ben.
But right at Peter’s lowest moment, two new contenders enter the fray: Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Man. You see, Strange’s spell also summoned them into this universe alongside their respective villains, and it’s their words that push Peter to keep going. After all, they’ve been at the same hopeless place Tom Holland’s Peter is at right now. If anybody understands what he’s feeling, it’s them.
Long rumored to appear in No Way Home, I can’t tell you how exciting it was to finally see Tobey and Andrew suit up as Spider-Man again after hanging up the mask for over seven years. We learn a lot about both Peters after their stories concluded in Spider-Man 3 and Amazing Spider-Man 2. Tobey Maguire’s Peter married MJ and grew a life with her while juggling his double-life as Spider-Man. Andrew Garfield’s vigilantism took a darker, more violent turn after he failed to save Gwen Stacey in his last movie.
But the important thing to take away from both of these Peter’s monologues is their wealth of experience. It isn’t just their fates that we’re interested in: we’re invested in their words of wisdom and what they can pass on to Tom Holland’s Peter during his time of need. I love the fact that some of my favorite moments in this movie aren’t high-stakes action of fight sequences: they’re character-building moments between the three different Spider-Men. Their dialogue and chemistry with each other just feels so natural, like three brothers meeting up together after a long time apart.
It really demonstrates that each of these actors brought something unique and distinct to their respective portrayals of Spider-Man, and none of them have deserved the animosity they’ve received from Spider-Man fans over the years. They’re all special in their own ways, and I hope No Way Home finally helps fans realize that.
I also really like that despite each of these actors having their own moment in the film, neither Tobey or Andrew steal the spotlight from Tom Holland’s Spider-Man. This is, after all, still his movie, and it is his arc that we’re invested in. Tobey and Andrew are more like mentors to Tom Holland, and they fit perfectly as the most important supporting cast members in the movie.
The three Spider-Men collaborate to cure the remaining villains as they set a trap on the Statue of Liberty. Electro, Sandman, and Lizard appear as the three Spider-Men duke it out against their respective villains. Sandman and Lizard are both turned back into their normal human selves, Doc Ock shows up and helps the remaining Spider-Men cure Electro, and the two Peters share a heart-to-heart with the villains, telling them that they never wanted them to die and only ever wanted to help them. Andrew Garfield even experienced a full-circle moment saving MJ from a fatal fall, redeeming himself from his failures in Amazing Spider-Man 2.
Then Green Goblin shows up again and nearly ruins everything. He blows up the box that Strange used to contain the spell, allowing the multiverse to break open and have an infinite number of Spider-villains pour into their universe. Tom Holland’s Spider-Man and Goblin fight again at the base of the statue, brutally trading punches as they’re committed to killing each other. Tom’s Spider-Man ends up webbing Goblin in place as he lands one blow after another, then in a fit of rage, picks up the Goblin’s glider, ready to end his life.
Only he doesn’t kill him. As he brings down the glider, Tobey’s Peter jumps in the way and stops Tom’s Peter from landing the killing blow. As they struggle against each other for a moment, Tom slowly eases himself and sets the glider down, only for Goblin to stab Tobey in the back at the last second.
This is yet another great full-circle moment that speaks to the hearts of these characters. Tom’s Peter is still in a state of grieving, and in a moment of weakness, gives in to his hate to try and kill his greatest foe. Tobey’s Peter steps in to stop him, giving him this piercing, firm gaze that tells Tom’s Peter that he has to be better than this. And in a throwback moment to the very first Spider-Man, Goblin stabs Tobey’s Peter in the back, something he tried to do the last time they faced off. It shows in a very powerful moment that not only is doing the right thing sometimes hard to do: in many ways, it can also backfire on you in very personal ways. But taking the right path is often not the same thing as taking the easiest path: that’s what makes taking it so virtuous and noble.
Andrew throws Tom the anti-Goblin serum and they succeed in injecting it, effectively killing the Goblin while still saving Norman’s life. But the Goblin’s damage has already been done, and the villains are beginning to pour into their universe. So Peter does the only thing he can do: he asks Doctor Strange to make everybody forget Peter Parker ever existed. By doing this, he sends both of the Spider-Men home, the villains go back to their respective universes, and the multiverse is saved from collapsing.
But in the same stroke, both MJ and Ned forget everything they ever experienced with Peter, and the following montage is probably the most tragic moment out of the whole picture. Because you see Peter approaching the coffee shop MJ is working at, rehearsing his lines, ready to reconnect with them after they’ve lost all memory of him. But when he sees that she has a cut on her forehead from his battle on the Statue of Liberty, he forgets the whole plan and walks away. Loving her has only put MJ in harms way every time he suits up as Spider-Man. If keeping her out of his life means she’s safe, that’s a small price to pay for Peter: even if it means he ends up all alone.
This is what I love most about this movie, and really what most of these Spider-Man movies have been missing since the original Sam Raimi films. More than any other movie in the Homecoming trilogy, more than most other movies in the MCU, Spider-Man: No Way Home shows the sacrifice that comes with being a hero. In Spider-Man: Homecoming, Spider-Man was having fun web-zipping around the city as an excitable teenager, while in Spider-Man: Far From Home he needed to step up and stand on his own as the world wrestled with its mightiest heroes being gone. No Way Home is the first movie in Tom Holland’s trilogy where it shows the true cost of being Spider-Man. Aunt May said it best in Spider-Man 2 where she says that sometimes being a hero means giving up the thing we want the most: even our dreams.
There are some things that don’t work quite as well in the movie. For instance, Sandman and Electro’s costume designs aren’t as interesting alongside their supervillain counterparts, with Thomas Hayden Church looking like a literal CGI sand man while Electro looks as generic as an electrical worker. Some of the movie’s multiversal logic also doesn’t hold up that well, especially when you begin to question when these villains specifically got pulled from their universes. Because if they got pulled moments before their deaths, then Peter’s actions in this movie could end up meaning nothing anyway.
There was also a post-credits scene involving Tom Hardy’s Venom that was just straight up DUMB, and I do mean it with the all caps. Here was Venom: Let There Be Carnage, teasing Venom’s appearance in No Way Home and what it could mean for Venom in the MCU. Then not only does the movie decide not to use him at any capacity: they decide to send him back without any further interaction. If you weren’t going to use him in the movie, then what on Earth was the point to teasing him in Venom: Let There Be Carnage? Couldn’t you have just cut both credit scenes from those movies, shave down the run time, and save the audience the frustration?
Aside from those irritations, Spider-Man: No Way Home shows Peter at his most human: his most flawed, fallible, and vulnerable. By the end of the movie, Peter gives up everything he cares about most: his Aunt May, his best friend, his true love, even his literal identity. Yet he gives it all up anyway just to do the right thing. Because at the end of the day, that’s what being Spider-Man is all about. It’s not about the webs, the cool Stark suits, the wall-crawling or the amazing adventures. It’s about wielding great power, and bearing the responsibility and the sacrifice that comes with it.
– David Dunn