NOTE: This is a spoiler-filled review. Read at your own discretion!
I’m not a huge Marvel guy. Whenever I review or watch a Marvel movie, I come in with an outsider’s perspective. Sure, I saw Endgame and Infinity War in the theater, but the series doesn’t capture my imagination the same way that, say, Star Wars does. My favorite two installments in the franchise, Black Panther and Shang-Chi, are notable for their departure from the familiar Marvel formula.
All of that being said, there’s one hero that’s an exception for me — Spider-Man. I grew up watching Spider-Man cartoons and playing Spider-Man LeapPad games, and I can still remember devouring a Green Goblin popsicle outside in kindergarten after the release of Spider-Man 3. At the age when most people my age started circling Marvel release dates on their calendars, I discovered re-runs of the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man trilogy and reveled in the CGI of Andrew Garfield’s Amazing Spiderman movies. Those movies had everything I could have asked for, from thrilling action sequences to iconic bad guys to meme-worthy quips. Discounting the Incredibles (for obvious reasons), Spidey is my guy, the centerpiece of classic movies and an incredibly fun superhero to watch in action.
So when Spider-Man: No Way Home, the third Marvel Spider-Man movie, was nearing its release in theaters, I was shaking with anticipation. Five of the villains from the Sony films — with their original castings — were confirmed and rumors swirled of more actors from the past movies making their way on screen.
I’ll say this first — Spider-Man: No Way Home lived up to the hype. It also gave me one of the most unique movie experiences I’ve ever had, and I can’t review it as much as I can unpack why it meant so much to me. The plot and action were fantastic, yes, but No Way Home’s use of nostalgia made it more than a movie. I’ll break it down here:
The context of No Way Home is crucial here. The hype train grew out of control with rumors of character appearances from the first two Spider-Man franchises into the Marvel one, including Alfred Molina’s Doctor Octopus and Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin. The trailer confirmed both, the first of many jaw-dropping moments. The Marvel trilogy’s leading duo, Tom Holland’s Peter Parker and Zendaya’s MJ, also made headlines for their ~ off-screen chemistry ~, which added a dimension of believability to their on-screen relationship.
But the major tease was the rumors of Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield back on-screen as Spider-Men from different universes, something the studio made a point of shutting down while fans theorized about how it could come about. What would it mean to have Maguire and Garfield back? For Spider-Man fans, it would mean everything — all three live action Spider-Man actors sharing a screen despite the real-life setbacks that prematurely ended the first two guys’ times in the suit and recognition of these seismic eras of superhero films. But such a maneuver had never been done, and integrating the villains already seemed like the limit of the filmmakers’ ambitions.
Spoiler-alert: Maguire and Garfield made the jump to Marvel, introduced in a scene with Peter’s friend Ned through portals between different universes. When Ned opened the first portal and Garfield’s Spider-Man came through and took off his mask, the theater erupted in cheers. I sat up and clapped as hard as I could, unable to fathom seeing Garfield on screen again. And Garfield’s Spider-Man seemed almost exactly true to form, from his obvious intellect to his charmingly awkward speech. It was the ultimate validation of a dream.
Of course, Garfield’s appearance made me clamor for his predecessor, Tobey Maguire. While I loved Garfield’s performance and was geeked to see him on screen, Maguire is a national treasure. He’s the OG Spiderman and the web-slinger in my favorite Spider-Man movie, 2004’s Spider-Man 2, along with the one that started it all, 2001’s Spider-Man. He wasn’t my favorite — I always thought he was too pathetic and untrustworthy to fully get behind (at times like the Joe Flacco of the Spider-Man trilogy) — but he certainly had his moments and would have the nostalgia factor in his favor. Yet he’d also been off the Hollywood radar for years, and it was understandable to me that Garfield might be the only one.
And then the second portal opened up and there, in all his glory, was Tobey Maguire as a middle-age Peter Parker. The theater went nuts again, including my brother Nate right next to me, and I fist-pumped and whispered “let’s goooo.” Maguire’s appearance seemed out of a YouTube green screen edit, yet his character was a perfect recreation.
The reappearance of those two Spider-Men took the movie from being my favorite of the Tom Holland movies to being a movie so awesome that it left me in shock — tense muscles and all — afterward. I wasn’t experiencing this movie at all like a typical film, watching as the plot unfolded and assessing its cinematic qualities. Instead, I was transfixed at watching these two guys, who had already been cast aside as never being Spider-Man again, sharing conversations and working together. It was the fan service to end all fan service, and made No Way Home the ultimate nostalgia trip while not sacrificing the film’s plot to make room.
The other aspect of the experience that was unique to No Way Home was the theater’s interaction with the movie. I booked my tickets weeks in advance for the Thursday opening night, and the ticket was worth the price of admission by a long shot. All theater etiquette was thrown out the window when the villains started fighting Holland’s Spider-Man in the opening act, and by the time Garfield and Maguire stopped by, the theater was louder than the Michigan football game I attended a couple months earlier. Seeing all of my dreams for the character come to life on the big screen — and having that character be my favorite superhero — was priceless.
Balancing the villains
I came in cautious that Garfield and Maguire wouldn’t be in the movie, and just having the original villains there was enough of an appeal to convince me to buy my tickets in advance. But those introductions were a two-sided coin. Both finales of the previous Spider-Men franchises culminated in disaster, done in by the same mistake — too many villains in the spotlight. And those had three — this one aimed to bring in five of them!
No Way Home ended up successful in this central tenet to superhero films for a couple different reasons. For one, it featured the two best villains in not only Spider-Man’s universe, but two of the top in the history of superhero films: Doctor Octopus and Green Goblin. Like Spidey’s web-slinging style, each has a physical allure to their character — Doc Ock’s mechanical arms and Green Goblin’s menacing hoverboard thing — that amplifies the action sequences. Each villain proved himself by being in a great Spider-Man movie previously, and with the actors reprising their roles (a couple decades later, too), their appearances harkened back to those fantastic movies. And along with Spider-Man, those two were prominent villains in the Spider-Man content I enjoyed as a kid.
Alfred Molina and Willem Dafoe knocked their performances out of the park and made what could have been a gimmicky premise — Peter trying to fix each villain’s evil qualities through technology — into an engaging one and a story that highlighted Peter’s core beliefs. I lost my cool in the theater when each tapped into their meme backgrounds to say their famous lines once more — “the power of the sun in the palm of my hand” and “I’m something of a scientist myself” — and each still seemed fully present in this movie rather than a shell of their former selves. While Electro, Sandman and Lizard weren’t quite as captivating, I enjoyed seeing their previous actors reprise their roles and give Spider-Man’s heroic task some real stakes. Bottom line — great superhero movies are made by great villains, and the villains in this one give No Way Home a huge boost.
Can a movie so steeped in nostalgia and the past shine as its own movie? No Way Home proved it can, and that when done right, these extensions of previous storylines can mean everything to a fan of a franchise. Maguire and Garfield didn’t only appear; they were impactful and major parts of the movie as allies of Holland’s Peter Parker. Their appearances also changed the way I viewed their respective movies, as both come from a time well after we last saw them in their franchises (making No Way Home effectively a sequel in those series). Above all, director Jon Watts used all three to highlight what made each Spider-Man movie and character lovable and wasn’t afraid to spend time building and developing each classic movie further. The magnitude of that task can’t be understated.
Given Disney’s role as the company behind both the Marvel and Star Wars brands, I deeply hope that the makers behind the Kenobi show are taking notes in how to bring back fan favorites in a craftful way. Seeing Spider-Man on screen is one thing, but to see the prequel trilogy actors back in action would have me breathless given how much those movies have impacted my childhood. Obi-Wan and Anakin are confirmed to have Ewan McGregor and Hayden Christensen returning for those roles, and while I hope the Kenobi show has backbone of its own, I’ll be clamoring for screen time with both characters just for the fun of it. Reviewers are always preaching moving forward and telling original stories instead of coming back to the old ones, but No Way Home provides a road map for giving fans content beyond their wildest dreams.
My last major point on why No Way Home works is that the story works independent of the flashy elements of the villains and three Spideys. It’s a classic Empire Strikes Back-esque sequel, one that absolutely crushes its protagonist and makes it a victory for him to even survive to the end. Stories like that have real stakes, narratively and emotionally, and reveal so much about their respective characters.
Could Peter have returned each of the villains back to their respective movies at the beginning and saved himself a lot of trouble? Sure, but it’s not a plot hole that he didn’t. His desire to heal these villains — which does eventually happen — is strengthened by the fact that he could choose the easy way out the entire time, and then becomes so much more crushing when he finds the irreversible consequences of that decision. As much as I love Spider-Man 2 in its attempt to show the downsides of Maguire’s Peter Parker taking the mantle as Spider-Man, this movie sends that same message but exponentially harder, capped off by a final diner scene that leaves Peter all on his own. That sad note might be my only major gripe with the movie (and could be amended with a satisfying sequel), but it certainly shows that Watts and Marvel know how to make a character arc.
Where does it rank?
At the very top, in a tier only occupied previously by the Spider-Man 2 movie that pitted Maguire’s Peter Parker against Doctor Octopus. Interestingly, nostalgia for that movie is part of what made the experience of seeing No Way Home so special. The experience of seeing No Way Home was one of my favorite theater trips ever and topped seeing Spider-Man 2 on my DVR at home, but the 2004 flick owns the edge for right now. After that, I’d have Spider-Man: Homecoming, Into the Spiderverse and Spider-Man on the second tier, and the Amazing Spider-Man titles and Spider-Man three on the bottom rung.
But for the Marvel conversation? It’s my favorite Marvel movie, by far. As a Spider-Man enthusiast, I basked in this film’s obsession with this character and return to previous iterations. Maguire and Garfield gave, in my opinion, their best performances as their respective Peter Parkers and didn’t seem to be in a contest to be the definitive Spidey. And as a text that interacts with previous movies, No Way Home succeeds in making those films better. Combine that with the best villains of any Marvel movie and fantastic action sequences, and this one is — no hyperbole — a rout.
What’s next for Spider-Man?
I don’t know Marvel’s plans for the character or Tom Holland’s plans for his acting career, so I’ll just go off of my hope for Peter Parker. No Way Home is the ultimate meeting place of all three series and did each series right, and it wouldn’t be in the best interest of Marvel to try to recreate lightning in a bottle by running this premise back again. Here’s what I’d like to see, though:
– More Spider-Verse Movies. I know this is coming, with two sequels to Into the Spiderverse already on their way. The art and animation just fit this character so well, and Sony nailed the juggling of the multiverse concept in the first one.
– More Tobey and Andrew. Don’t stop now. Andrew Garfield has been the center of attention as a worthy Spider-Man, and incorporating him in a live action Spider-Verse or future Marvel movie in more of a cameo role should be a no-brainer. Tobey Maguire is a tougher chess piece to position, but his age actually works in his favor as an interesting examination of a mid-life Peter Parker. Asking for more is a bit of a Pandora’s Box proposition and could quickly become too much, but No Way Home’s usage of both gives me hope for more ovations for their contributions to the Spider-Man character and superhero storytelling.
–A fitting end to Tom Holland’s Peter Parker. No Way Home can’t be a send-off. It just can’t. I can’t see Tom Holland, my favorite Peter Parker, go out on an absolute bummer. This isn’t Batman in film noir, whacking henchmen in the dark of night. I love Spider-Man for the energy and joy he brings to the screen in all of his iterations, and I want to see the best one rewarded for his courage and swinging to even greater heights.
RIKER SCALE SCORE: 92 out of 100, 20th Overall