The balance between innovation and homage is a difficult one to strike. This is especially so when dealing with established and beloved properties. Spider-Man: No Way Home takes on the formidable task of balancing the demands of a standalone film, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), and the wider presence of Spider-Man in cinema and popular culture. It is safe to say that the result is a triumphant success, as director Jon Watts, writers Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, producer Kevin Feige, a talented cast and a throng of crew deliver across their various areas.
Considered as a standalone narrative with its own concerns, Spider-Man: No Way Home explores identity, (great) power and (great) responsibility, as well as one’s place in the world. The last of these proves the most significant, as Spider-Man/Peter Parker (Tom Holland, “The Lost City of Z”) must establish his place as a teenager (referred to by Dr. Strange as “just a kid”), a post-Avengers superhero, and someone who finds themselves literally at the epicenter of a multiverse-quake. Despite these quantum-level implications, the stakes of the film remain pleasingly human, making the film more intimate and personal than the “Infinity Saga” as well as the recent “Eternals” and “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.” Peter’s concerns are his own life, his relationships, his future and those closest to him, most prominently MJ (Zendaya, “Dune: Part One”), Ned (Jacob Batalon, “Spider-Man: Far From Home”) and May (Marisa Tomei, “The First Purge”). This concern for the human allows for audience investment in Peter’s plight and Spider-Man’s peril. The emotional moments therefore hit hard, ranging from punch the air moments of sheer joy as well as some crushing sadness — two instances in particular are likely to induce tears.
Within the wider franchise, this is only passingly an MCU film, with references to the Avengers and their exploits, as well as the presence of Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, “The Courier”), Wong (Benedict Wong, “Annihilation”) and the ever-dependable Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau, “Solo: A Star Wars Story”). While there is a mid-credits scene, this is largely detached from the overall narrative while the post-credits scene is a trailer for a forthcoming film. Within the narrative, we never actually leave New York, which continues to serve as an evocative environment both welcoming and threatening.
Speaking of threats, these come from the wider Spider-Verse, as in some ways Spider-Man: No Way Home is a live action equivalent of the animated “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” This is most apparent from the appearances of past villains. Teased in the marketing, the appearances of Dr. Otto Octavius/Doc Ock (Alfred Molina, “Little Men”), Norman Osborn/Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe, “The Lighthouse”), Max Dillon/Electro (Jamie Foxx, “Robin Hood”) and more run the risk of being pure fan service. However, all these elements are beautifully balanced. Fan service is much maligned and can seriously hamper a film, as demonstrated by the recent “Ghostbusters: Afterlife,” but in this case, the fan service works as organic parts of the overall narrative.
The different elements of the film work so well together not least because, perhaps surprisingly, the film takes its time. Excessive length is a criticism often made of blockbusters and Marvel films are no exception. “The Avengers” and “Avengers: Age of Ultron” arguably have too much squeezed into their narratives, while “Eternals” may feel overstretched. “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Avengers: Endgame” justify their length with multiple characters and plotlines, but at 148 minutes, Spider-Man: No Way Home might seem too long. However, this length is used to give space and time to character and relationship development. Long discussions between Peter, MJ and Ned, as well as Strange, May and Happy, allow the characters and indeed the actors to breathe. Tom Holland has been an engaging Spider-Man since swinging into action in “Captain America: Civil War,” and here he beautifully displays Peter’s transition from naivety to growing resolve and eventual anger. As MJ, Zendaya brings the right level of snark that never spills over into smarm. Batalon’s Ned goes beyond the sidekick “guy in the chair” role and also displays some previously unknown talents. The central trio’s scenes are a delight due to the genuine warmth and humor between them, scenes that are sometimes allowed to play longer than strictly necessary for the plot.
To balance out the obscenely talented “kids,” the older characters are also explored in depth, especially in the interchanges between Peter and his various antagonists. Again surprisingly, these iconic figures are permitted emotion and regret, becoming more than cackling villains — although they do not let us forget the power of a good cackle (yes, Willem Dafoe, that means you). This allowance of time and space also extends to the style, especially in a bravura long take in the first act when Watts’ camera tracks around Peter and May’s apartment, as various people arrive, arguments begin and continue, and major truths are revealed. In a spectacular action sequence, Spider-Man battles with Doctor Strange in the mirror dimension, easily matching the vertiginous yet coherent grandeur of 2016’s “Doctor Strange.” Further set pieces are also exhilarating, especially the trademark sequences of Spider-Man swinging through the city as well as the climactic battle. These sequences pull the viewer into Spidey’s world as much as the miscast spell draws in unexpected visitors, and part of the fun is anticipating who will turn up.
This anticipation proves to be hugely significant in terms of the film’s relationship with its audience. Various screenings across the world, including the one attended by this critic, have resulted in spontaneous applause, whoops and cheers from cinema audiences. This remarkable audience behavior speaks to the pleasure that the film invites, a pleasure that never feels like pandering or fan service for the sake of fan service. Rather, the pleasures of the audience are integrated into the film’s functions and one character says “I love you guys” it almost feels like the film is speaking directly to its audience. The balance of these different and potentially self-indulgent aspects is an impressive feat, and places Spider-Man: No Way Home in the top tier of the MCU, among the best of the Spider-Man films, and one of 2021’s strongest blockbusters.