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Review: Spider-Man: No Way Home is the best superhero film of the year

MJ and Peter Parker, dropping in one more time.
Enlarge / MJ and Peter Parker, dropping in one more time.

Sony Pictures / Marvel Studios

My latest challenge: after seeing Spider-Man: No Way Home, the third Tom Holland live-action film in the series, I’m befuddled. How do I fully convey its quality without spoiling even a smidge of its contents? As I left the theater, I found myself giddily talking aloud about the film, recounting its delightful surprises. It might have been enough to earn a slap from a spoiler-averse passer-by.

Tricky as it may be to convey the film’s charm, laughs, excitement, and tear-worthy heart without revealing its twists, I’ll do my best to keep most of No Way Home‘s surprises as hidden as Peter Parker’s identity, while calling it out as a must-see superhero film.

Something really wacky happens (shocker)

I don't think it's a spoiler to confirm that at least one familiar Marvel Studios character appears in <em>No Way Home</em>.
Enlarge / I don’t think it’s a spoiler to confirm that at least one familiar Marvel Studios character appears in No Way Home.

Sony Pictures / Marvel Studios

That simile may make you sweat a bit, however, if you’ve been following the Holland series that kicked off with Spider-Man: Homecoming in 2017. Its 2019 sequel ended with an NYC-rocking reveal of who’s been hiding beneath Spider-Man’s mask, and NWH picks up at this exact point in time, with Parker (Tom Holland) and his girlfriend MJ (Zendaya) escaping an alarmed, newly informed mob via frantic web-swinging.

Exactly what happens from there? Yes, I’ll keep the film’s biggest twists unmasked, I swear. Allow me to synthesize what’s been shown in trailers thus far without actually describing those advertisements at length: calamity ensues. Dr. Strange shows up. Something really wacky happens in the city. It involves a few familiar faces—though to be clear, those faces are familiar to real-world moviegoers, not Spidey. He has to save the day—and gets some out-of-nowhere help.

There <em>might</em> be a spoiler in Spidey's claws' reflections. Don't look too closely if you want to be safe.
Enlarge / There might be a spoiler in Spidey’s claws’ reflections. Don’t look too closely if you want to be safe.

Sony Pictures / Marvel Studios

Depending on what trailer or magazine spread you’ve seen during the film’s promotional run, you may have pieced together at least one or two of the film’s surprises. Unless you’ve dug into the most spoiler-filled corners of the Internet, however, you’ll likely still be in decent shape. (I’ve gone back to some of the rumors and plot claims that made the online rounds a few months ago. If you happened to peek at those, I can assure you they were not exactly accurate—and are kind of hilarious in light of how the film actually turns out.)

A friend triangle that anyone can love

Mild-mannered basement diving, made all the more fun by these actors' electric bond.
Enlarge / Mild-mannered basement diving, made all the more fun by these actors’ electric bond.

Sony Pictures / Marvel Studios

I can still describe some of the fun and charm of NWH without giving away its laugh-worthy twists, especially since it’s not a spoiler to point to the core triangle relationship that anchors the film: Peter, MJ, and best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon). 2019’s Far From Home meandered with a jealousy subplot that disrupted the trio’s chemistry. Here, Parker’s revealed identity immediately catalyzes the friends’ bond, though it ultimately favors the development of the boyfriend-girlfriend duo. The film deftly shows each half of the dating couple reaching out to the other in loving ways that make the other aspire to more positivity and cooperation, without in any way slowing down the momentum of where the plot is heading—and Ned plays into this with Batalon’s consistently hilarious timing and delivery.

As far as adult figures go, Marisa Tomei easily turns in her best performance as the series’ Aunt May, as she continues to buck the one-dimensional support archetype that motherly characters get in superhero films. Her blunt, no-nonsense approach moves in surprisingly touching directions, and it’s a good counterweight to Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) as a new version of the “doubtful overseer” role that Robert Downey Jr. offered in 2017’s Homecoming. In squaring off as adversarial allies, Strange and Parker become an otherworldly Abbott and Costello, and each superhero actor digs his heels in to push that tension-filled relationship to interesting places. (Sadly, their initial bond in the film is an eyeroll-worthy plot Macguffin, though thankfully, its utter lack of logic is saved by the touching places it leads Parker by film’s end.)

And then there are… other actors. Other actors are in this film. Some of them are humdrum. Some are convincingly and surprisingly savage. And some get into conversational and slapstick hijinks that had me laughing harder than any moment in a film in 2021. NWH somehow maintains its plot momentum while connecting the dots for anyone who is unfamiliar with the characters in question or has forgotten them. That’s massive praise, considering how many characters the film is juggling by the end—approaching the excess of an average Avengers film—and it rarely feels like it’s wasting viewers’ time or indulging any actors’ egos to keep them on screen for too long.

Goes many directions without suffering an identity crisis

Spider-Man goes out of his body in this film, in more ways than one.
Enlarge / Spider-Man goes out of his body in this film, in more ways than one.

Sony Pictures / Marvel Studios

In fact, by the end of the film, I had to flip through my notes to remember the other characters who had shown up, offered amusing amounts of conflict or comedy, then stepped out of the way. (One great example is Jon Favreau, who offers yet another killer Marvel Studios turn as the scene-stealing Happy—and it’s a much better role for him than the mentor he played in Far From Home.) NWH employs its varied cast to make each film sequence feel unique, like something out of a carefully constructed crossover comic book series. Humor, heartbreak, drama, CGI-filled bombast, tightly zoomed real-life anguish, comebacks, and failures somehow fit into the same production without feeling discordant or inappropriate to the story being told.

That story, I should emphasize, relishes its willingness to sacrifice any piece of the modern live-action Spiderverse. Many of the major characters get pushed to their limits by way of serious stakes, and Holland and Zendaya in particular nail their performances to make those stakes-filled moments worth investing in. Impressive, unique action sequences mostly overpowered any Marvel Studios CGI-battle fatigue, but the film’s 2-hour, 10-minute runtime whizzed by less because of exciting action and more because of where the story took the main characters—and how the actors’ charismatic performances shepherded the plot enough to be believable.

Everything I loved about 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming, and everything that its sequel fumbled, is back and even better this time around. This is how you clinch a superhero storyline, and its biggest successes should wake up every media exec who might be holding back similar, surprise-filled movie possibilities.

Verdict: Avoid spoilers as much as you can before you see Marvel Studios’ best film of 2021.

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