'Spider-Man: No Way Home' Works Better Than It Has Any Right To

But there are still some hiccups in this overstuffed Spidey adventure.

spider-man: no way home, zendaya, tom holland
Sony Pictures
Sony Pictures

Over the past 20 years—even as we've cycled through multiple Batmans and X-Men—it feels somehow more baffling that three different men have played Peter Parker. Just five short years after Tobey Maguire finished his run, Andrew Garfield took over as Sony attempted to reboot the character for an only slightly new generation. (This time: He skateboards!) Then, two years after Garfield's last swing, Tom Holland came in.

Spider-Man has a unique sway over the cultural imagination: Casting a new Peter is akin to a coronation for a young (white) movie star. The debate rages as to who did the job best and which movie is the most successful. (It's Spider-Man 2, duh.) Despite Sony and Marvel's attempt to deflect spoilers, at this point it's no secret that Spider-Man: No Way Home, the latest adventure for Holland, trades on the memory of the previous Spider-iterations, a risky gamble that could easily be lame or confusing or both.

Spider-Man: No Way Home works better than it has any right to, but it also asks for emotional beats that fall short and seems to lose the thread on what made Holland's iteration of this character charming. Does it matter? In the grand scheme of things, probably not. Spider-Man: No Way Home is a goliath that feels destined to eat the world, a potent combination of the ongoing Marvel Cinematic Universe and nostalgia for what came before.

No Way Home, directed once again by Jon Watts, picks up exactly where the post-credits scene for Holland's previous outing, Far From Home, left off. Jake Gyllenhaal's villain Mysterio has leaked Peter's name to The Daily Bugle's J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons), now an Alex Jones type. The ensuing controversy puts Peter and his pals—his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), girlfriend MJ (Zendaya), and best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon)—at the center of a media frenzy, which is stressful but manageable until it gets in the way of being accepted to their dream college, MIT. After they all get rejection letters, Peter tries to help them by asking Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) for a spell that will make the world forget Peter Parker is Spider-Man. But that scheme goes awry when Peter realizes he doesn't want everyone to forget he's Spider-Man, especially not the girl he's kissing. The botched magic then opens up a portal to the multiverse, allowing everyone who has ever known that any Peter Parker is Spider-Man to enter the one occupied by Holland's Peter.

It's here where writing about the movie gets tricky. From the promos, you probably already know this means that Alfred Molina's Doc Ock from Spider-Man 2 is there, as is Jamie Foxx's Electro from The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Thomas Haden Church's Sandman from Spider-Man 3, and Willem Dafoe's Green Goblin from director Sam Raimi's 2002 Spider-Man. These actors—especially Dafoe, Molina, and Foxx—have great fun slipping into, or in Foxx's case revising, their performances from earlier movies, and the script, in these moments, is a delightfully winky mash-up of inside jokes for Spider-obsessives.

The Holland era of Parker has been defined by an overwhelming sense of goofy fun. If Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy utilized his background in horror to make the bad guys pop off the screen, and the Marc Webb Amazing Spider-Man go-round refashioned Peter Parker as a young-adult hero in the age of Twilight fanaticism, Watts rooted Holland's characterization in high school antics. No Way Home takes Holland largely out of that context but is still best when it's playing in the realm of comedy. This is true even after the movie's Big Life-Changing Moment, which, like much of the actual plot, requires a couple of logical leaps to accept. (In fact, you'll work yourself into a frenzy trying to untangle the questions of why much of what happens in No Way Home happens, so it's better just to say that the answer is "magic" and leave it at that. Its concept of the multiverse also suffers immensely in comparison to how it was pulled off in Sony's animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.) Holland struggles to connect in scenes of sorrow and anger, largely because he's not given any time or material to explore those feelings.

Where No Way Home is at its most giddily enjoyable is where it takes its biggest leap. I'm not supposed to say who this involves, but you can probably guess. The appearances are almost miraculously well-integrated, and the performances are seamless. And while it sometimes feels like you're watching something that's less a piece of cinema and more a sketch writ to the size of a giant screen, these scenes also capture something essential about why we keep coming back to this naive kid who gets bitten by a radioactive spider time and time again. He's rash and out of his depth and defined by his heartbreaks but also his wit. In No Way Home, he gets multiple opportunities to show that off.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.