Spider-Man’s history on the big screen is almost as messy as his personal life. When Sam Raimi first brought the character to the big screen for Sony in 2002, he revolutionized the superhero genre with a movie that displayed brazen affection for its colorful source material. Before The Dark Knight captivated critics, 2004’s Spider-Man 2 stood at the peak of comic book filmmaking, a monument to the influence of men and women in spandex on popular culture that presaged the success Marvel would enjoy with the creation of its cinematic universe four years later. But in 2007, everything went wrong. Tarnished by studio meddling, Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 was a frustrating mixture of strong character ideas and cornball contrivances that alienated him from the franchise. In 2012, Sony attempted to reboot with The Amazing Spider-Man, but tepid reactions cut the studio’s plans for its own sprawling movie universe short after a single, woefully written sequel was produced. Spidey received a second reboot in 2017 at the hands of director Jon Watts, and has since headlined two further movies while co-starring in Marvel’s Avengers blockbusters.
This context matters, because Spider-Man: No Way Home can’t be understood without it. The web-head’s latest outing is an ineffably entertaining celebration of his cinematic lineage that pays tribute to all the films that preceded it while experimenting with wild new ideas. There are so many surprises in fact that it is challenging to even vaguely describe No Way Home without diminishing its power. In the final scene of its predecessor, Far From Home, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) was unmasked to the world by J. Jonah Jameson—played flawlessly by J.K. Simmons, who reprises the role from Raimi’s trilogy but is now more malicious than comedic. Traditionally a newspaper editor, Jameson has been reimagined as a supplement-hawking Alex Jones parody dedicated to ruining Peter’s life, complete with his own obnoxious talk show and Infowars-style media network. The revelation sends Peter scampering home with his girlfriend, MJ (Zendaya), in an opening sequence marked by a surprising and suitably frenetic musical accompaniment; the only time a pop song appears on the film’s soundtrack until the credits.
When Peter gets back to his apartment, it’s official: The world knows who he is and his life has been transformed. Briefly, at least. The implications of Spider-Man losing his secret identity for the first time on screen aren’t explored as extensively as one might expect, and a certain story thread is dropped altogether after a few intriguing scenes. But the personal challenges the setup creates for Peter, MJ, and friend Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalon) are convincing, and the interactions between them are written and performed effectively enough to avoid the infantile trappings of high school soap operas. After Peter’s newfound infamy deals a particularly crushing blow to the group, he desperately asks Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to cast a spell that will cause the world to forget who Spider-Man is. Predictably, things go horribly wrong. The spell backfires, causing the barriers between universes to fracture. Soon, villains from previous Spidey films begin appearing in Marvel’s newest reality.
To reveal any more from here would be shameful; No Way Home is best experienced with as little prior knowledge as possible. Over the last few months, careful marketing has driven hype and speculation around the movie into a frenzy, with rumors of returning characters growing uncontrollably. Many villains do indeed resurface, and some (Alfred Molina’s Doctor Octopus, Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin, and Jamie Foxx’s Electro) have already been revealed by teasers and press interviews. Among those three, Molina is clearly enjoying himself, and turns in a wonderfully haughty performance. Foxx is more subdued, but balances the flippant and sinister sides of his character convincingly, redeeming his role in the dismal Amazing Spider-Man 2. Dafoe, meanwhile, is simply phenomenal. Terrifying and vicious, he somehow manages to outdo his original portrayal of the megalomaniacal Goblin, and provides a perfect foil for Holland’s exceptionally well-rounded take on Peter Parker.