Picking up immediately after the events of 2019’s Spider-Man: Far From Home, our story begins up with Peter Parker (Tom Holland) having to deal both with the world knowing he is Spider-Man, but also with the widespread belief that he has murdered Mysterio. With a press and public melee accompanying his every move, he finds that simply knowing him is enough to put MIT off offering MJ (Zendaya) and Ned (Jacob Batalon) places on a degree course. In desperation, he visits Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and asks him to cast a spell to ensure everyone forgets that Peter Parker is Spider-Man.
With the spell not going quite to plan, the end result is that the MCU reality starts to get visitors from other realities who do know Peter is the webslinger. These include Green Goblin/Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe), the Sandman/Flint Marko (Thomas Haden-Church) and Doc Ock (Alfred Molina) from the Ram Raimi series, along with the Lizard/Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), and Electro/Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) from the Marc Webb films.
Aware of nothing up to the point before their deaths (more on that in a while), they are imprisoned in the Sanctum Sanctorum where they discuss events and come to realise they are from two different realities, and that they are destined to die at the hands of Spider-Man (again, more on that in a while). Peter realises that most of these men are simply damaged, in such a way that it may be possible to cure them, and return them back to their lives in their own realities. Can he trust these deeply unstable men as he works to cure them of their afflictions?
To start with the good news. It is fair to say that anyone who has ever had a regard for the character of Spider-Man, particularly in his big screen outings, will find much to enjoy here. Tom Holland remains a perfect choice for the character, and here he is fronting a film that is a big warm hug of nostalgia for fans. We get to see characters who have become iconic in the years since their first appearances, and everyone brings their A-games, reminding us why they were so well-regarded in the first place. MJ, Ned and Peter convince as lifelong friends, and we do care about the issues that afflict them in this story. Many will absolutely love this film.
The less positive news is that story logic has been completely damned in pursuit of lazy fan service. Our villains are pulled from their own universe at the point of death – except they didn’t all die, so the idea that it is their fate to die at the hands of Spider-Man is somewhat nonsense. If these are parallel realities, why are we getting elements appear from present day, along with characters from 2002, 2004, 2007, 2012 and 2014? Why does Doctor Strange risk the entire integrity of the universe for a school-kid’s secret identity?
The concept of a rush towards a greatest hits package has overwhelmed some of basic factors needed to make a story work. There are times in this film where you would honestly not be surprised if the characters paused to wink at the camera. There are some surprise cameos in this film, all of them distracting and immersion-breaking – suggesting once again that callbacks can be both enjoyable, yet toxic to a story.
In addition to this, the film is too long. Most scenes just linger a little too much: a death scene in the film is lingered on excessively, and meaningful looks between characters all go on far beyond the point the camera should be moving to something else. This and the excessive fan service brought a few films to mind, notably The Rise of Skywalker, where extant narrative arcs were abandoned in favour of a bunch of fetch quests and the plot tooled entirely to call back to the parts of the series fans loved most – logic and storytelling be damned. This is where we are now: pop culture eating itself in an endless round of self-reverence and callbacks. Even the Bond series can’t go two hours without whipping out a 60 year old car or using music from a 50 year-old film.
Spider-Man: No Way Home is a film that will draw love and nostalgia from millions. It is also an ideas-free mess of self-praise from a series of films that has yet to recover from the Avengers disbanding. The most enjoyable part of this film was a mid-credits sequence, itself sourced from a series of films that have yet, truly, to excel. That, in itself, is a problem. There is still far better to come from this incarnation of Spider-Man; it is, possibly, time for a change of director, though, and a clear mandate to make new memories, rather that simply to celebrate the old ones.
Spider-Man: No Way Home is out now at cinemas.