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The best of “Spider-Man: No Way Home”

The best of “Spider-Man: No Way Home” reminded me why I used to love comic books, especially the ones about a boy named Peter Parker. There was a playful unpredictability to them that has often felt was lacking from modern superhero movies in the way they feel so precisely calculated. Yes, of course, “No Way Home” is incredibly calculated, a way to make more headlines after killing off so many of its event characters in Phase 3, but it’s also a film that’s often bursting with creative joy.

Director Jon Watts and his team have delivered a true event movie, a double-sized crossover issue of a comic book that the young me would have waited in line to read first, excitedly turning every page with breathless anticipation of the next twist and turn. And yet they generally avoid getting weighed down by the expectations fans have for this film, somehow sidestepping the cluttered traps of other crowded part threes. “No Way Home” is crowded, but it’s also surprisingly spry, inventive, and just purely entertaining, leading to a final act that not only earns its emotions but pays off some of the ones you may have about this character that you forgot.

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“No Way Home” picks up immediately after the end of “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” with the sound of that film’s closing scene playing over the Marvel logo. Mysterio has revealed the identity of the man in the red tights, which means nothing will ever be the same for Peter Parker (Tom Holland). With an almost slapstick energy, “No Way Home” opens with a series of scenes about the pitfalls of super-fame, particularly how it impacts Peter’s girlfriend M.J. (Zendaya) and best bud Ned (Jacob Batalon). It reaches a peak when M.I.T. denies all three of them admission, citing the controversy about Peter’s identity and the roles his buddies played in his super-adventures.

Peter has a plan. The “wizard” he met when he saved half the population with The Avengers can cast a spell and make it all go away. So he asks Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to make the world forget that Spider-Man is Peter Parker, which, of course, immediately backfires. He doesn’t want M.J. or Ned or Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) to forget everything they’ve been through together, and so the spell gets derailed in the middle of it. Strange barely gets it under control. And then Doc Ock (Alfred Molina) and the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) show up.

As the previews have revealed, “Spider-Man: No Way Home” weaves characters and mythology from the other cinematic iterations of this character into the universe of the current one, but I’m happy to report that it’s more than a casting gimmick. My concern going in was that this would merely be a case of “Batman Forever” or even “Spider-Man 3,” where more was often the enemy of good. It’s not. The villains that return from the Sam Raimi and Marc Webb films don’t overcrowd the narrative as much as they speak to a theme that emerges in the film that ties this entire series back to the other ones. For a generation, the line about Spidey was “With great power comes great responsibility.” “Spider-Man: No Way Home” is about the modern Peter Parker learning what that means. (It also helps a great deal to have actors like Molina and Dafoe in villain roles again given how the lack of memorable villains has been a problem in the MCU.)

So many modern superhero movies have confronted what it means to be a superhero, but this is the first time it’s really been foregrounded in the current run of Peter Parker, which turns “No Way Home” into something of a graduation story. It’s the one in which Parker has to grow up and deal with not just the fame that comes with Spider-Man but how his decisions will have more impact than most kids planning to go to college. It asks some interesting questions about empathy as Peter is put in a position to basically try to save the men who tried to kill other multiverse iterations of him. And it playfully becomes a commentary on correcting mistakes of the past not just in the life of Holland’s Parker but those of characters (and even filmmakers) made long before he stepped into the role. “No way Home” is about the weight of heroic decisions. Even the right ones mean you may not be able to go home again.

Watts hasn’t gotten enough credit in his other two Spider-Man movies for his action and “No Way Home” should correct that. There are two major sequences—a stunner in a mirror dimension in which Spidey fights Strange, and the climactic one—but it’s also filled with expertly rendered minor action beats throughout. There’s a fluidity to the action here that’s underrated as Mauro Fiore’s camera swoops and dives with Spider-Man. And the big final showdown doesn’t succumb to the common over-done hollowness of MCU climaxes because it has undeniable emotional weight. I also want to note that Michael Giacchino’s score here is one of the best in the MCU, by far. It’s one of the only themes in the entire cinematic universe that feels heroic.

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