de facto film reviews 3.5 stars

Not since The Force Awakens and Avengers: Endgame has Hollywood gone into such spoiler lockdown mode, and for good reason. Revealing anything beyond what’s featured in the marketing would not only come with the threat of being obliviated by the internet, but of the tightly-guarded rule of the folks over at Sony/Marvel. Hoping to bait the nostalgia-driven hearts of filmgoers that grew up with this franchise, Spider-Man: No Way Home uses the idea of a multiverse to its advantage with this emotionally vibrant, inspired celebration of the classic webslinger from Queens.

Picking up moments after the events of Far From Home, which found the villainous Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) to frame Peter Parker for his murder and leaking his identity to the world over. Now that Peter’s biggest secret is revealed, the lives of those closest to him, best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), girlfriend MJ (Zendaya), and Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) are thrown into an upheaval. Peter seeks the help of Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to use his time-warping abilities to make everyone forget he is Spider-Man. Strange’s spell instead opens up a portal to other universes, causing some familiar villainous faces to appear.

Director Jon Watts, helmer of the previous two Spidey films, still doesn’t have the panache for unique visuals, most of the CG set-pieces have a grey color palate and are plainly presented — the climactic set-piece is noticeably more drab in its presentation — but excels in his storytelling abilities. No Way Home has an epic, sweeping scale to its heroes journey, one that feels worthy of mentioning alongside recent big-screen epics Dune and Eternals. The ambitious narrative feels grand, but grounded in its emotional stakes. When No Way Home goes big, its a full-fledged, gargantuan superhero epic, but there’s also a strong emotional hook that grounds the film and make the bigger set-pieces feels even more exhilarating. When the very fabric of time and space is warped into oblivion, Watts keeps Peter’s intimate character growth fully dimensional and true to the classic character.

Tom Holland’s performance as Peter Parker/Spider-Man is the actor’s greatest showcase to date. Holland is given more physically and emotionally demanding work and brings a new sense of pathos to the role. His relationship with Zendaya’s MJ is deeply endearing and his rapport with Jacob Batalon has never been more infectious. The top-tier array of performances that come from the returning villains are a treat to witness. Alfred Molina, retuning as Dock Ock, hasn’t missed a beat despite having not played the character in over 15 years. Even if Dock Ock is misguidedly used as the butt of several jokes and the writing doesn’t always feel consistent with his portrayal in Raimi’s film. Jamie Foxx gets to redeem himself in a more tweaked version of Electro, this time without the blue look and more comics-accurate appearance. Reveling the most in their return is Willem Dafoe as Norman Osbourne/Green Goblin. Avoiding specifics, Dafoe gets to add new layers to the character in which Dafoe commits wholeheartedly.

No Way Home has its heart set on celebrating the very nature of the character, and using built-in fan service is a clever way of doing so. For those of us that grew up on seeing Willem Dafoe’s transformation into the Green Goblin, or Alfred Molina’s tragic descent into becoming Dock Ock will be rewarded not just through cheap callbacks, but of the emotional fulfillment Watts and screenwriters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers give these characters. There’s an abundance of surprises in store in No Way Home, some that will have fans think they’re dreaming and practically all of which are earned and never feels pandered to — ahem, looking at you, Ghostbusters: Afterlife.

In hindsight, particular plot elements may seem calculated, but it rarely feels that way on-screen. There’s an inspired creativity in the direction Watts takes Peter’s journey and the unpredictability that’s in store gives the spectacular final reel a palpable sense of urgency. The filmmakers seemed to have learned from the team behind Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse that digging into the heart of the character gives the most emotionally vibrant results.

Despite all the surprises that will inevitably make the splashiest headlines and will, no doubt, give some much-welcomed inspiration to a new generation of fans, what brings Spider-Man: No Way Home back down to earth is the thoughtful, dare I say, melancholic, finale that manages to give some finality to a genre that’s built on peaking audiences interest in what’s coming up around the corner. While there are two post credits scenes that exist to do just that, its the arc of Spider-Man and the responsibility that comes with the mantle that resonates the longest.

Spider-Man: No Way Home is a stirring superhero epic that celebrates the classic webslinger in spectacularly ambitious fashion. Jon Watts crafts his best Spider-Man film to date in not only the best live-action Spidey film since Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, but among the more emotionally resonant pieces of the genre.