Tom Holland’s third solo outing as Marvel’s Spider-man is a typically slick and enjoyable piece of blockbuster fun which throws plenty of super-powered red meat to hardcore fans and offers sufficient popcorn entertainment to a general audience.
Picking up directly from the end of the previous adventure, 2019’s Spider-Man: Far From Home, which ended with the teenage Spider-man having his secret identity as high school student Peter Parker being exposed to the general public by the media.
This has a dire impact on the lives of his girlfriend MJ and his best friend Ned, a pair once more played with believable camaraderie by Zendaya and Jacob Batalon. And in time-honoured fashion Spider-man has to make a decision which will affect the lives of all those he loves in order to save the world.
In desperation Peter Parker asks Benedict Benedict Cumberbatch’s wizard, Dr Strange, to cast a spell to make everyone forget Peter Parker, and for a moment veers towards being a web-spinning riff on Jimmy Stewart’s festive classic, It’s A Wonderful Life, or a lycra-clad version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
But as a rogues gallery of super-villains appears from Spider-films of Christmas past this feels as if its a live-action remake of 2018’s deliriously brilliant and Oscar winning Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, a film often directly and obliquely referenced.
But No Way Home lacks Spider-Verse’s dazzling ambitious visual virtuosity, and the CGI in the frenetic action sequences is mostly of a standard rather than an eye-popping quality, and the climactic threat is surprisingly undeveloped and ill-defined.
Produced by Sony in association with rival studio Disney who own the rights to Marvel’s other Avengers, No Way Home makes a virtue of its ability to extract every lucrative drop of creative blood from the spider-stone, as well as definitively placing various previous Marvel properties within the MCU, which would seem to be No Way Home’s raison d’être.
But lip service only is paid to pitting the fatalism of Dr Strange against the optimism of Spider-man, and the script almost immediately shies away from discussing any of the interesting ideas it flags up, preferring to rattling along in a shower of meme-able moments and fan-pleasing cameos.
The late Marvel supreme Stan Lee would no doubt have approved of the treatment of diseased immigrants pointedly arriving at the Statue of Liberty and the ahem, stark choice offered to our heroes is to ‘kill or cure’ them.
But the film takes this pressing real world political issue, condenses it to a soundbite and then cracks wise about it, as if it’s embarrassed about having let the real world intrude on Hollywood. I’m not sure why, as every other world seems to be invading at this point.
The perils of instant celebrity is a perfect topic for this films target audience that’s also quickly discarded. Instead of a debate we’re given J. Jonah Jameson, the former editor of the tabloid newspaper The Daily Bugle, who’s now reduced to a clickbait-chasing and hate-spouting online anger merchant. Jameson is played by J. K. Simmons whose energetically aggressive performance, Jameson is a one-joke bogey-man in a film which really doesn’t need another one.
Holland remains an engaging screen presence and shares a palpable on-screen chemistry with co-star and real-life partner, Zendaya, a situation which adds a further depth to a story filled with self-aware jokes, multiple universes and duplicate characters.
With her deft talent and burning charisma Zendaya proves once again she’s the MVP of this Spider-verse, which is quite the thing in the company of Jamie Foxx, Benedict Wong, and Alfred Molina.
However MJ spends most of her time as half of a comic duo with Ned and therefore duplicating each other’s contribution to the plot. Were it not for MJ offering a path to redemption for a side character, MJ’s value would be more or less reduced to ‘love interest’, a shameful waste of Zendaya’s talent.
If Zendaya doesn’t get to play a spider-powered hero at some point it will be a huge injustice, not least as so many other actors seem to be getting a turn. How telling is it of Marvel’s priorities Ned is offered a glimpse of future character development and MJ isn’t?
Elsewhere Marisa Tomei as Peter’s Aunt May gets a more substantial role than merely being asked to to flirt with Jon Favreau’s ‘Happy’ Hogan, Peter Parker’s surrogate dad.
Holland’s third stand alone adventure as Spider-man means the actor has racked up one more film than previous web-slinger Andrew Garfield, and as many as Tobey Maguire, the Spider-man before him. At one point we’re told Spider-Man is seventeen years old, an age which even the ever-youthful Holland is now struggle to convince at playing.
If it wasn’t for Holland’s undeniable and understandable popularity, one might fear for his future in the role, especially as this ends with another great reset of the status quo, allowing considerable wriggle room should anyone’s future salary demands are deemed excessive.
Nevertheless, fans will lap up No Way Home which is at times highly enjoyable and by degrees funny, action-packed and heartfelt, and I doubt any casual cinema goers will feel short-changed.