Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME
Rated PG-13, 2 hours and 28 minutes
Directed by: Jon Watts
SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME is a mixed bag. The crucial elements all land sufficiently; however, getting to those certain places feels like an exhaustive effort, especially when the weak spots are glaring. Still, superb surprises, most notably in the third act, bolster some of the more sluggish storytelling aspects. Equal parts fantastic and frustrating, this third film in director Jon Watts’ Spidey Series blends the franchise’s past and present elements into a sentimental mix.
Life for Peter Parker/ Spider-Man (Tom Holland) in this third chapter picks up right where it left off: with our beloved hero having been publicly unmasked and fingered in the death of shady Quentin Beck/ Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal). He’s struggling, cast as persona non grata except to his teachers, kind-hearted bestie Ned (Jacob Batalon), adorable girlfriend MJ (Zendaya) and annoying Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori), who’s commodified their faux friendship. The precarious new position Peter is placed in forces him and Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) to move to a safe house. Making matters worse is that this latest kerfluffle severely hampers the high school seniors’ plans to attend their dream college together.
Seeking damage control, Peter enlists the help of Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), who explicitly tells him not to tinker with time – but they could cast a forgetting spell that could potentially be the quick fix to his problem. However, when Peter tampers with the spell in progress, he inadvertently and unwittingly rips open a multiverse of threatening baddies – like Otto Octavius/ Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina), Norman Osborn/ Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) and Max Dillon/ Electro (Jamie Foxx), amongst others – allowing them to enter into Peter’s present universe. In order to right this wrong, he’s given the seemingly insurmountable task of putting things back in their place and helping his antagonists regain their humanity. But in the process, he discovers some bells can’t be un-rung.
This installment sets up big internal and external stakes for Peter dealing with the ripple effect of his actions, not only in terms of what he’s done as a superhero, but also as his everyday identity. Watts, along with screenwriters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, threads this through the themes, engaging meaningfully with the concepts of consequences, second chances and sacrifices. It carries weight and poignancy, specifically notable – and occasionally gutting – in the picture’s climax and denouement. The filmmakers don’t shy away from showing their hero’s impulsive behavior impacting others’ lives for both good and bad. His journey and maturation are satisfying. Plus, a few later cameos (ones I don’t dare spoil) are thoughtfully used to their greatest advantages, directly impacting the narrative and earning their keep.
That said, Watts struggles to find an effortless, water-tight pace that allows for gravitas to land properly. The film could desperately use another pass in the editing, from superfluous fan service within the narrative to the precise timing of the comedy and pathos – which is either belabored to the point of excess, or hobbled when cut too short. Tender moments, like when a character experiences a well-earned, long-standing catharsis, ache for a little more breathing room. Other touching moments, like when a devastating tragedy occurs, are stretched to the point of manipulation. It takes far too long for the dramatic fulcrum of Peter’s task to ripen. The villains’ motivations are flimsy at best. Their whims and wants change and shift due to screenwriter convenience rather than innovative character development.
The epic action set pieces dazzle and thrill. Spider-Man’s battle with Doc Ock on the freeway does double duty, advancing the characters and plot while also showcasing the first of the fashion parade of Spidey suits, of which there are many variations for Peter to romp around in. Though there isn’t a sequence with the powerful pull of Mysterio’s Mindscramble from SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME, Spidey being propelled into Doctor Strange’s mirror dimension, while slightly weightless, is appropriately trippy and mind-bending.
While a sense of hollowness starts to pervade in the second act, it’s a relief when that’s countered by resounding, enlightened sentiments on grief, guilt and responsibility. Yet, when the film dares to ask heady questions about fate and humanity – debating whether these things are immutable – it falters, providing superficial answers akin to a Magic 8 Ball. I guess Spidey’s multi-verse contains multitudes of platitudes, too.
SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME opens in theaters on December 17.