Phase 4 of the MCU has, thus far, been defined by wild experimentation. Between the shirking of genre conventions found in movies like Shang-Chi and Eternals and the adoption of serialized storytelling in the Disney+ TV shows, Marvel Studios' focus on reinventing their own proverbial wheel is obvious--and, thus far, the payoffs of these attempts have ranged everywhere from great to forgettable, with points earned at every corner for the studio's willingness to just throw everything at the wall and see what sticks. So it should surprise no one to learn that Spider-Man: No Way Home, the newest entry in Phase 4 and the final major MCU release of a jam-packed 2021, exemplifies that methodology to an absolute T.
The good news is, however, that the things that do wind up sticking actually work. No Way Home may be a busy, sometimes frantically overcrowded experiment in flexing the (sometimes uncomfortable) IP reach of a media monopoly, but even at its most egregious, it never stops going for the emotionally honest choices. And while it can sometimes be hard to separate the blatant nostalgia bait from the meat and potatoes of the narrative, the story and the characters do wind up shining through to spectacular effect.
Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is in a bind, after his disastrous encounter with Mysterio back in Far From Home. Beck pulled the plug on Peter's secret identity, simultaneously framing him for murder and stoking the fire of conspiracy-peddling muckraking journalist J. Jonah Jameson (JK Simmons) who has prompted a stark divide in public opinion on Spider-Man's place in the city. With no more secret identity to hide behind, Peter and his friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) and girlfriend MJ (Zendaya) are suffering the consequences of the media frenzy. Eventually, things come to a head and Peter takes a step only logical to a superheroic teenager: Going to a wizard (Benedict Cumberbatch's Doctor Strange) to functionally brainwash the world into forgetting that Peter Parker is Spider-Man.
Naturally things go terribly wrong and the world is suddenly jam-packed with super villains from the multiverse who knew Peter Parker was Spider-Man in their realities. For us, this means villains from the Spider-Man franchises of old--Willem Dafoe's Green Goblin, Alfred Molina's Doc Ock, Jamie Fox's Electro, just to name some highlights.
What could have promptly devolved into a very typical bad-guy punching story about Peter slinging through New York and trying to clean up his reality-bending mess quickly dug its teeth into something much more interesting--Peter learns that if he sends these villains back to their own realities, he's functionally dooming them to die, and must decide if that's something he can live with.
The MCU doesn't have the greatest track record when dealing with this particular level of morality play. Traditionally, Marvel's heroes have stood the best when they were given clear moral event horizons to cross or avoid--and frequently, these event horizons have been extremely contrived (villains making valid, pacifist points until they abruptly start executing hostages, for example). But thankfully, No Way Home manages to avoid the pitfalls of MCU (and other franchise) movies by turning the entire dilemma into a sort of therapy session for the characters. The end result feels like a classic Spider-Man story where Peter is forced to come to terms with some of the harshest truths about not only being a superhero but also just being a person who wants to do some good in the world--a lesson that winds up being neither cynical nor saccharine.
Fans of the Spider-Man video game that was released on the Playstation 4 back in 2019 will doubtlessly recognize some major narrative themes in the story (and even some visual callbacks in specific fight scenes), which ironically helps temper some of nods and callbacks to old Spider-Man films, of which there are many. This, coupled with some truly stellar performances--Holland is at his absolute best (and most gut-wrenching) here, and some of the returning villains really do serve to remind us that the Spidey movies of old had some of the most spectacular casting in superhero movie history--makes for more stuck-landings on emotional beats than most MCU franchises have in total.
That said, more than one of those emotional beats do absolutely require the audience to have some level of familiarity and fond nostalgia for the older Spider-Man movies, so if that's something you find yourself lacking, the resonance might be missed on you. Additionally, this level of self-referentiality carries with it the weight of understanding that these moments are only possible thanks to the massive, corporate chokeholds of Disney and Sony on whole swaths of IP which, admittedly, may not feel distracting when you're very much in the moment, experiencing the laughter and the tears as they come, but it might leave an unpleasant aftertaste when the credits roll.
But be that as it may, the parts of No Way Home that shine do rise to the top and will, inevitably, be remembered fondly as one of the all-time great and most unique efforts in the MCU's long and winding history. It may be a complicated beast on the whole, but it represents exactly what Phase 4 has been going for in terms of pure, wild experimentation and possibility.
Spider-Man: No Way Home hits theaters on December 17.