SPOILER ALERT: The following review contains spoilers.
What do you call the opposite of a reboot? The “system overload” of Spider-Man movies, Sony’s ninth (and almost certainly not last) feature-length riff on the friendly neighborhood superhero, “Spider-Man: No Way Home” seeks to connect Tom Holland’s spin on the web-slinger with the previous live-action versions of the character by first reassembling a rogue’s gallery of all the villains Peter Parker has vanquished to date. Returning director Jon Watts — whose bright, slightly dorky touch lends a welcome continuity to this latest trilogy — wrangles the unwieldy premise into a consistently entertaining superhero entry, tying up two decades’ of loose ends in the process.
The mind-bending plot hinges on a convenient comic-book device called the “multiverse,” which allows infinite iterations of Spider-Man/Mineral/Vegetable to exist in their own parallel dimensions. That’s a radically different strategy from the one Sony has been peddling till now, whereby the studio simply recast the character every few years (lest the rights revert back to Marvel), without offering much in the way of closure to fans of Tobey Maguire’s or Andrew Garfield’s earlier outings.
Granted, the idea should be familiar to anyone who saw 2018’s animated “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” which introduced the thrilling possibility that virtually anyone could be Spidey. But whereas that toon suggested infinite possibilities for the character going forward, “No Way Home” serves to wrap up what has come before, starting with the bring idea of reviving Spidey’s past adversaries, where Holland’s Peter Parker must face off against five of the villains pulled in from the movies that preceded him. It all happens because Peter’s life has been turned upside-down by Mysterio (the bad guy he vanquished at the end of “Far From Home” two years ago), who managed to unmask Spidey before biting the dust.
Desperate to protect his family and friends, Peter appeals to all-powerful wizard Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to cast a spell that will make everyone forget his identity. Instead, the plan backfires, calling everyone who ever knew that Peter was Spider-Man out of their dimension and into his. To make things a little easier for the movie to manage, it’s really only the villains who answer Strange’s calling, which is impressive enough, considering that means enlisting Alfred Molina (Doc Ock), Willem Dafoe (Green Goblin), Jamie Fox (Electro), Thomas Haden Church (Sandman) and Rhys Ifans (The Lizard) to reprise their roles. Meanwhile, to make things easier for Spider-Man to manage, none is even remotely as intimidating as they were when threatening the world before.
“No Way Home” keeps the surprises coming up to (and even through) the end credits, but perhaps the biggest twist is Peter’s decision — together with girlfriend MJ (Zendaya) and best bud Ned (Jacob Batalon) — not to defeat these villains the way his predecessors did. Instead, Peter hopes to “cure” these goons of the mutations that are making them unhappy, even if it means defying Doctor Strange (a character on loan from the broader Marvel Cinematic Universe, in which Holland’s Spider-Man has been making now-regular appearances).
Peter’s empathy seems perfectly fitting for a movie that targets a fresh wave of idealistic teens very much engaged with questioning everything Western civilization thought it knew about crime and punishment, power and privilege. As a critic who grew up on movies in which the bad guys were routinely impaled (Tony Goldywn in “Ghost”), decapitated (Dennis Hopper in “Speed”) or otherwise made to pay for their sins, it’s fascinating to encounter an escapist Hollywood offering that seeks to understand the root of these characters’ megalomaniacal behavior. The reason, Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers’ screenplay tries to explain, is that this version of Peter is still dealing with Mysterio’s death. In that reaction, we see the franchise trying to make the character more fully dimensional and dare-I-say “realistic” — much as 21st-century Bond “Casino Royale” and Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” did in recognizing the physical toll saving the world had on their respective protagonists.
For my money, Holland has been the least interesting of the three big-screen Spider-Men, coming across younger and less mature than Maguire or Garfield. Until now. This simple plot development makes him more than just an acrobat in spandex, juggling awkward high school experiences with flashy visual-effects battles — although both elements carry through to this film, in which college acceptance carries equal weight with a big CG showdown at the Statue of Liberty. He’s further disrupting the Marvel-movie formula (which already got a massive upset with the “Age of Ultron”-ending “snap” and inevitable time-travel gimmick it took to reverse it) and even going so far as to redefine audiences’ collective notion of heroism.
As complicated as it all sounds, “No Way Home” sticks to a relatively straightforward idea of the multiverse, taking extra care to walk us through the logical loop-de-loops its plot requires. Whenever Doctor Strange shows up in a Marvel movie, audiences ought to be prepared for some magical monkey business — the kind of rule-bending that essentially makes anything possible. Superhero movies are only as good as their villains, and it’s a thrill to be reunited with Doc Ock and Green Goblin again, and though the other three baddies were relatively disappointing by comparison, this film focuses on the tragic dimension of their characters and their capacity for redemption.
It’s not quite so successful at identifying the rage building in Peter Parker, whose good intentions directly result in an irreversible loss. While incendiary news reports — from conspiracy-monger J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons), practically the only constant across the multiverse — paint him as a menace, Spidey is torn between the instinct to help his adversaries and a much darker impulse to seek revenge (a watered-down version of the Jedi/Sith tug-of-war we’ve seen in “Star Wars” protagonists). Though Holland looks too much like an eager Boy Scout to fear he’ll go rogue, that conflict serves as a promising setup for the movie’s obvious mid-point surprise. Be warned that spoilers will follow.
If villains can make the dimensional leap, it stands to reason that other Spider-Men can too, and sure enough, first Garfield and then Maguire show up seemingly fully up-to-speed on Peter’s villain infestation problem. But because they’ve all faced variations on the same challenges — from losing loved ones to reconciling their romantic interests with a demanding day job — the movie balances easy-target comedy with more profound life lessons. What could easily have felt like one of those tacky Disneyland parades, where all the princesses are assembled to do fan service, instead finds a strong emotional foundation.
Garfield, so good in this year’s “Tick, Tick… Boom,” radiates more charisma here than he ever did in his two Spider-Man installments. And the older-and-wiser Maguire, who’d gotten soft and lazy between his second and third Spider-Man movies, reminds audiences who haven’t seen him on screen in years why we found him so appealing in the first place. There’s something fundamentally worrisome about dissolving the barriers between these separate iterations of the franchise, and yet, the entire creative team seems committed to treating the multiverse not as a stunt, but as an opportunity to more fully explore what Peter Parker stands for.
“No Way Home” doesn’t pretend that the earlier films were perfect, poking fun at elements we can all agree were weaknesses, while also leaving room for the villains and Spider-Men alike to do some much-needed healing. The movie can be unwieldy at times, and it’s much too committed to setting up even more craziness to play out in upcoming Marvel product (these aren’t standalone films so much as overloaded episodes, after all), but it provides enough resolution for the past two decades of Spider-Man adventures that audiences who’ve tuned out along the way will be rewarded for giving this one a shot.
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