The plot of “Spider-Man: No Way Home” is set in motion by a threatened bout of collective amnesia, which is fitting because I could barely remember anything that happened in the last of these movies. That’s odd, because I definitely saw it. Fortunately, like most installments of endless cinematic franchises, this latest Spidey adventure seldom stops explaining itself or referencing its predecessors (more on that in a bit). Within moments you are helpfully reminded of how 2019’s “Spider-Man: Far From Home” ended, with that belligerent hack journalist J. Jonah Jameson (Spidey mainstay J.K. Simmons) exposing the famous webslinger’s true identity to the entire world. And most thoughtlessly of all, he didn’t even think to preface it with a spoiler warning.
The people at Sony Pictures, by contrast, have taken their usual care to warn journalists not to spill the secrets of “No Way Home,” expecting us to behave with more scrupulousness and care than some of their own marketing materials. I’ll proceed as cautiously as I can, with the caveat that your spoiler sense may tingle differently from my spoiler sense.
If you’re that concerned about plot details, I implore you: Put down this review and read something else. Read the sports section. Read a Thackeray novel. (Do not read Twitter.) And yeah, sure, see the movie first if you must. If “West Side Story” hasn’t already sated your appetite for impetuous teenagers leaping acrobatically around New York, this one might do the trick.
Or you could just plunge ahead and read on, especially if, like me, you harbor some skepticism about the way studios use the promise of jaw-dropping, game-changing twists to preempt criticism and sell material that’s actually fairly predictable at its core. Really, given the months of speculative hype that have preceded “No Way Home,” the most surprising thing about it is how … unsurprisingly much of it plays out.
If you’ve had your ear even remotely to the ground, you know what’s up: Due to unprecedented ruptures in the multiverse, characters from the first two Spider-Man series make appearances in this one. To discuss who those characters are and what they do would apparently be a crime on par with leaking the nuclear codes, so let’s just swing around them, Spidey-like, as gracefully as possible.
The narrative pretext for all these series-blending shenanigans is charming enough, in a low-stakes teen-movie kind of way. Due to an accompanying whiff of scandal, being outed as Spider-Man hasn’t exactly done wonders for Peter Parker (the excellent Tom Holland). Nor has it boosted the reputations of his girlfriend, MJ (Zendaya), and his best friend, Ned (Jacob Batalon), whose associations with Peter have gotten them rejected from MIT. With bricks flying through the window of the Queens apartment he shares with his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei, winning as ever), Peter calls on his old friend Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), asking him to cast a spell that will cause the entire world to forget that he’s Spider-Man. Much digitally confected spectacle and human error ensue, and rather than erasing the world’s memory, Doctor Strange winds up accidentally jogging ours.
And so a caper becomes a point of convergence, a nearly two-and-a-half-hour reunion special. Amid a jumble of clashing timelines and multiplying meta-paradoxes plotted out by screenwriters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers (who also wrote “Far From Home”), the familiar faces include a handful of villains from the Tobey Maguire-starring, Sam Raimi-directed trilogy of “Spider-Man” (2002), “Spider-Man 2” (2004) and “Spider-Man 3” (2007), as well as the less fondly remembered Andrew Garfield-starring, Marc Webb-directed duo of “The Amazing Spider-Man” (2012) and “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” (2014).
I doubt anyone will be shocked when Willem Dafoe’s snarling Green Goblin arrives, or when Alfred Molina’s metal-tentacled Doc Ock turns up, daring Spider-Man to beat him to a bloody poulpe. My own surprise was entirely genuine when Jamie Foxx resurfaced as Electro, a super-baddie I had completely forgotten about from the misleadingly titled “Amazing Spider-Man 2.”
As I was saying: amnesia. But “No Way Home,” directed by Jon Watts (who also steered “Far From Home” and 2017’s “Spider-Man: Homecoming”), does strive to pull off something memorable, and largely succeeds. It’s rare to see such surreally elaborate narrative gymnastics arise from what is basically a long-running game of corporate tug-of-war. The Spidey custody battle that has ensnared Sony, Disney and Marvel Studios over the years is too tedious to rehash here, but there is something admittedly disarming about the solution that “No Way Home” hits upon. Without saying too much — OK, without saying anything at all — three parallel Spider-Man universes that once were forced to stand apart now get to belatedly salute each other, in a warm, even reconciliatory spirit.
This exercise — call it the Spidey Variations — may be fan service on a maximalist scale. And it doesn’t have quite the delirious invention of “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” the 2018 animated feature that made the most of its multiverse-collapsing conceit. Still, it’s nice to feel a persistent human touch amid the otherwise mechanical sound and fury of “No Way Home,” especially during its wobbly, draggy midsection. Bridges rumble and scaffolding crumbles; the Statue of Liberty really should file for hazard pay. Comic relief arrives on cue (hello, Jon Favreau); tragedy strikes without warning. It’s a Spider-Man movie, in other words, and also a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie.
But while the action ultimately turns as murky as in any Avengers epic, the smug, depersonalized air that often mars those glorified cinematic frat parties is notably absent. And for all “No Way Home’s” vertiginous heights and precipitous drops, few things here shake you more fully than the anguished closeups of Holland, in which Peter’s genetically modified strength — and his all-too-human vulnerability — are on tear-soaked, grime-smudged display.
Holland was only 19 when he landed this role (he made his scene-stealing first appearance in 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War”). And while his Peter has always seemed younger than predecessors Maguire and Garfield, what united the three of them was a fundamental sweetness, an immutable sense of decency. The movies weren’t always great or even particularly good, but the actors kept you watching. Maguire put the most distinctive stamp on the character, his awkward, wide-eyed charm aided by the freshness and pop energy of Raimi’s direction. Garfield had a rougher time of it, being the standout element of a rudderless middle-child cycle that felt more commercially motivated than any of its brethren, and that’s saying a lot.
Holland’s task hasn’t been much easier. Like his predecessors, he’s an enormously likable screen presence, which has been crucial to making this third go-round with Spider-Man feel like more than just another retread. That’s no small thing, since every Spidey cycle must essentially trace the same arc, hit the same beats and rites of passage: the loneliness and isolation of superheroism, the all-too-relatable challenges of teenagerdom, the bittersweet ache of young love, the pain of sudden, irreversible loss. When someone here intones, “With great power comes great responsibility,” it’s with a wry awareness of how often those words have been spoken before, and how often they’ll likely be spoken again. The poignant (and ultimately spoiler-proof) achievement of “Spider-Man: No Way Home” is that, for the moment at least, it leaves you considering that prospect with more affection than fatigue.
‘SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME’
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for sequences of action/violence, some language and brief suggestive comments)
Running time: 2:28
Where to watch: In theaters Friday
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