Casting Tom Holland as Peter Parker was one of the sharper decisions to emerge from the ever-present, oxygen-sucking Marvel Cinematic Universe. What a business model! These movies are designed to never, ever end. Always another intramural sequel or spinoff option. It can get a little wearying, and I say that with the knowledge that, for millions, there is no weariness, only rapture and delight. I’m happy for those people. We all need something.
Holland provides the glue and the webbing for the latest Spidey outing “Spider-Man: No Way Home.” He’s physically nimble — he’s soon to play Fred Astaire in a biopic — quick-witted with his darting comic timing and an all-around easygoing presence. When the movie treats the mayhem and brutality for real, he’s there with the right degree of anguish. Andrew Garfield’s Peter Parker typically gave 172% in those scenes; Tobey Maguire, somewhere around 60.
“No Way Home” makes those comps easy to judge, which is all I’m going to say about that. Director Jon Watts and screenwriters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers deliver an extremely busy, generally entertaining venture into the MCU multiverse of alternate timelines, competing versions of the same character and swirling trippiness. If you caught the animated and extremely deft 2018 “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” you’ll get the idea. This film has little of that film’s visual invention but a good deal of its verbal wit.
At the end of “Spider-Man: Far From Home” two years ago, Peter’s climactic unmasking turned Spidey into a tragically divided public figure: good guy or murderous vigilante? At the beginning of the new film, he’s home, uneasily, with Aunt May (Marisa Tomei). Half of Peter’s high school classmates want him locked up, or worse. The other half still supports his crime-fighting efforts and general friendly neighborliness.
Peter, along with girlfriend MJ (Zendaya) and best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), have applied to MIT and waiting for the acceptance or rejection on that is stressful enough. Distraught, and pondering whether there’s a way to dink with the time-space continuum to make everyone forget his true identity, Peter pays a visit to Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), who reluctantly complies with an enchantment. The spell goes awry, and suddenly the multiverse busts out all over, with a variety of previous films’ Spidey villains stopping by. It’s, like, “did someone say ‘Comic-Con?’”
The casting “surprises” in “No Way Home” will last approximately “one more minute.” Suffice to say Peter meets his match(es) and the movie has fun with that. Elsewhere in its nearly two-and-a-half hours, the movie takes the multiverse outpouring into sincere grief counseling territory. This too is effective, though I’ve often found the mood swings in many of the MCU products — bone-crushing mayhem, frivolous one minute, grimly deadly the next — to be a matter of bait-and-switch.
As you can see from the official “Spider-Man: No Way Home” photos, Peter contends with the reappearance of a very full roster of characters, including Alfred Molina as Doc Ock from “Spider-Man 2,″ all of 17 years ago. Sam Raimi remains the Spidey director to beat for the staging, pacing and velocity of the action. Director Watts succeeds best in the comedy and the off-the-cuff banter. There’s at least one or two too many protracted battle royales in these movies for my taste. But Watts has done an admirably lively job with all three of the Holland Spideys, thanks largely to Holland, and while I like the middle one best, well, that’s in line with the Raimi-directed “Spider-Man” trilogy. Not to mention the initial “Star Wars” trilogy. Not to mention “The Godfather” movies. Sonny kills Fredo in the second “Godfather” film, for the record. Sorry, I just really needed to spoil something.
‘SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME’
3 stars (out of 4)
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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This story was originally published December 14, 2021 1:35 PM.