Oh, what a tangled meta-web he weaves.
Video courtesy of Sony Pictures

In 2018, a movie called Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse floated the idea that there could be an infinity of Spideys: an Afro-Latino teen from Brooklyn or a small Japanese girl, one all in monochrome and another made of ham. It went on to win an Oscar, a BAFTA, and a Golden Globe for Best Animated Feature, and spawned a pile of sequels and spinoffs.

Meanwhile, either in some other dimension or just down the hall, the other Spider-Man carried on, confined in this mortal coil (or at least for three films now) to the body of Tom Holland. But if moviegoers have learned anything in the last two decades at the multiplex it's that no Peter Parker is fixed forever, and in Spider-Man: No Way Home (in theaters Friday) the glue that puts the uni- in universe has come unstuck.

That's less breezy to do without the magic wand of animation, and No Way Home struggles early on to put the pieces in place and find its storyline. At the end of 2019's Far From Home, Holland's Peter was "unmasked" by Jake Gyllenhaal's malevolent Mysterio — railroaded for crimes he hadn't committed and recast as a dangerous teenage menace in the public's mind. He'd like to shrug it off, but the reveal has also cast a pall on the people that love him: His Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), his loyal girlfriend M.J. (Zendaya) and best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), even his cheerful bachelor-uncle benefactor, Happy (Jon Favreau).

If they've all become outcasts because of him — even MIT decides it doesn't want to see M.J. and Ned on its incoming-freshman rolls — how can he get their good names back? An irritable wizard several Manhattan zip codes away might know; and in fact Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, very much enjoying his snits) does have a few thoughts on how to fix it, including a forgetting spell that can, he promises, wipe Peter's slate clean. But a mid-spell intervention comes with side effects, and suddenly, portals are spitting out MCU ghosts like pinwheel sparklers on the 4th of July, long-dead villains and heroes emerging from the studio backlots that time forgot: 2014, 2007, even 2002. (It's no secret from the trailer at least that the resurrected-enemies list includes Jamie Foxx's Electro, Alfred Molina's Doctor Octopus, and Willem Dafoe's Green Goblin).

Tom Holland as Spider-Man in 'Spider-Man: No Way Home'
| Credit: Columbia Pictures

Along with Holland, director Jon Watts is on his third installment, and the tone he brings to the franchise remains a kind of goofy, self-referential high-school sweetness; his previous two were like updated John Hughes movies that just happened to have agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. The first chunk of No Way Home feels noticeably less cohesive than the ones before it, a hectic collision of convenient plot points and winky one-liners pinging off every available surface while the script scrambles to find its footing. (A major part of Peter's appeal has always been that he's a kind, guileless kid, the most human superhero — though this script makes a strong case that great power should be no 17-year-old's responsibility.)

The way that the movie eventually manages to bridge all those multiplicities and pull them into focus feels both obvious and ingenious, though pretty much everything that happens after the 40-minute mark is a spoiler that early title cards and even a recorded pre-show entreaty from the cast beg you not to share. At just under two and a half hours, that leaves a lot on the table. So it's safer maybe just to say that what seems at first like pure fan service turns out to be some of the best and by far the most meta stuff Marvel has done, tender and funny and a little bit devastating. (There were audible sobs in the theater at an industry screening.) It's also Holland's last time in the suit (unless it isn't); if and when Peter finds his way home, maybe this bigger, broader Spider-Verse will find a new way — or a new form altogether — to take him there. Grade: B+

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Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021 Movie)
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