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‘Spider-Man: No Way Home’ Review: Hero Wrestles with Place in Universe in Emotional, Unsteady Sequel

Surprises abound as Peter Parker attempts to understand his spot in the universe(s) in this often thrilling, occasionally muddled sequel.

Spider-Man from Columbia Pictures' SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME.

“Spider-Man: No Way Home”

Courtesy of Sony Pictures

There’s little question that diving deep into the psyches of superheroes can render some dark finds (hell, Batman has turned that into a signature move over the course of numerous film franchises and television series, and that’s just one bat-eared dude), but the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s treatment of the state of young Spider-Man’s (Tom Holland) soul has continually added fresh dimension to an ever-expanding franchise. Spidey has always been an emotional dude — baseline biographical bits like “is just a teen when that damn spider bites him” and “is orphan” help that along with ease — but Holland’s appealingly wide-eyed superhero has spent a number of movies grounding wild action in a human frame. Being a superhero is both hard and lots of fun, and few MCU heroes have been able to quite so ably strike that balance in the midst of world-destroying action sequences.

Not so with this Peter Parker. The most believable on-screen Spidey — which is not to say that Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield didn’t bring their own special sauce to their individual Spider-Man franchises, cough cough — Holland’s take on the webslinger has always felt like the most human, the most real, the most “holy wow, I’m a superhero!” version of this beloved character. Which also means we’ve seen this Peter Parker in some pretty tough spots — his bond with Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man is some of the most darling stuff to pop up in the MCU, obviously its end was tear-streaked — and that we’re inevitably going to end up in some deep, dark places.

And that’s not where Jon Watts’ satisfying, emotional, and occasionally unsteady “Spider-Man: No Way Home” begins. The third film in the franchise picks up immediately after 2019’s “Spider-Man: Far from Home,” and finds Holland at his grinning Peter Parker best: in love with a girl (Zendaya, continually a scene-stealer as the sarcastic MJ). Yeah, yeah, yeah, “Far from Home” might have ended with the death of a secret baddie (Jake Gyllenhaal, who appears in flashback footage) and forced Peter to really start grappling with his place in the world, but it also wrapped up with Peter and MJ both together and totally honest with each other. What could possibly go wrong now that the girl he loves knows who he is?

How about the whole world knowing who he is? As hinted at during the end of “Far from Home,” Peter’s identity is almost immediately disclosed at the start of “No Way Home” — big thanks to returning franchise star J.K. Simmons, who brings new life into a very current incarnation of loud-mouthed journalist J. Jonah Jameson, who he last played in the Tobey Maguire-starring Spidey films — turning his entire existence upside down in the process. And yet Watts somehow manages to keep this revelation feeling light, as Peter, MJ, Ned (Jacob Batalon), Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), and Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) soon band together to keep Peter’s life feeling, well, sort of normal. There’s even a scene in which he heads back to high school for his senior year, and an early focus on ensuring the Midtown High trio all get into college. (College! The stakes are college! In a superhero movie!)

For far too long, the fate of the entire universe has dangled in the balance during Marvel’s many cinematic outings, and while “No Way Home” goes so far as to add in multiverses and the possibility that the very “fabric of reality” will forever tear, there’s still something charmingly small-scale about this film. It’s personal, and that’s a theme and an idea that is only further hammered home as the film zips through its first act, starts to slow down in its second, and completely nails the whole damn thing by its eye-popping final forty minutes.

Rumors about not just the content, but the actual cast of the film have long abounded, and while we won’t confirm or deny anything here, suffice it to say that the film is filled with both familiar faces and surprising additions. The real trick, however, is that even bits that might, in a lesser film, feel like stunt-casting here exist in true service to the story. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has rarely balked at throwing in a winking cameo whenever the chance arises, but “No Way Home” is the rare MCU film to actually make them count, baking them straight into the story at hand.

“Spider-Man: No Way Home”

So, back to the college thing: Peter is dismayed to discover that his newly-ousted superhero personality is something of a liability, particularly as J. Jonah Jameson, a rumor-spewing internet talking head who has (sadly) many real world parallels, is hellbent on making people think that Spidey is the bad guy. All that attention isn’t so great for a trio of eggheads who want to get into MIT, and when Peter, MJ, and Ned are all rejected explicitly because of their Spidey-tivities, Peter comes up with a genius plan: he’ll just get Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to cast some kind of spell to make people forget that he’s Spider-Man.

But Peter is indeed still a kid, and an impulsive one at that, and even when he gets the sorcerer to agree to the wish, his last-minute caveats (wait, did he say he wants everyone to forget? no, not everyone!) screw so badly with the spell that the whole thing has to be shut down. But magic is a weird thing, and so is the multiverse, and the nutty power cooked up by Doctor Strange works itself out in wacky, scary, and (sorry) strange new ways. Let’s put it this way: even with the spell cut short, ensuring that no one has forgotten that Peter is Spider-Man, its reach is wide enough to ensnare a special class of people, the kind of people who know few things as well as they know that Peter is Spider-Man.

Soon, Peter’s universe is overwhelmed with new friends and foes, including a few who have long been hinted at in marketing and interviews (hello, Jamie Foxx and Alfred Molina, reprising roles as signature baddies from those other Spider-Man series), and a few pleasant surprises. And while that franchise-spanning combination has been what’s kept so many fans thrilled about what “No Way Home” might hold, things start to stall out a bit when Peter and his pals attempt to wrangle up the many (many) baddies he and his pals need to battle. Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers’ script spends far too long dwelling on the machinations of people and plans we already know, throwing in some awkward misdirection and simply delaying the inevitable. The pacing suffers, and that wonderful lightness that kicked off the film soon swings between something still wackier and the kind of deep despair this particular Peter has already endured.

“Spider-Man: No Way Home”

Similarly, the film’s many fighting sequences run the gamut, starting off with an overpass-set battle in broad daylight that’s awe-inspiring and a jaunt through the Mirror Universe with Doctor Strange that out-“Matrix”es “The Matrix,” before dipping into a messy series of battles — so very many of them set at night — that are bland and dark, even when Foxx’s Electro is there to literally light the place up. At least it all leads to the film’s final act, a truly joyful (and often funny and wise and emotional) tour de force that will delight fans, both new and old, of the varied adventures of their Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man. Somehow both self-reflexive (sometimes, even self-mocking) and deadly earnest, these final sections combine so much of what makes Spider-Man special, across movies and times and places and even universes.

It also lays the groundwork for more adventures to come, even if the very past itself will look very different by the time the credits roll. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is not always willing to get really risky — particularly in standalone features that will undoubtedly impact the rest of the slate — but “No Way Home” isn’t scared of throwing down an entirely new gauntlet, with a truly reverential eye to the past, and hoping for a new future worth fighting for. The road to the closing moments of “No Way Home” — both warm-hearted and heartbreaking — might have hit a few bumps, but the darkness is worth it. After all, when was the last time the third film in a franchise got audiences truly thrilled for what comes next? Maybe there is no way home, but Holland, Watts, and company make a case for something else, something even better.

Grade: B-

Sony will release “Spider-Man: No Way Home” in theaters on Friday, December 17.

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