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Review: “Spider-Man: No Way Home” strains under plot, finds joy in the past

Colorado-born director Jon Watts navigates yet another complicated project with style, humor

MJ (Zendaya) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland) jump off a bridge in “Spider-Man: No Way Home.” (Matt Kennedy/Sony Pictures)
MJ (Zendaya) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland) jump off a bridge in “Spider-Man: No Way Home.” (Matt Kennedy/Sony Pictures)

2.5 stars. 2 hours 28 minutes. Rated PG-13

Despite Marvel’s usual bloat and a swirling storm of characters, “Spider-Man: No Way Home” earns its joy and sorrow with thematic substance, the breathless action often contrasted with quiet reflection and grief.

The movie also reinforces star Tom Holland as the ideal Spider-Man, and Colorado-born director Jon Watts as his ideal director. They return from the last two, Holland-starring Spider-Man movies — 2017’s excellent “Homecoming” and 2019’s darker, less-tidy “Far From Home” — with Holland as Queens teenager Peter Parker and his alter-ego superhero.

“No Way Home,” the 27th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise, picks up right where “Far From Home” left off, with fallen foe Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) framing Spider-Man for his death via a pre-recorded message and revealing the hidden identity of our web-slinger to the rest of the world.

A quick chase scene, claustrophobic montage and lengthy aftermath shows the toll it takes on Parker and his friends, MJ (Vendaya) and Ned (Jacob Batalon). They lose out on their first-choice college because of the toxic publicity, while Parker becomes a next-level punching bag for J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons), a talk-radio style vlogger/media indictment whose life goal is to take down Spidey.

This image released by Sony Pictures shows Tom Holland, left, and Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Strange in Columbia Pictures’ “Spider-Man: No Way Home.” (Sony Pictures via AP)

Previews have spoiled most of the first act, but I won’t continue to chip away at the surprises. Still, it’s no spoiler to say Parker’s fury toward himself grows so intense that he seeks out Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), a fellow New Yorker and ally in the last two “Avengers” movies. Parker wants Strange to magically make everyone in the world forget he’s Spider-Man. But he has provisos, which interrupt Strange mid-spell and force a brief break in the time-space continuum.

That slim door to alternate realities nonetheless lets in villains who already know that Parker is Spider-Man — thus setting up the copyright-apalooza from pre-MCU Spider-Man films, three of which starred Toby Maguire (2002-2007) and two with Andrew Garfield (2012-2014). Faces from those movies, some of them digitally de-aged, appear in rapid succession, setting Parker on a path to find them all.

Though they’re supervillains, the script by takes pains to show The Green Goblin and Doc Ock, for example, as people with souls — however troubled. Parker’s Aunt May (Marissa Tomei) tells her nephew not to send them back to their grim fates, but rather to help them. Cue the moral hand-wringing, a trio of massive action setpieces and a roller-coaster tour of Sony’s own Spider-Man properties.

This image released by Sony Pictures shows a scene from Columbia Pictures’ “Spider-Man: No Way Home.” (Sony Pictures via AP)

When an important character leaves this MCU franchise, presumably permanently, it’s not just another sobbing goodbye. And even heavily telegraphed, the cameos are genuinely destabilizing and fun. Amid heady subject matter, Holland and Watts and a newly central Zendaya craft moments of humor and natural chemistry, the propulsive score from Oscar-winner Michael Giacchino slathering the right notes into every last auditory crack.

And there are a lot. This is another long movie — nearly 2 1/2 hours — and at least 45 minutes of it could have been condensed. It certainly feels that long, and by the time it ends audiences will have survived something like the interminable, schmaltzy farewells of “Return of the King.”

While the particulars are new, the beats and larger plot (to save the world! Always to save the world.) are not. The alternate-reality schtick is cribbed from 2018’s stellar, animated “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” and the greatest-hits script doesn’t do much to innovate these characters’ portrayals.

Still, the number of big names and MCU constraints might have ruined a less experienced director. Watts — originally from Fountain — proves himself an evolutionary talent, keeping what made his last two Spidey flicks so successful while adapting to new environments; he’s also been tapped to direct the MCU’s forthcoming “Fantastic Four” reboot.

“No Way Home” is messy, at times intentionally so. But Spider-Man remains one of Marvel’s friendliest characters, even as the growing number of movies about him remind us that we’re all just grist for the sequel mill.

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