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Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021)::rating::4.5::rating::4.5

Spider-Man: No Way Home represents a genuine labor of love.  For fans of Peter Parker, and the MCU as a whole, this film will feel like a heartfelt valentine, read aloud next to a crackling fire.  It captures everything great about the Spider-Man franchise thus far, while also deftly smoothing over a few glaring flaws.  Over the course of 148 minutes, No Way Home could provoke tears, knowing chuckles, and waves of sweet nostalgia. If you’ve patiently journeyed across eight feature films (nine, if you count the brilliant Into the Spider-Verse), multiple lead actors, and shifting continuities, this is the Spidey flick to satisfy your hopes and dreams.

I don’t have to say it, but I will anyway, mainly because I love the sound of typing:  No Way Home is the third film in Tom Holland’s trilogy, and the 27th release in the MCU overall.  If you haven’t swam all the way out to Marvel’s deepwater buoys, this review might spoil a few things for you.  Head over to Disney+, get to streaming, and come back to bask in my glorious spelling and punctuation.

This film takes place immediately after the events of Spider-Man: Far From Home.  Put simply, Peter Parker is in hot water:  With his dying words, Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) announced Peter as the boy beneath the mask.  To make matters worse, he also frames Spider-Man for his death.  As the film begins, Peter finds himself wobbling on a high wire, with adoring fans on one side and an angry mob on the other.

This misery soon spreads to Pete’s most important people.  Main squeeze MJ gets harassed at school.  Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) and Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) must tangle with nosy feds, while BFF Ned (Jacob Batalon) takes the heat as Spider-Man’s Guy in the Chair.

Desperate to rescue his extended family, Peter turns to an old friend from work:  Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) has a spell that could force the public to forget Mysterio’s big reveal.  Unfortunately, Strange’s magic doesn’t come without big risks and unwelcome side effects.  As the Master of the Mystic Arts begins to work his voodoo, Pete gets a rush of buyer’s remorse and tries to slap a few conditions on the spell.  This throws everything off the rails, forcing Strange to nix the whole thing.

As the trailers and posters would indicate, it’s too little, too late.  Soon, supervillains from other universes start spilling into Peter’s reality.  This includes Doc Ock (a de-aged Alfred Molina), the deranged scientist featured in Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man 2.  Ock bursts from the ground and immediately begins laying waste to everything around him.  It’s not long before more rogues arrive to round out the gallery:  Electro (Jamie Foxx), Sandman (Thomas Haden Church), and–worst of all–the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe).  Now, Peter and Strange scramble to restore order in the multi-verse, before things deteriorate even further.

That’s really all I’d care to give away.  No Way Home actually twists in surprising directions, and this unpredictability only adds to the film’s joy.  Even better, the visiting baddies get more than just fan service cameos.  Molina brings gravitas to Octavius, while Dafoe cranks up the Goblin’s unhinged creepiness to a whole new level.  This storytelling generosity also extends to a few good guys who pop into the Holland-verse:  These heroes get real beats of warmth, humor, and deep sadness.  One of the film’s most incredible achievements lies in how it wrings such a range of genuine emotions from an overcrowded cast of characters.

As is custom for the MCU, No Way Home ends with a big ol’ CGI hootenanny.  Digitized characters smash into each other; fake stuff gets blown up something fierce.  Most of the time, all this uncanny brawling falls flatter than grandma’s cookie sheet, but No Way Home–like Avengers: Endgame before it–manages to apply actual stakes to its final battle.  Everything builds to a bittersweet finale that somehow manages to wrap this trilogy up in tidy fashion, while also angling Holland (and possibly other actors) for future cinematic adventures.

For all this narrative busyness, No Way Home moves with startling speed.  It reminds me of an old Roger Ebert adage, which I’ll paraphrase:  Good movies always feel too short; bad movies, too long.  That’s certainly the case with this film.  I could’ve watched more Spider-Man, more multi-verse, and just…more everything.  As it is, Spider-Man: No Way Home finally realizes all the cinematic potential of its beloved main character.  This instantly ranks as one of the greatest superhero movies ever made.

148 min.  PG-13.  In theaters only; on Disney+ in early 2022.

 

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