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‘Spider-Man: No Way Home’: Marvel hero takes an existential turn in innovative new adventure

Time tinkering brings on the welcome return of the classic villains Green Goblin, Doctor Octopus and Electro.

“Spider-Man: No Way Home” brings the superhero (Tom Holland) a rematch with Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina).
Columbia Pictures

Where there’s a web there’s a way.

Ah, but is there a way home when you no longer feel at home even when you ARE home, because all of a sudden everybody knows your name and wants a piece of you? What a tangled web this Spidey has weaved, even though he never really intended to deceive.

Shew! If you think that’s a lot to sift through, you better strap in and hang on through the slow-starting but eventually innovative, exciting, funny and heart-tugging “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” the third chapter in the trilogy that began with “Homecoming” in 2017 and “Far From Home” in 2019, and of course we’ve seen Tom Holland’s Peter Parker/Spidey in other chapters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s no spoiler to say this won’t be his last appearance — and we can’t wait to see how it all plays out, because by the end of this arduous and sometimes convoluted journey, well, let’s just say things have changed in a big way.

To quote the Eagles and “Life in the Fast Lane,” are you with me so far? Thanks. Let’s walk through this together while we sidestep a treasure trove of cool twists and turns you’ll experience over the course of Jon Watts’ 148-minute, alternately breezy and existential deep dive into the multi-verse. “Spider-Man: No Way Home” picks up a week after the events of “Far From Home,” with Spidey’s world exploding after the vanquished villain Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) has left a parting shot from beyond the grave: the reveal that Spider-Man is none other than a 17-year-old high school student named Peter Parker.

The world and in particular New York City is quickly divided into two camps: those who continue to believe their Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man is a local hero, and those who label him a vigilante who must be brought to justice. Fueling the fires for the latter camp is none other than J.K. Simmons’ J. Jonah Jameson from the three Sam Raimi “Spider-Man” movies in the 2000s, who has transitioned from tabloid newspaper editor to a ranting and raving webcaster a la Alex Jones for TheDailyBugle.net (he even sells products of dubious value during commercial breaks). With billboards proclaiming Spider-Man “Public Enemy #1” and media helicopters hovering over his every move, Peter and his girlfriend MJ (Zendaya) and best buddy/sidekick Ned (Jacob Batalon) are devastated, mostly because they’ve become so controversial, they’re getting rejected by one college after another.

His secret identity exposed, Peter Parker (Tom Holland, left) can’t get into a good college, and neither can girlfriend MJ (Zendaya) or buddy Ned (Jacob Batalon).
Columbia Pictures

Seriously. That’s the big sticking point in the early going of “No Way Home,” that Peter and MJ and Ned can’t get into MIT or any of their safety schools because they’re so polarizing. Director Watts and writers Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers spend a bit too much on this plot point, which is eventually used as a rather awkward springboard for Peter to seek out the one and only Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) in his awesome, multi-story brownstone on Bleecker Street, in the hopes the doc will do a little magic puttering with the timeline and rearrange things so that only those that knew Spider-Man’s identity prior to Mysterio’s reveal will retain that knowledge. That way, Peter and MJ and Ned can go to college, and Peter can do a little greater Boston area crime-fighting in his spare time!

Uh-oh. Loophole. Thing is, when you take into account the whole multi-verse thing, it’s not just MJ and Ned and Marisa Tomei’s Aunt May and Jon Favreau’s Happy who are aware of Spider-Man’s true identity. The likes of Norman Osborn/Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), Otto Octavius/Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina) and Max Dillon/Electro (Jamie Foxx) know Peter/Spidey, and all of a sudden, the whole lot of ’em have landed in THIS universe, and yes, it’s a thrill to see these great actors reprising their memorable roles from years and movies gone by.

These villains are stunned beyond comprehension at this new world, which contains a Peter Parker who doesn’t look anything like the Peter Parker they know. This makes for some light comedic moments and also a truly intriguing dramatic question: What if it’s possible for these resurrected monsters to return to their human selves in this universe? It’s an intriguing conundrum, and a clever plot device, as it allows Dafoe, Molina and Foxx to bring their characters back as more than just CGI-infused mutations.

The battle sequences in “No Way Home” are relatively low-key, taking place in and around New York City, with the climactic sequence transpiring in rather murky fashion due to the nighttime setting. There’s nothing new or particularly memorable about the serviceable CGI and practical effects, but we remain invested in the outcome in large part because Holland remains the best of the cinematic Spider-Men, while Zendaya lends heart and smarts and warmth to every moment she’s onscreen. We continue to root for these two to make it, even if the multi-verse isn’t always on their side.