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Zendaya and Tom Holland in a scene from Spider-Man: No Way Home.Courtesy of Sony Pictures/Courtesy of Sony Pictures

Spider-Man: No Way Home

Directed by Jon Watts

Written by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers

Starring Tom Holland, Zendaya and Benedict Cumberbatch

Classification PG; 148 minutes

Opens in theatres Dec. 17

Critic’s pick

I have written and rewritten the lead sentence of this movie review a dozen times, only to toss each one in the digital trash after realizing that Sony Pictures and Marvel Studios might come for my head. It is difficult, after all, to talk about Spider-Man: No Way Home without divulging details of its plot – details that the film’s producers would very much like to be kept out of the public arena before the movie opens Friday, when it will hopefully save, or at least partially salvage, North America’s disastrous box office year.

That is a real problem. Not just for this review – I’ll be fine; my editors maybe not so much – but for No Way Home itself. If a film consists of little but “surprise” after “surprise” – and spoiling these moments threatens to undercut the entirety of the production – is it a movie at all? Or a super-sized love letter to a fan base that is used to being coddled and pacified to the point of strapping them in Spidey-branded pull-ups? Honestly, who knows. Or, really, this deep into the emotional sledgehammer that is 2021, who cares? What I can say, without angering (almost) anyone, is that Spider-Man: No Way Home is both a gigantic act of franchise-mad hubris, and a ridiculous amount of fun.

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Spider-Man: No Way Home is a witty, thrilling bit of blockbuster filmmaking.Matt Kennedy/Courtesy of Sony Pictures

Even for a critic weighed down by Marvel Cinematic Universe fatigue, I watched the 12th Spider-Man movie of my relatively young lifetime (13th, if you count his quick appearance at the end of … another spoiler alert … Venom: Let There Be Carnage) with something approaching wide-eyed joy. Remarkably, this is a witty, thrilling bit of blockbuster filmmaking. I laughed, you might cry, and for 2½ hours – or approximately the length of one Venom plus half a House of Gucci – I forgot about the world outside the multiplex. It was like sensory-overload therapy, courtesy of our gracious corporate cinema overlords.

So: What can I say about the film’s contents that won’t send me straight to MCU jail tonight? I’ll go with what the marketing has already let on. After the events of 2019′s Spider-Man: Far from Home, our costumed hero Peter Parker (Tom Holland) has lost his anonymity, leading him to face twin enemies: The insatiable media, and the pressure of college applications. When Peter’s newfound infamy compromises his chance to attend MIT, as well as torpedoing the postsecondary ambitions of his girlfriend M.J. (Zendaya) and best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), he asks fellow Avenger Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to cast a spell in which the entire world forgets that he’s Spider-Man. As happens with such space-time stunts, the trick doesn’t go as planned, leading Peter to face off against … well, here’s where things get tricky.

I can confidently say – again, because the trailer already made it public knowledge – that certain characters from the five previous Holland-less Spider-Man movies appear here, pulled from what Strange calls “the multiverse.” This includes Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock, who appeared in 2002′s Spider-Man 2, as well as [redacted], plus [redacted] and of course [redacted]. Okay: Anyone who wishes to stay spoiler-free for this film should lock themselves inside a well-ventilated closet until they’re able to see it themselves, because the internet is going to eat this movie up and spit it back out with the force of a million memes.

In that way, the entire No Way Home experience – the anticipation, the consumption, the postviewing zeitgeist-ification – is an ingenious, insidious effort at harmonizing and maximizing intellectual property that’s spread across several studios and filmmakers and celebrities and eras. There are, thank god, few movies that will get audiences debating the finer points of character-right legalese like No Way Home. So respect must be paid where it is due. But co-existing with this terrifying state of contemporary movie-going is genuine high-pop artistry. It is like watching a stack of cash burn, and glimpsing inspiration in the flames.

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Alfred Molina returns as Doc Ock in the film as his character is pulled from what Doctor Strange calls 'the multiverse.'Courtesy of Sony Pictures/Courtesy of Sony Pictures

The script, for starters, is several notches above the typical output of the MCU factory floor. Tasked with weaving a tangled web involving not only the canon of one Spider-Man universe but the continuity of a handful of other Spidey series, too, writers Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers bring harmony to chaos. And an above-average number of one-liners, zingers and smart-aleck asides that define the character. If America is Spider-Man Nation – and there is no reason to doubt that the country’s culture is by this point irrevocably tied to Peter Parker – then McKenna and Sommers make for skilled framers of the constitution. They succeed in balancing their fan-service obligations with fresh and invigorating material, where the writers of, say, Ghostbusters: Afterlife failed.

Meanwhile, director Jon Watts, returning after Spider-Man: Homecoming and Spider-Man: Far from Home, finally finds his comic-book footing. While too many of No Way Home’s set-pieces take place at night – the better to hide slippery CG work – Watts ultimately delivers the most comic book-y of all MCU films (including, yes, Avengers: Endgame). This isn’t Sam Raimi-level excellence – nor is it the animated beauty of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse – but there is a truly poppy, zippy wit to Watt’s action scenes here. One late-film melee in particular offers a riotous – and most importantly, coherent – splash of destruction and acrobatics, both ripped from and worthy of Spidey’s original legendary artist, Steve Ditko.

The performers embrace their inner comic geeks, too. Holland, Zendaya and Batalon each bring a bright, invested sense of play to the proceedings. Just like the MCU’s other most valuable player, Paul “Ant-Man” Rudd, these young actors appear to be genuinely happy to be here in the first place. They’ll turn jaded and cynical eventually, sure, but for now, it’s a delight to bask in their eager-to-please energy.

Come back and check with me in a few days, though. Then we can have a proper discussion about [redacted].

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.

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