For decades, TV soap operas have relied on outrageous plot contrivances like faked deaths and evil twins, while in Hallmark Christmas movies, Santa Claus can make miracles happen. Marvel movies get more respect in popular culture, but they have their own have nutty narrative devices — there’s a handy multiverse of parallel dimensions, and instead of Santa, we get the magic-spell–casting Dr. Strange.
These pop-culture staples might seem worlds apart, but with “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” the MCU happily (and, mostly, following its own internal logic) careens into kookiness, as it encompasses the previous big-screen manifestations of its web-slinging hero into a single narrative.
The most superheroic feat on display might be the film’s ability to keep human-sized emotions and relationships front and center even as the very fabric of time and space twists itself into knots.
Picking up literally where “Spider-Man: Far From Home” left off, we see online muckraker J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons) inform the world that our titular hero is none other than teenager Peter Parker (Tom Holland). The government can’t nail Peter with any of the murder or terrorism charges revolving around the events of the previous film — all a frame-up by now-deceased villain Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) — so Peter is expected to live his life and return to high school, albeit with news choppers hovering and most of his classmates documenting his every move on their phones.
When Peter’s notoriety kiboshes his chance to get into MIT — and even worse, the collegiate ambitions of his girlfriend MJ (Zendaya) and best pal Ned (Jacob Batalon), because of their connections to him — he attempts to mend the situation with the help of Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch). The Master of the Mystic Arts starts an incantation that will make everyone in the world forget that Peter is Spider-Man, but Peter mucks it all up by interrupting with amendments that would exclude MJ and Ned and Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) and May’s on-again/off-again boyfriend Happy (Jon Favreau).
It’s a disaster, of course, one that winds up drawing in people from alternate universes who know Spider-Man’s secret identity: Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) and Dr. Octopus (Alfred Molina) and Sandman (Thomas Haden Church) show up from the films that starred Tobey Maguire, as do Andrew Garfield’s “Amazing Spider-Man” nemeses Electro (Jamie Foxx) and Lizard (Rhys Ifans).
To say more than that would be to go beyond what’s shown in the trailer (and to incur the wrath of Sony and Marvel, who are very emphatic about spoilers in reviews), so suffice it to say that after a previous pair of relatively breezy escapades, Holland’s Peter Parker finally faces some tough lessons about great power and great responsibility, as well as a level of sacrifice on par with what the various comic-book and cinematic manifestations of the character have had to endure.
Of all the superhero movies currently on the market, the adventures of Spider-Man and his pals have always seemed most closely tethered to a recognizable, relatable reality, perhaps because they tell a story about high-school kids rather than demigods or aliens or obsessed billionaires. And even as Dr. Strange once again transforms Manhattan into an M.C. Escher landscape, this is ultimately a story about high-school seniors in love, wondering if they and their best buddy will get to go to college together. The returning team of director Jon Watts and writers Chris McKenna and Erik Somers give the trio of appealing young leads the ability to make their sweet and funny kid stuff the nucleus around which all the interdimensional travel and superhero standoffs rotate.
And the superhero stuff is tons of fun, make no mistake. Editors Jeffrey Ford (“Avengers: Endgame”) and Leigh Folsom Boyd (“Black Widow”) keep the battle sequences lucid and fluid, even when there’s a plethora of characters battling or when Dr. Strange is turning the world into a kaleidoscope, and with a number of scores like this under his belt, composer Michael Giacchino nonetheless keeps finding new ways to emphasize peril and triumph.
While the screenplay does slip in enough exposition to explain who everyone is — while being a little bit fuzzy about the rules of who does and doesn’t get to multiverse-hop — “No Way Home” does expect at least a baseline of familiarity with the three Maguire movies and the two Garfield outings. Depending on your perspective, that expectation will either play like a nod to the late Stan Lee’s love of interlocking Marvel Comics backstory or provide ammo for moviegoers fed up with superheroes in general and the gotta-see-’em-all exigency of MCU movies in particular. Knowing those earlier films certainly has its rewards here, but even those uninterested in the film’s White-House-lawn–sized supply of Easter eggs can enjoy Holland and Zendaya’s teen-romance chemistry and Holland and Batalon’s buddy-comedy banter.
Teenagers often treat life’s challenges like they’re the end of the world, so why not envelop an Earth-hangs-in-the-balance superhero saga in a high-school movie?
“Spider-Man: No Way Home” opens in US theaters Dec. 17.