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Spider-Man strikes a pose in his Iron Spider armor with his robot spider legs extended in Spider-Man: No Way Home Image: Sony Pictures

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Spider-Man: No Way Home has Peter Parker making his biggest mess yet

Fan service and franchises collide in a tangled web of priorities

One of the biggest delights of the latter-day Marvel Cinematic Universe has been watching its version of Peter Parker/Spider-Man screw up in bigger and bigger ways. While every cinematic Spider-Man story has picked up with the hero in high school, Tom Holland’s take on the character is the one most firmly planted in the teenage experience. 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming and 2019’s Spider-Man: Far From Home show a world where aliens invade and supersoldiers wage war, filtered through the eyes of a kid from Queens who’s strong enough to fight alongside the older heroes, but not yet wise enough to keep from getting in over his head. Hence the screw-ups. And Spider-Man: No Way Home brings Peter to his biggest screw-up yet, making for a fascinatingly messy film that tries to juggle fan service with a finale for Peter’s high school years.

That fan service makes No Way Home difficult to discuss without spoilers. There’s more to it than the trailer gets into, and revealing any details would deflate the thrills. Ideally, that wouldn’t matter much; the story of Peter Parker’s final days as a high schooler is what should make for a satisfying film. But No Way Home is a trilogy-capper — often fun, occasionally rough — built on stuff that Sony, Marvel Studios, and die-hard fans would rather we didn’t talk about yet. So we’ll tread lightly.

[Ed. note: Light spoilers for No Way Home follow.]

Spider-Man: No Way Home kicks off with Peter Parker in a hell of a jam. It begins immediately after the ending of Spider-Man: Far From Home, as J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons) — reimagined here as an InfoWars-style provocateur with a YouTube channel — both frames Spider-Man for the attack Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) launched on London, and reveals that Peter Parker is the boy behind the mask.

Spider-Man and MJ leap off a bridge together while MJ panics in Spider-Man: No Way Home Photo: Matt Kennedy/Sony Pictures

No Way Home immediately runs with this momentum, as Peter Parker has only minutes to figure out how to live life as the most famous teenager on the planet. There’s a wonderfully manic energy to No Way Home’s opening moments, as Peter panics and tries to swing home safely with his girlfriend MJ (Zendaya) amid a sudden media blitz. That scene gives way to claustrophobic tracking shots in the apartment he shares with his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), as he tries to break the news to her before the news breaks into their living room.

Sudden fame has all manner of consequences for Peter and his friends, and their loss of privacy is unfortunately quite low on the list of drawbacks. Thanks to Jameson broadcasting Mysterio’s efforts to frame Peter, he and his friends are seen as potentially party to a terrorist attack, which brings them under scrutiny from law enforcement and jeopardizes their futures. (It turns out that colleges are not interested in enrolling alleged vigilantes and their accomplices.)

Feeling this is too much of a price for his friends to pay, Peter turns to Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) for help, asking for a spell to make the world forget that Peter is Spider-Man. When the good doctor agrees, Peter starts second-guessing the ritual in ways that make it backfire, fracturing the boundaries between universes and bringing villains from previous cinematic takes on Spider-Man into the MCU.

The Green Goblin glides in from a cloud of smoke in Spider-Man: No Way Home Image: Sony Pictures

Among them are Norman Osborn/Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) and Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina) from Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2, and Electro (Jamie Foxx) from Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Naturally, No Way Home’s premise leaves room for viewers to speculate who else might join them, but the three prominently featured in the film’s promotional material are also key to the movie’s narrative arc.

Coming after such a propulsive, character-first opening, the narrative contortions that No Way Home’s script needs in order to make its central monster mash happen slow the story down considerably. But in spite of the magic and the multiversal jargon, the point is clear enough: Peter made a mess. Now he has to clean it up and send these bad guys back to where they came from.

The danger of a story like this lies in how easy it is to give way to spectacle, and let the film be carried by the shallow thrill of franchise lines being shattered. No Way Home doesn’t really dodge this problem — you could also call it Spider-Man: Fan Service Ahoy! — but screenwriters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers make a valiant effort to give the movie a beating heart by giving Peter a more humanistic goal. When Peter learns that these invading villains were plucked from their universes before fatal battles with their respective Spider-Mans, he’s unwilling to send them back to their deaths. Instead, he tries to find a way to “cure” them of their supervillain transformations, and send them back with second chances at good lives.

Spider-Man, in a black suit with a mystical device on his wrist, stands in a dark woods while Electro appears in the background in Spider-Man: No Way Home. Image: Sony Pictures

It’s a fitting goal for the Marvel Cinematic Universe version of Spider-Man, who’s always been characterized by noble naïveté and a stubborn insistence that he can do a good thing, even when others reasonably tell him he might make things worse. Those three main villains are good foils for his altruism: Each fits a different archetype. Max Dillon/Electro is a simple crook, motivated by greed. Otto Octavius is the brilliant role model brought low by hubris. And Norman Osborn? With split personalities, he’s both a guiding light and the devil. Dafoe, bringing every fiber of his being to the role, becomes a grinning face of evil that dares Peter to think that holding onto his moral compass is a fool’s errand, one that’s worthless against someone who doesn’t care for morals.

No Way Home’s story is also a franchise flex. What better way to assert that the MCU Spider-Man is the definitive version of Spider-Man than to have him not just defeat his predecessors’ greatest foes, but also cure them? (That’s putting aside the thorny question — which No Way Home has zero interest in — of whether evil is a thing that can be cured.)

No Way Home has a few visual surprises up its sleeve to go with the narrative ones. The usual effects-driven spectacle we’ve come to expect from the MCU rises to the epic occasion; a brawl between Strange and Spidey in the kaleidoscopic Mirror Dimension from Doctor Strange is dazzling. At other times, as with the early confrontation between Octavius and Spider-Man in the middle of a traffic jam, the action is merely serviceable. Some of the fights are surprisingly physical and brutal, however, balancing the weightlessness of computer-generated effects with a couple of slugfests that feel very real, as Peter, unmasked, brawls through a tight hallway, or throws himself into a confrontation that’s pretty much just a fistfight at dawn.

Peter Parker, Ned Leeds, and MJ gather around a laptop in Spider-Man: No Way Home. Photo: Matt Kennedy/Sony Pictures

The more violent edge to No Way Home’s action comes part and parcel with the film’s darker tone, which puts Peter through the wringer emotionally as well as physically. Tom Holland throws his heart into it, anchored by a smaller supporting cast than usual — effectively just his best friend Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalon), girlfriend MJ, and Aunt May. The Peter Parker of the Homecoming trilogy has fallen often and hard, but he’s always done so with an Avengers-adjacent net to catch him. In No Way Home, that net is taken away from him, and he finally gets the opportunity to try and stand on his own without the gee-whiz-Mr. Stark enthusiasm that got him here.

Yet none of No Way Home’s brightest spots can fully free the MCU’s take on Spider-Man from its deepest flaws: It’s still a film that’s beholden to other films. Director Jon Watts gave his Spider-Man trilogy a subtle yet vital distinction, setting them in a slightly brighter and lighter world than other MCU films, and leaving room for Peter’s Midtown High classmates and teachers to steal multiple scenes. This, however, was offset by Tony Stark’s presence continually pulling Peter away from that grounded world, first as a distant surrogate father in Homecoming, and then as a legacy to live up to in Far From Home. Stark is thankfully not part of No Way Home’s equation, and Stephen Strange isn’t meant to take his place. But in pitting the MCU Peter Parker against the villains of Peter Parkers past, No Way Home continues the trilogy’s bothersome trend of the filmmakers leaning on other movies to provide them with stakes and shortcuts to character growth. It’s a trilogy of films trading on stolen valor.

Ultimately, this is the tragedy of the Tom Holland era of Spider-Man. His Peter Parker is so close to perfect, it hurts. He’s young, earnest, and the absolute sweetest screw-up imaginable, one who always, always wants to do the right thing, even though he rarely knows what that might be. And yet he is forever lost in this machine bigger than him, one that constantly threatens to swallow him whole. In Spider-Man: No Way Home, they call that threat “the multiverse.” But in our universe, he’s just a victim of how movies are made now.

Spider-Man: No Way Home premieres in theaters on Friday, Dec. 17.