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Review: 'Spider-Man: No Way Home' is a refreshing blast of visiting baddies and second chances

Brian Truitt
USA TODAY

It’s not just jampacked “Avengers” movies that get to be dimension-hopping, mega-action epics with tons of surprise characters. Now fans can expect that in films featuring the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.  

No matter if he’s fighting a street-level foe like the Vulture or a cosmic villain such as Thanos, Tom Holland’s teenage superhero always finds a way to be the ideal underdog, and that happens again in “Spider-Man: No Way Home” (★★★½ out of four; rated PG-13; in theaters now) as the craziest obstacles get thrown in his direction. (And considering he joined the Avengers and was blipped out of existence for five years, that’s saying something.) Director Jon Watts’ third Spidey film is a rousing entry that doubles as a love letter to the comic book character, a film very much about second chances and a cleverly crafted reminder of that famous adage: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

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MJ (Zendaya) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland) are surrounded by unwanted media attention in "Spider-Man: No Way Home."

“No Way Home” opens by paying off the cliffhanger from 2019’s “Spider-Man: Far From Home”: After a climactic fight ends with the death of illusionist Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal), 17-year-old high schooler Peter Parker’s secret identity as Spider-Man is revealed to the world by DailyBugle.net Internet conspiracy theorist J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons, again in the role he was born to play). Almost immediately, the lives of Peter, his girlfriend MJ (Zendaya), best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) and beloved Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) are upended by pesky media swarming his Queens apartment, authorities threatening charges and JJJ’s public propaganda machine labeling Peter a “web-headed war criminal.”

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Suffice it to say, Peter’s senior year could be starting off better, and going viral in the worst way now threatens Peter and his friends’ dreams of attending MIT together. The young hero seeks out magical bud Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), who can conjure a spell to make everybody forget that Peter is a superhero. But when Peter realizes his loved ones won’t know he’s Spidey, he inadvertently tampers with the frazzled Strange’s conjuring mojo, resulting in supervillains from other universes showing up in Peter’s reality.

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Doc Ock (Alfred Molina) returns but faces a different Peter Parker than the one he knows in "Spider-Man: No Way Home."

Peter, MJ and Ned are tasked by Strange to “Scooby-Doo” the problem of guys like Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina) and Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) from the Tobey Maguire “Spider-Man” movies as well as Electro (Jamie Foxx) from the Andrew Garfield “Amazing” Spider-era. The youngsters' ambitious plan unfolds with a lot of do-gooding, trippy magic, quirky humor, a little heartbreak and various clever ways of bringing together the larger Marvel universe.

But as sprawling as this thing gets, “No Way Home” satisfyingly concludes Watts’ trilogy that started with 2017’s “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” Sure, there was the odd evil dad and summer trip gone wrong, yet the core of those movies was Peter trying to figure out how to be a kid and a superhero at the same time – and usually failing before learning a deeper lesson. Watts maintains that aspect as a constant in the new film, thereby grounding all of the grand MCU-ness in a relatable universality even as Spidey meets the business end of Doc Ock’s tentacles and has Pumpkin Bombs thrown at his head by Green Goblin.

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Peter Parker (Tom Holland) and Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) have to deal with a magic spell gone awry in "Spider-Man: No Way Home."

There are many welcome returns in “No Way Home” – most of which you need to see for yourself, true believers! – but watching Dafoe revel in having another chance as Spidey’s insane archenemy from the comics is a heavenly treat, while a second time’s undoubtedly the charm for Foxx’s Electro. The film’s heart and soul, though – as was the case for the past two movies – is Holland, who lends his dazzling enthusiasm to Spidey yet shows new grit and gravitas.

"No Way Home" turns out to be a bit of a Christmas movie as well, with an intriguing “It’s a Wonderful Life”-esque vibe giving new perspective to its central character. It's a quintessential Spider-Man film that pays homage to the past, checks off all the necessary Marvel boxes and still manages to spin together something refreshing.

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