There is such a delicious and perfectly logical, surprise in SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME, that it alone would be worth the investment of your time and your money to see it in a theater. Fortunately, there is so much more to enjoy as Peter Parker (Tom Holland) and those in his orbit face a future fraught with change as he prepares for high school graduation and life after Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal in a brief, very brief, flashback) reveals his secret identity as Spider-man
This installment of the ever-rebooting franchise picks up right where FAR FROM HOME left off, with the world reacting to the news that their friendly neighborhood Spider-man is a senior in high school. There are two, ahem, schools of thought on this. Those who think of Peter as a hero, and those, whipped into a righteous frenzy by TheDailyBugle.net’s fearmonger-in-chief, J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons), who derides him as a dangerous vigilante. Peter may skirt actual criminal prosecution, but the court of public opinion forces him and his Aunt May (Maria Tomei) to find refuge with Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) in his high security condominium. It’s a situation made even more tense because Aunt May has just broken up with Happy. Meanwhile, Peter’s application to M.I.T. along with the applications of girlfriend M.J. (Zendaya) and best buddy Ned (Jacob Batalon) are declined due to the notoriety the trio have achieved.
Full of good intentions, Peter visits Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) at the Sanctum Sanctorum to plead for a spell that will make everyone forget that he is Spider-man. Strange assents, with his customary crustiness, but as with so many roads to hell that are paved with good intentions, things go awry. Before you can say “abracadabra”, strange visitors from the multiverse invade Peter’s reality, all supervillains who hate Spider-man, but don’t recognize Peter as the superhero when he is unmasked.
It’s a tidy way of rectifying the contradictory storylines of each reboot, as well as making a salient point about giving people a second chance. N.B. No self-respecting superhero movie should be without a moral, and this one includes several metaphysical constructs in a deeply satisfying way as Spidey confronts nemeses from several other multiverses wrestling with some existential issues, as well as a college admission system that is wary of controversy. From the multiverse arrive Doc Ock (Alfred Molina), Electro (Jamie Foxx), Sandman (Thomas Hayden Church), and The Lizard (Rhys Ifans), all bristling with malicious intent, particularly after being locked up in Sanctum Sanctorum’s less than cushy undercroft. But it’s Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) that makes Peter rethink Strange’s solution of sending them back to their own universes and certain death. Persuaded by Aunt May that there must be a better way, he sets about finding ways to cure the supervillains who, being supervillains, are less than happy about returning to mere mortality and morality.
As we would expect, there is a distinctly puckish mood to the proceedings, with witty banter exuding a sophisticated edge, as well as delineating characters with economic precision. These are large than life character, sure, but they have a palpable and sometimes complex, inner life that finds piquant externalization as the story proceeds. There is also heart, but of a non-saccharine variety, and sometimes in the most unexpected places. Dafoe, for example, playing the split personality that is Green Goblin, plumbs poignant depths while playing Dr. Norman Osbore even as he chews scenery as the living gargoyle that is the Goblin. There’s also Favreau, taking rejection like a man. A man who isn’t afraid to cry. Best is the tenderness between Zendaya and Holland, who have the nice, undramatic authenticity of two kids in love. No high-flown speeches, no eruption of hormones to demonstrate the bond they share. It’s as refreshing as it is touching. Equally touching, but far more prickly, is the suddenly shifting relationship between Strange and Peter, as the latter desperately fights the paternal feelings he is growing.
Oh, and about those special effects. They are spectacular, with one of the best cinematic uses of the Statue of Liberty since Hitchcock in SABOTAGE. It’s one thing to revisit the Escher-esque vertigo of the mirror dimension, or travel through magical portals from one time and/or place to another, or to animate a man made of sand. That takes talent and artistry. It’s even better when little touches like the Sandman shedding on a sofa are included and guiltily brushing his effluvia aside. Whimsy can be so very, further ahem, grounding.
SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME is a visual spectacle that doesn’t stint on the excesses of CGI, while never forgetting that the way to engage an audience is to make it care about the protagonists.