‘Spider-Man: No Way Home’ finds the sweet spot in Marvel’s multiverse

Review by Brian Lowry, CNN

(CNN) – After the lengthy buildup, array of teases and alleged leaks, “Spider-Man: No Way Home” impressively lives up to the hype, delivering the kind of unabashed big-screen fun for which theaters have been hungering. Briskly balancing a dizzying assortment of parts, Marvel’s latest (by way of Sony) looks destined to do what only a spider can — namely, lure vast numbers of fans into its web.

Perhaps foremost, this third entry in the series (again directed by Jon Watts) is extremely funny, while providing enough callbacks to the character’s screen history to qualify as a graduate-level course on the subject. The extent to which viewers come armed with that knowledge will surely enhance their enjoyment, but the movie has been structured carefully enough that two decades of Spider-Man viewing isn’t necessarily a prerequisite.

Picking up where the previous “Far From Home” left off, poor Peter Parker (Tom Holland) has had his identity revealed, throwing his life into utter chaos. That includes being hounded by the Daily Bugle’s J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons), whose crusading shtick has received an identifiable upgrade for the digital age.

Marvel is understandably vigilant about spoilers, but enough has been made public that it’s safe to say the plot deals with complications associated with the multiverse and an errant spell cast by Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), to whom a desperate Peter has turned for help.

Strange can’t hide his irritation, but as he notes, for all that Peter has weathered, “You’re just a kid.”

If ever a movie made the case for the adage “Be careful what you wish for,” it’s this one, as Strange’s ostensible solution unleashes dire consequences and threats.

There’s always a degree of messiness when venturing into areas like time travel or alternate universes, but “No Way Home” largely powers through that, sprinkling enough wit and warmth to gloss over the inconsistencies.

The film also deftly builds upon its predecessors, with more mature relationships between Peter, MJ (Zendaya) and his pal Ned (Jacob Batalon) as their concerns advance from high school to applying to colleges, an already stressful time made all the more so by Peter’s elevation to a level of scrutiny normally reserved for British royalty.

Holland has grown with the role as well, and Sony was certainly wise to negotiate the 2015 deal that allowed Marvel’s Kevin Feige to put his creative stamp on the franchise, enriching the character in ways that go well beyond his association with the Avengers.

Frankly, the constant chatter about spoilers and those obsessed with unearthing them (a particularly odd quadrant of the fan universe) will be moot soon enough, leaving the movie’s wrinkles to be exhaustively analyzed. After all, Jameson isn’t the only one to capitalize on Spider-Man as a reliable driver of web traffic.

What’s already apparent, though, is that this movie was conceived to be savored and enjoyed. And in what has become an increasingly elusive phenomenon, that will include whoops and hollers from appreciative fans in theaters, where “Spider-Man” will first reveal its secrets, and then, more than likely, shows off its legs.

Spider-Man: No Way Home” premieres in US theaters on Dec. 17. It’s rated PG-13.

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