The biggest villain in Marvel-wood isn’t Thanos: It’s your friendly, sometimes cranky neighborhood film critic. She’s also the puniest, and that’s OK. Her powers are irrelevant.
Marvel, with its armies of true believers and domination of both movie theaters and a click-baiting media, rendered its product line critic proof long ago. Its movies open, they crush and regenerate (repeat). Now, with “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” it has a movie that’s also review proof. Your critic can toss out adjectives — lively! amusing! corny!— but can’t say all that much about what happens.
The idea is that saying too much would, as the spoiler police insist, ruin the fun here. It wouldn’t, of course. The trailer and the advance publicity have already spilled plenty, and Marvel’s movies cater to their fans so insistently that there’s rarely room for any real surprises. So, spoiler alert: Spider-Man wins. And, once again, Tom Holland, the best of the franchise’s live-action leads, has suited up to play Peter Parker, the eternal teenager who doubles as Spider-Man. With his compact size and bright, easy smile, Holland still looks and sounds more like a kid than an adult, and he radiates the same sweet, earnest decency that has helped make Peter and Spider-Man an enduring twin act.
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Peter’s boyish good nature has always been his most productive weapon, even more so than his super-ability to spin webs and swing by a thread. He’s always been a nice, cute boy with the nicest, loveliest girls, too (Kirsten Dunst, Emma Stone). But Holland is also the most persuasive of the other moist-eyed boy-men (Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield) who’ve played Spidey. His love interest is now MJ, played by Zendaya, who was paired with another of this year’s adolescent saviors in “Dune.” Her casting as MJ and her expanded role in the series continue to pay off, and Zendaya’s charisma and gift for selling emotions (and silly dialogue) helps give the new movie a soft, steady glow that centers it like a heartbeat as the story takes off in different directions.
Returning for duty is the director Jon Watts, who has proved a good fit for the material, partly because he gets that Peter is a teenager, if one who retains a curious holy-virgin quality. (Part brand extension, part celebrity roast, the script is by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers.) Peter and MJ nuzzle and lock lips, but their relationship vibes more cozy than carnal, no doubt as a concession to the younger members of the movie’s target demographic. (In one scene, Watts splits the screen to show Peter and MJ on their phones in separate bedrooms, a technique that was used to reinforce, if also teasingly to cast doubt, on the chastity of Doris Day and Rock Hudson’s romance back in the day.)
As for the story, well, there is one, though what this “Spider-Man” movie really has is a clever setup that tightens the sprawl of Marvel’s universe with the aid of one of its MVPs, Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch). It opens with a busy bang and the revelation of Peter’s secret identity, which changes his life and instigates a series of reunions, fight sequences and emotionally charged moments. Spider-Man racks up a great deal of mileage over the course of the movie for the simple reason that, like almost every Marvel production, this one is too long and, at two and a half hours, overstays its welcome. But before that, the movie nicely snaps and pops.
It does so largely because of the sprawling lineup of performers — including Marisa Tomei (as Peter’s Aunt May) and Jacob Batalon (Peter’s best friend, Ned) — who fill in the spaces between the fights with feeling and discernible personality. As in every successful franchise, the casting in the Spider-Man movies has often been as, or more, crucial than the generic elements. Even at their chilliest and PG-13 meanest, great actors like Willem Dafoe and Alfred Molina, two of a number of series veterans making return appearances, can warm up industrial material just by virtue of their presence. They soften rough edges, sell jokes, break hearts and add to the movie’s tonal coherence.
It would be nice to see what Watts could do if he weren’t constricted by Marvel’s rigid template, which gives the studio’s movies their clearly defined genre identity but also means that they’re more alike than not. (For complicated business reasons, the Spider-Man cycle that started with Maguire in the role were not part of the Marvel movie world until the first to star Holland.) Among other things, it would be novel to see a more complex Peter. After all, the world is a complete mess, and it would be super swell if Peter’s great power and keen sense of responsibility could be harnessed for other, greater fights, like the one against climate change. Greta Thunberg can’t do it alone.
Spider-Man: No Way Home
Rated PG-13 for comic-book violence. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes. In theaters.