“Spider-Man: No Way Home” picks up right where “Spider-Man: Far From Home” (2019) left off, with Spidey’s identity having been revealed. He’s Peter Parker (Tom Holland). Audiences have known that since the first movie in the franchise, almost 20 years ago, with Tobey Maguire in the role. Now the whole world knows, too.
This creates numerous problems, as you might imagine. A big one, which you likely might not imagine, has to do with college plans. Peter, his girlfriend, MJ (Zendaya), and annoying best friend, Ned (Jacob Batalon), have their hearts set on MIT. “I can Spider-Man there,” Peter says in happy anticipation of four years by the Charles. “They have crime in Boston, right?” Ned gives a knowing nod. “Yeah, wicked crime.” “No Way Home” can be very funny.
Alas, MIT is not to be. Thanks in part to the non-stop cable-TV fulminating of J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons), half the world thinks Peter is “Public Enemy #1.” His and his friends’ newfound notoriety means their applications are rejected. What’s a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man to do?
He can go to a fellow Avenger for help. That would be Doctor Strange. The presence here of the splendidly waspish Benedict Cumberbatch is the first of several big surprises “No Way Home” has to offer. Such character interrelatedness is no small part of the pleasure the Marvel movies have to offer. Strange’s associate Wong (Benedict Wong) shows up, too, with his implacable deadpan put to fine comic use. Also on hand is Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), Tony Stark/Iron Man’s go-to guy. Happy, we learn, has broken up with Peter’s Aunt May (the always-welcome Marisa Tomei).
But the character interrelatedness that matters in “No Way Home” is specifically within the Spidey franchise. To help out Peter, Strange turns to the multiverse. Well, better that than, oh, I don’t know, the metaverse. Anyway, there’s some sort of problem, involving portals and alternate realities and a Mirror Dimension, which looks like outtakes from Christopher Nolan’s “Inception,” and . . . all right, who cares, the point is this gives the screenwriters, Spider-Man veterans Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, an excuse to bring back a bunch of supervillains from previous Spider-Man movies.
These interlopers, Strange explains, are “multiverse trespassers.” Think of them as alumni in poor standing: the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina), and Electro (Jamie Foxx), among others. A couple of them were in the movies where Andrew Garfield played Spidey. The others go back to Maguire days. Webspinner-wise, it’s like old-home week, and membership in the alumni association isn’t limited to supervillains.
It should be noted that you don’t need to have seen any of the previous Spider-Man movies to follow this one. But it’s much more entertaining — more affecting, too — if you have. “No Way Home” is overlong and its various temporal loop-the-loops start to wear out their welcome. “It gets confusing,” admits one of the returnees, who ought to know. And about midway through, there’s a very serious and emotional scene involving a much-loved character that seems to belong in another movie. All that said, there’s an imaginativeness to “No Way Home,” along with a ton of energy, that makes the viewer cut it a lot of slack.
Spider-Man has always been an outlier among Marvel superheroes, and in a good way. He’s relatable as none of the others are: all soaring effortlessness wearing his spider suit, all late-teen awkwardness when he’s plain old Peter Parker. That duality is the essence of the character. His life is a constant ongoing identity crisis, which makes the public revelation of his identity all the more of a crisis.
Whether it’s because of that emotional richness or just luck, the Spider-Man movies have been the most reliably good of all the Marvels. Holland’s assuming the role in “Spider-Man: Homecoming” (2017), and Zendaya’s casting as MJ, took the franchise to another level. With “No Way Home,” it stays there — and sometimes goes higher.
Oh, there are two Easter eggs. The first one features Venom (Tom Hardy) and strongly implies he’ll be involved in the next Spider-Man movie. Uh-oh. The second is practically a trailer for “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” set for May release. Different uh-oh: There it is again, that damn multiverse. Ah, but the director is Sam Raimi. That’s right, the director of the first three Spider-Man movies. Hey, another member of the alumni association, only from the other side of the camera and not a multiverse trespasser.
SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME
Directed by Jon Watts. Written by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers; based on characters created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Starring Tom Holland, Zendaya, Benedict Cumberbatch, Marisa Tomei, Jacob Batalon, Willem Dafoe, Alfred Molina, Jamie Foxx. At Boston theaters, Kendall Square, suburbs. 148 minutes. PG-13 (action violence, language, suggestive comments).
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.