The biggest villain in Marvel-wood isn’t Thanos: it’s your friendly, sometimes grumpy neighborhood movie critic. She’s also the smallest, and that’s okay. Her powers are irrelevant.
Marvel, with its armies of true believers and dominance of both movie theaters and clickbaiting media, has long since made its line of products critics proof. The films open, crush and regenerate (repeat) them. Now, with “Spider-Man: No Way Home”, it has a movie that is review proof too. Your critic may throw out adjectives – lively! funny! old fashioned! – but can’t say much about what’s happening.
The idea is that saying too much, as the spoiler police insist, would ruin the fun here. Of course it wouldn’t. The trailer and preliminary publicity have already spilled over a lot, and Marvel’s films are so responsive to their fans that there’s rarely room for real surprises. So, spoiler alert: Spider-Man wins. And again, Tom Holland, the best of the franchise’s live-action leads, has adapted to play Peter Parker, the perennial teenager who also 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 exudes the same sweet, serious decency that helped make Peter and Spider-Man an enduring twin act.
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Peter’s boyish goodness has always been his most prolific weapon, even more so than his super ability to spin webs and toss a thread. He’s always been a nice, cute guy with the nicest, prettiest girls too (Kirsten Dunst, Emma Stone). But Holland is also the most convincing of the other moist-eyed guys (Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield) who played Spidey. His love interest now is MJ, played by Zendaya, who was paired up with another adolescent savior this year in “Dune.” Her cast as MJ and her expanded role on the series continue to pay off, and Zendaya’s charisma and gift for emotional selling (and wacky dialogue) help give the new film a soft, steady glow that centers it like a heartbeat as the story takes off in different directions.
Director Jon Watts returns for his job, which turned out to be a good fit for the material, in part because he understands that Peter is a teenager, if he retains a curious sacred virgin quality. (Part brand extension, part celebrity roast, the script is by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers.) Peter and MJ hug and close their lips, but their relationship feels cozier than carnal, no doubt as a concession to the younger members of the film’s target demographic. (In one scene, Watts splits the screen to show Peter and MJ in separate bedrooms on their phones, a technique used to amplify the chastity of Doris Day and Rock Hudson’s early romance, albeit teasingly so as to sow doubt. )
As for the story, there is one, but what this “Spider-Man” movie really has is a clever setup that sharpens the sprawl of the Marvel universe with the help of one of its MVPs, Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) . It begins with a loud bang and the revelation of Peter’s secret identity, which changes his life and sparks a series of reunions, fight scenes and emotionally charged moments. Spider-Man puts in a lot of miles over the course of the movie for the simple reason that, like almost every Marvel production, it’s too long and is two and a half hours too long. But before that, the film snaps and pops beautifully.
This is largely due to the expansive lineup of performers — including Marisa Tomei (as Peter’s Aunt May) and Jacob Batalon (Peter’s best friend, Ned) — who fill the spaces between battles with feeling and discernible personality. As in any successful franchise, the casting in the Spider-Man movies was often just as or more important than the generic elements. Even on their coldest and meanest PG-13, great actors like Willem Dafoe and Alfred Molina, two of a number of returning veterans, can heat up industrial equipment just because of their presence. They soften rough edges, sell jokes, break hearts and add to the film’s tonal coherence.
It would be nice to see what Watts could do if he wasn’t limited by Marvel’s rigid template, which gives the studio’s films their clearly defined genre identity, but also means they’re more alike than not. (For complicated business reasons, the Spider-Man cycle that started with Maguire in the role wasn’t part of the Marvel movie world until Holland first starred.) Among other things, it would be new to see a more complex Peter . After all, the world is a complete mess, and it would be great if Peter’s great strength and keen sense of responsibility could be used for other, bigger battles, such as the one against climate change. Greta Thunberg cannot do it alone.
Spider-Man: No Way Home
Rated PG-13 for violence in comic books. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes. In theatres.