Spider-Man: No Way Home  HHHHH Directed by Jon Watts. Starring Tom Holland and Alfred Molina. Plugs: Too many to count. Nearest: Cottonwood Mall.

 Like many teenagers I was a fan of comic books, and my favorite superhero was Spider-Man. In fact Spider-Man is so popular that Marvel Comics had several different titles featuring the character, including Peter Parker the Spectacular Spider-Man, Spider-Man, Spider-Man Unlimited, Web of Spider-Man, and my favorite, The Amazing Spider-Man. The character has spawned a sprawling and lucrative (if understandably uneven) film franchise, of which Spider-Man: No Way Home is the latest installment.

 The film is cleverly self-referential, which is a function of both its plot and our current zeitgeist; more cinematic nostalgia can be found in the new version of Scream, for example. It’s also self-referential in that in the film, Spider-Man literally refers to several other Spider-Men, though to avoid spoilers I’ll say no more.

 Spider-Man: No Way Home isn’t the first of the franchise to have different versions of the main character appear in the same film; that was done —and very well, I might add— in the Academy Award winning 2018 animated film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. The idea in fact goes back even further, being done a decade ago in Iron Man 2 when multiple Iron Men appeared together and teamed up, the idea presumably being that the only thing better than one superhero is more of that same hero.

The film’s multiple Spider-Men actually works as more than a gimmick, however, and brings unexpected humanity to the film.

 The film begins with Peter Parker being outed as the titular hero. I enjoyed how the film took its premise seriously and explored what would really happen if Spider-Man’s secret identity was revealed. We see Peter’s carefully-guarded secret being broadcast as news around the world, and soon TV news helicopters are circling the apartment he shares with Aunt May (Marisa Tomei). Reporters harass him wanting a comment, and (arguably even worse) the applications to MIT that Peter, his girlfriend MJ (played by Zendaya) and his buddy Ned (Jacob Batalon) have submitted are denied because of the controversy, which propels the plot.

 I admired the same element in Captain America: Civil War, which offered a real-world moral question: What if a team of superheroes existed, as an autonomous, extrajudicial entity? In the real world when a country threatens its neighbors or acts belligerently (thus threatening international security and world peace) there are various diplomatic sticks and carrots that can be employed to bring their leaders into line. Economic sanctions can be imposed or removed, foreign aid given or withheld, and so on.

But a team of superheroes have no such resources or internationally-recognized legitimacy: their method of control (or dispensing justice, if you prefer) is fighting, not avoiding fighting. Even heroes are —with all due respect— bullies in that they get what they want through violence and destruction. We all cheer because of course they’re on the side of truth and justice and using their powers against villains, but they are not peacemakers.

 The film is loaded, though not larded, with great Spidey villains including Doctor Octopus, the Green Goblin, Electro, and Lizard Man. Alfred Molina and Willem DaFoe make much of their brief but meaty parts as the first two, respectively. They are all together because through a botched spell cast by Doctor Strange (an always-watchable Benedict Cumberbatch) they have been plucked from alternative realities and show up here.

Strange appears now and then to help Spider-Man and his friends save the world —or at least help get them into graduate school. J.K. Simmons shot the film while on break from his Farmers insurance commercials, appearing briefly as Spider-Man’s longtime civilian antagonist J. Jonah Jameson. No longer at The Daily Bugle, the former editor is now a rabid Alex Jones-style social media sensation, gleefully stirring up trouble.

 Spider-Man: No Way Home has its share of flaws; like many of its ilk it’s a bit longer than it needed to be, and there’s a surfeit of “meet cute” banter. There are a few plot holes, none larger than the key question of whether to return the various villains back to their own parallel worlds. This ethical dilemma, which unfortunately anchors key plot points, is about whether to “send them back to die.”

But (at that point in the film anyway) it’s not at all clear that the villains would inevitably die —at least no sooner than anyone else. In fact this should be a no-brainer for Spider-Man, who has seen first-hand over the years how little these ruthless villains care for the innocent lives they routinely threaten. They may (or may not) die if sent back to their own worlds, but they will certainly kill countless innocent people if they do.

One is said to “go home and have a chance,” though it’s not clear at what, but it presumably includes killing lots of people, if his curriculum vitae is any indication. This pickle is wisely elided in favor of astonishing action sequences and spectacular special effects.

 I’ve usually disliked time travel films and stories because they often serve as a deus ex machina plot device, serving to create (or tidily wrap up) any conflicts or problems. The same applied to magic and multiverses, which are often used as a bit of a cheat and reduce the dramatic stakes. What’s the point of superheroes risking their lives to save the world if a simple magic spell or portal to another world can fix things and defeat the villains? (I’ve always felt the same about the Marvel superhero Thor; it’s a bit unfair to include an actual god to fight along with fallible, flesh-and-blood superheroes like Spider-Man, Iron Man, and Green Arrow —he is a god, after all, and has innate supernatural powers far beyond anything we puny humans could hope for.

It’s sort of like bringing a nuclear bomb to a knife fight. But whatever.

 Part of Spider-Man’s appeal is that he is caught between worlds: being an ordinary student by day and a web-swinging hero by night; trying to maintain relationships with girlfriends while needing to heed the call of duty at a moment’s notice.

Tom Holland captures this paradox perfectly and is one of the best actors to portray the character.  Overall, Spider-Man: No Way Home succeeds on many levels, bringing humor and heart to a franchise sometimes weighed down with pointless action and scattered subplots.

Benjamin Radford

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