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Spider-Man: No Way Home review – messy multiverse caper is hard to resist

Tom Holland's third solo outing as the web-slinger lacks real narrative purpose but its nostalgic charm just wins through

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is falling apart, literally and figuratively. Ever since the franchise ended its twelve-year-long story arc with 2019's Avengers: Endgame, a sense of aimlessness has infected the subsequent three feature films. How do you top a narrative involving an intergalactic battle across the far reaches of space, not to mention the disappearing and reappearing of half the world’s population?

The answer, apparently, lies with the “multiverse,” a concept that Spider-Man: No Way Home spins out to an undeniably fun but unavoidably messy degree. The idea, which suggests a kaleidoscope of infinite variations across different, interconnected universes, is one that offers less even as it appears to offer more. The possibilities are indeed endless, yet this film still fails to carve out a compelling through-line that's notably lacking from the MCU's chaotic fourth phase. How quickly we miss something as arbitrary as “Infinity Stones.”

Jon Watts resumes Spider-Man directorial duties for the third time in a movie that picks up directly after events of 2019's Far From Home. The uncovering of Peter Parker's (Tom Holland) secret identity has created huge difficulties in his personal life – mainly when it prevents him, girlfriend MJ (Zendaya), and best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) from getting into MIT. Desperate to go back to how things were, Peter calls on Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and convinces him to cast a spell that will erase the world's collective memory of his identity. And here's where the story falls into instantly dodgy territory: you have to buy the idea that Strange would risk the fabric of the universe for something so trivial.

Things go wrong, of course, triggering a multiverse crisis of epic proportions. Before long, villains from both Sam Raimi and Marc Webb's respective Spider-Mans have found their way into Peter's own universe. Everyone from Willem Dafoe's Green Goblin, Alfred Molina's Dr. Octopus, and Jamie Foxx's Electro (all here, reprising their roles, among others), converge to kill the “wrong” Spider-Man. Insane in principle, yet it's impressive how seamlessly Dafoe and Molina slip back into their roles, as though two years have passed instead of twenty.

The first half is Peter playing Pokémon. His job, as Strange explains, is to capture the renegade villains with the aid of a mystical arm gadget, zapping them back to an inner sanctum where they're prepared for export to their rightful dimensions. The movie ambles through this middle section with the same foolproof blend of affable quips and serviceable action sequences we've come to expect. The rest is hard to write about without giving reference to the other surprise appearances, so consider this your spoiler warning.

It was long suspected that Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield would reprise their roles as Peter Parker in No Way Home, despite Sony's attempts to keep their involvement under wraps, and they do. As events spiral further out of control, the movie leans on the interaction between the three incarnations of the web-slinging hero – a jovial tête-à-tête of callbacks and meta references that, for a certain type of fan, will prove heavenly. And in its best and most unexpected move, No Way Home ties up the loose ends up these previously abandoned Spider-Man franchises, both of which were never afforded the room to do so before being hastily rebooted. The result is surprisingly cathartic.

For those who grew up with Maguire as Spider-Man, and who felt Garfield was great in the role but undone by lacklustre films, it’s undeniably moving to see these three actors embracing one another, a cross -generational sympathy of superheroes and an on-screen realisation of something that, years ago, might have seemed unrealisable. Surprisingly, the team-up – which extends to way more than just brief “cameos” – feels more natural than it does bizarre. Garfield, in particular, gives a disarmingly poignant turn as the “least successful” Spidey, a performance that doubles as an act of closure for an actor whose story was left unresolved.

No doubt about it: No Way Home is perhaps the most overtly extravagant act of fan service in comic book movie history. Those familiar with the ins and outs of the entire Spider-Man saga will be sure to enjoy the unusual collisions of this mash-up. Many will find the lack of real storytelling and momentum frustrating. As the notion of the multiverse is explored further, we still don't get where we're headed – or why. Yet the movie offers such giddy fun in the moment, it's hard not to relent to its unashamed attempts to ride on waves of nostalgia. And why not, especially at Christmas time?

As the studio grows more aware than ever that casual viewer interest in the MCU is waning somewhat, the franchise's increasing focus on in-jokes, cross-references, and movies hinged on blatant fan service seems targeted to sate the appetite of more loyal and obsessive fans. Nothing wrong with looking back from time to time. But one can't help question whether it's the right choice for a series that so desperately needs to find a way forward.

Spider-Man: No Way Home is now showing in UK cinemas.

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