Is SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME self-improvement or giving up?

Let’s start with what we’re allowed to say about Spider-Man: No Way Home without spoiling anything, because it’s something you already know or could have guessed (or maybe even watched online already): It begins immediately after the end of Spider-Man: Far From Home, with J. Jonah Jameson, recast as an Alex Jones-like renegade buffoon but, crucially, still played by the inimitable J.K. Simmons, exposing Spider-Man’s secret identity to the world. So No Way Home starts in a tizzy, and only gets tizzier from there: Peter (Tom Holland) is accosted by the public, pursued by the press, and mortified that his nearest and dearest—the select few who already knew his secret, including his girlfriend MJ (Zendaya), his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), and his beloved Aunt May (Marisa Tomei)—are getting swept into his Spider-Drama. (He claims to also feel for the plight of Jon Favreau’s Happy Hogan, but who really believes him?)

These opening scenes represent a welcome pivot to the beleaguered Spider-Man who hasn’t always felt central to the Marvel Cinematic Universe incarnation, guided here, as in the previous two installments, by Jon Watts. Sure, Peter Parker has faced plenty of tough choices, but they’ve often felt a little softened: by a lifestyle that has appeared more middle-class than just-scraping-by, a mentor-benefactor in the form of Tony Stark, and by the support network of Ned, MJ, and May that’s gradually formed around him. The tradeoff has been that the Watts Spider-Man movies, especially Homecoming, have an appealing lightness of tone, where the patented MCU comedy beats mostly feel natural and in-character, with a sense of teen-comedy community around Parker’s misadventures (at least when he’s not blasting off into space for other people’s epics). Having the world learn his secret is a setback that Mr. Stark can’t buy out. Dr. Strange, however…

So begins a process of No Way Home growing heavier with both power and responsibility, which initially seems likely to collapse the whole enterprise. In a way, it does: The little ensemble of side characters from Peter’s school that made Homecoming and parts of Far From Home so much fun are reduced mostly to cameos here (gotta leave room for Happy Hogan!). Even before it becomes clear that Betty Brant will be overlooked once more, the movie feels antsy and erratically cut. Watts makes a couple of attempts at Spielberg-style simple oners, brief but punchy scenes that pack a lot of interaction and information into a fluid unbroken shot; the efforts are appreciated but still, somehow, a little choppy. Not the camerawork itself, which is unobtrusive enough that it probably (probably) wasn’t stitched together in post, but the pacing, the busy frame, and the amount of off-screen and/or overlapping dialogue rushes through a patchwork of angsty gestures and half-jokes.

Once Peter and his sidekicks meet with Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), though, the movie goes in a different, weirder direction. Peter requests a spell to make the world forget Spider-Man’s true identity; it goes wrong, as hastily constructed spells tend to do; and suddenly he’s face-to-face with a bunch of characters he doesn’t know, but the audience does, because they’re the bad guys from previous Spider-Man movies. Not the ones from the MCU, mind: the really good ones that Sam Raimi made. And also the pretty bad ones that Marc Webb made, here repped as entirely different (but existent) universes. With the mix-and-match crossover nemeses, a potent moral dilemma emerges: Will sending the sinister-however-many back to their own worlds (back into the Spider-Verse, as it were) doom them to a villain’s death? And is this a fair moral calculation to perform just to keep your world neater and tidier?

This is all still trailer territory, and I’ll tread lightly from this point forward, because No Way Home does pack some surprises. It also raises further questions, at almost every turn; though easy enough to follow in the moment, the story gets so tangled up in Spider-mythos that almost any move it makes becomes a questionable one. Rather than debate about the needs of the many versus the needs of the few, or whether decisions are destiny, or a vigilante’s responsibility to encourage rehabilitation, the movie will likely inspire more questions on the order of: But doesn’t that mean…? Wait, if they do that, then won’t…? How did that even…?

Thems the breaks if you’re dealing with such a heady cocktail of fan service, self-spoofing, tribute, and a splash of desecration, all rolled into a 150-minute spectacle (at least one meme makes the cut, too). The animated version of this concept, it must be said, handled this material more gracefully, inventively, emotionally, and omnivorously, without the benefit of two movies’ worth of build-up. Still, that’s a tough act to follow, and there are moments in No Way Home that come admirably close to that open-hearted loopiness.

The new movie also feels liberated—at least in flashes—from the MCU orthodoxy, though of course any scenes with Willem Dafoe or Alfred Molina or the like will be faced with another dire comparison, to the brighter, pop-artier, dorkier, and all together more memorable Sam Raimi universe. (The Amazing Spider-Man alumni, happily, get another chance at glory.) If none of it comes close to eclipsing Raimi’s movies, not even his compromised and underrated third installment, it still sometimes looks like a shocking degree of course-correction from a pair of movies that were largely very successful with fans, regular audiences, and critics alike. Whether as a self-challenge or for simple lack of time to attend its large cast, the Watts-verse is largely shaken off by this particular Spider-Man adventure. Why, Peter’s father figure Tony Stark is only mentioned a handful of times!

Is No Way Home trying to better itself with this universe-bending, or giving up on its own corner of the MCU? It’s hard to say. Watts still gets a bit lost in the large-scale action sequences—and still finds himself in the moments that allow the characters to breathe, even if the cast around his central trio is largely shifted. (Not only are there multiple villains, several of the most famous are essentially playing two different personalities: the ambitious scientists and the monsters they would become. It’s a little poignant and would be moreso if their arcs weren’t paced like flipbooks.) There are some dialogue scenes around the picture’s noisy climax that have a thoughtful, comically rueful tone—a Spidey-sincerity that doesn’t tip over into toxic self-pity. It’s intermittently remarkable stuff, albeit so self-reflexive that it can be hard to key straight into the emotion the way you could with Raimi’s work. While Watts obviously has sacrifice on his mind for this installment, it’s hard to shake the metatextual sensibility: On a thematic level, the main thing being potentially, maybe, kinda-sorta sacrificed is a successful film franchise within a film franchise.

If Watts builds shamelessly on our pre-existing relationship with the Raimi pictures (and even the Webb ones, an act of true generosity to whatever fans of those must exist), at least he’s building. As far as fan-wanking goes, this reads, to me, less cynically button-pushing and nonsensical than its Sony stablemate Ghostbusters: Afterlife. (Or did I just like this brand of fan-service more? Maybe, but to be fair, I have excellent taste.) As the shit-gets-real Spidey movie, well, I’m not so sure. This is an unwieldy picture that plays the multiple aces up its sleeve with an elan that assumes you won’t notice how messy it all is. For example: How are Holland, Zendaya, and Batalon? Good, I suppose; capable of getting across the necessary emotion, and given enough screentime to do so. I’m less sure about whether their personalities on display, going through more than the comic-book motions, as they were in the best moments of the earlier two films. Speaking of unsure: it’s also tough to ascertain if this movie is wrapping up a trilogy, paving the way for another one, or soft-rebooting the whole enterprise. Its desire to do all at once speaks to both the power of Marvel dopamine, operating at triple strength here, and its borderline irresponsibility in wielding it.

One more thing we’re allowed to say without spoiling anything, because it’s something you already know: Sam Raimi himself has been absorbed back into the MCU, only this time he’s not working with Spidey, but his sorta-buddy Dr. Strange (in this movie, issuer of not-particularly-funny deadpan remarks). Maybe No Way Home, whose game-changing aspirations are right there in the title, is a portal toward populist entertainment that nonetheless feels like someone’s individual sensibility, rather than a spirited aggregator. Or maybe it’s another one of those strange loops that dumps you right back where you started.