Movie review

If I had to pick a favorite superhero in the Marvel Comics universe, it just might be Spider-Man. There’s just something so endearing about superpowers in the hands of a gawky teen, who has to simultaneously worry about saving the world and whether his aunt will be mad if he leaves the class trip without permission. (What better time, after all, than high school for extreme emotional drama?) “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” director Jon Watts’ third installment of the franchise’s coming-of-age reboot with Tom Holland as 17-year-old Peter Parker/Spider-Man, lets us see its sweetly neurotic boy hero beginning to become a man — and takes us on a ride that’s so much fun I would have happily sat in the theater and watched the whole thing again, mask and all. This is how superhero movies are supposed to be: thrilling and funny and moving and full of popcorn-fueled joy.

For those who likewise love “Spider-Man” and are planning to head to the theater for “No Way Home,” stop reading right now: I’m going to try to avoid spoilers, but this movie is full of surprises that you’ll enjoy more without even a hint. (I’d been avoiding any news on the film, so I went in more-or-less blank, other than reminding myself of what happened in the previous installment; highly recommended.) Here’s all I’m going to tell you about the plot: Things pick up shortly after the events of “Spider-Man: Far from Home” (also a kick), with Peter’s Spider-Man identity revealed to the world. Devastated by the consequences of his notoriety, particularly in how it impacts his faithful friends MJ (Zendaya) and Ned (Jacob Batalon), Peter asks his Avengers ally Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, nicely exasperated) to cast a spell that will cause everyone to forget the revelation. I need not tell you that the spell does not work exactly as planned, and Peter’s world soon becomes … a wee bit complicated.

Those who meticulously study the Marvel universe will find lots to happily debate here (including two post-credit sequences; stick around if you’re a completist), but those of us with a more casual connection to superhero movies will simply have a rollicking good time. It’s a joy just to hang with Peter and MJ and Ned, hearing the various spins Batalon can put on “Dude!” and watching as Zendaya creates a smart and complex heroine in no need of rescue. It’s sweet to see Peter and MJ’s relationship deepening, even as the world spins around them. It’s delightful to learn that the Undercroft, a basement lair under Doctor Strange’s Sanctum where deep magic is concocted, also doubles as the wizard’s laundry room. (That busy cape — which goes after Peter in one memorable sequence — surely gets dirty.) And it’s fun to hear gasps of glee from an audience (and from yourself), as surprise after surprise is unveiled.

In a final scene, our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man slings his way over a Christmas-light-bedecked Manhattan, as snow falls; it’s one of the loveliest shots I’ve seen in a theater this year. Comic-book movies, if they’re done right, can make us ridiculously happy, and these days that seems more important than ever. Happy holidays, Spider-Man; I’ve missed you.

“Spider-Man: No Way Home” ★★★★ (out of four)

With Tom Holland, Zendaya, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jacob Batalon, Marisa Tomei, Jon Favreau. Directed by Jon Watts, from a screenplay by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers. 152 minutes. Rated PG-13 for sequences of action/violence, some language and brief suggestive comments. Opens Dec. 16 at multiple theaters.

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