You can’t have a good hero without a good villain. And if one villain makes a good hero, then two or three must make a great one, right? That seems to be the impetus behind so many superhero sequels, which tend to pit their do-gooders against whole fleets of enemies. Michael Keaton fought the Joker in Batman and then battled Catwoman and the Penguin in Batman Returns; Tobey Maguire stopped the Green Goblin in Spider-Man then had to juggle Sandman and Venom and a new Goblin in Spider-Man 3.

Spider-Man: No Way Home takes that notion to perhaps its most outrageous extreme yet — with almost half a dozen baddies from the history of past Spider-Man films. At various points, Tom Holland’s Peter Parker fights Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin, Alfred Molina’s Doctor Octopus, Jamie Foxx’s Electro, Thomas Haden Church’s Sandman, and Rhys Ifans’ Lizard. These are mostly fun, interesting characters, but with so many of them jockeying for screen time along with the rest of Spider-Man’s regular supporting cast, it threatens to turn No Way Home into a classic case of too much of a good thing.

That it never quite crosses that threshold is a credit to the creative team behind No Way Home and the latest batch of Marvel-produced Spider-Man movies, including director Jon Watts, producers Kevin Feige and Amy Pascal, and screenwriters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers. These filmmakers really understand Spider-Man, and while No Way Home does get cluttered with bad guys and exposition at times, it always manages to bring the focus back to Peter Parker and his problems — and boy does he have a lot of problems in this movie.

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When last we saw Peter, everyone saw Peter — with his secret identity exposed to the whole world by muckraking broadcaster J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons, another returning actor from Spider-Man’s cinematic past). Beyond Peter’s newfound legal problems — because Spider-Man is a vigilante, after all, and he’s caused a hell of a lot of property damage through the years — there are practical matters that must be dealt with when everyone knows you’re a superhero. Peter becomes a celebrity (and social pariah) at his high school. (It should be noted here that the 25-year-old Holland isn’t quite as convincing a teenager as when he first joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe back in 2015.)  His budding relationship with MJ (Zendaya) could be in trouble too, because everywhere they go they get relentlessly hounded by the media.

That’s a really juicy premise for a Spider-Man story, but No Way Home barely explores its dramatic potential before it brings on the bad guys. They appear after Peter visits Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), hoping he will use his magic to make the world forget that he’s Spider-Man. Strange actually obliges the request, then botches the spell — some Sorcerer Supreme! — which has the unintended consequence of dragging villains from other corners of the multiverse into the main MCU. Doc Ock from Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, Green Goblin from Raimi’s first Spider-Man, and the rest of the rogues are none too pleased to see Spider-Man, and even less enthused that Doctor Strange wants to send them back to their home universes, where they’re mostly fated to die at their respective Spider-Men’s web-covered hands.

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The effects used to de-age Molina and Dafoe so they resemble themselves from the early 2000s are uncanny. There’s one scene where Doctor Octopus ponders his fate in the tightest of close-ups, and if I didn’t know for a fact that Molina was in his late 60s, I wouldn’t believe there was any CGI involved in his performance. Both he and Dafoe slip back into their characters like no time has passed at all, and it’s fun to see them interact with a new Spider-Man who has a different outlook on life than the guy they encountered previously.

Where the movie gets hung up and nearly stumbles is during the rigmarole around these villains; why they’re here, how they got here, whether they can be sent back, and even whether they should go back at all. It leads to a lot of scenes of people standing around in Doctor Strange’s basement arguing about stuff that ultimately isn’t all that important (and mostly raises more questions about the logistics of Strange’s spell that the movie then ignores). No Way Home does rebound in a big way in its final third, which is easily its most satisfying section — and, despite its big action setpieces like a very elaborate fight atop the Statue of Liberty, does return the emphasis back to what it means to be Peter Parker in this absurd world filled with costumed weirdos.

No Way Home understands that the key to Spider-Man’s appeal is not his amazing powers or cool costume, or that he’s a shy nerd who blossoms into a hard-bodied heartthrob after a radioactive spider bite. We like Spider-Man because he’s a screwup. Peter Parker fails — repeatedly. He failed to save Uncle Ben. Later, he failed to save Gwen Stacy, after he’d already failed to save her father, Captain Stacy. (If your last name is Stacy, stay the hell away from Spider-Man.)

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No other superhero has this many defeats, blunders, and outright fiascos to his name. Superman always saves the day. Spider-Man usually does too — but often at a terrible personal cost. At one point in No Way Home, J. Jonah Jameson tells the viewers of his Daily Bugle webcast that “everything Spider-Man touches turns to ruin.” Most of what Jameson says about Spider-Man is a ludicrous fabrication. That line, however, isn’t that far off from the truth.

That’s why this character continues to resonate 60 years after his debut: Because Peter Parker perpetually makes mistakes, but he always keeps trying to fix them. That’s never been truer onscreen than in No Way Home, where Peter makes one bad decision after another. I’m guessing some critics and audiences might call these bad decisions poor screenwriting — after all, how could a budding science genius make such dumb choices?

But that’s Spider-Man in a nutshell. He’s the guy who perpetually breaks stuff, then has to patch it all back together. (Good thing he’s got those webs.) No Way Home, with its use of the old characters from previous Spider-Man movies, really gets that idea. Power and responsibility are important. Seeing something through after you mess it up? That’s the mark of a genuine hero.

RATING: 7/10

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