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Movie review: 'Spider-Man: No Way Home' sells characters short

Cast member Tom Holland attends the premiere of "Spider-Man: No Way Home" at the Regency Village Theatre in Los Angeles on Monday. Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI | License Photo

LOS ANGELES, Dec. 14 (UPI) -- Tom Holland never really got his own Spider-Man movie. Spider-Man: Homecoming was so in the shadow of Iron Man. Aside from Robert Downey, Jr.'s role in that film, Spider-Man was still using all of Tony Stark's technology. Far From Home was the closest to a standalone, but it still heavily dealt with the aftermath of Avengers: Endgame.

The latest, No Way Home, in theaters Friday, is even tied to two previous Spider-Man franchises.

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No Way Home picks up immediately where Far From Home ended. Spider-Man's secret identity as Peter Parker (Holland) has been exposed. At worst, this gets Parker in legal trouble with government agents. Even at its mildest, it's still an invasion of privacy. This gives the first act an intensity and propulsion the film cannot maintain.

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So, Peter goes to his fellow Avenger, Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), to cast a spell to make everyone forget Spider-Man is Parker. There's actually a bit more to the spell-casting scene than the trailer revealed. Parker backs out of the spell but not before it attracts Otto "Doc Ock" Octavius (Alfred Molina) from Spider-Man 2, Norman "Green Goblin" Osborn (Willem Dafoe) from Spider-Man and Max "Electro" Dillon (Jamiee Foxx) from The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Peter has to round them up so Strange can send them back to their universes.

It can be fun when all the various Spider-Man villains talk amongst themselves, but that fun is short-lived. Much of the dialogue doesn't really figure out what these characters would actually talk about. Many of the characters just recap their previous movies. If there are kids in the audience who are too young to have seen movies from 2002, 2004 and 2014, the exposition still won't mean anything to them.

No Way Home should have focused on making new viewers fall in love with the characters so they want to discover their previous movies.

Some poignant moments show what could've been. There are a few genuine dramatic payoffs of the characters' prior adventures. Sony and Marvel did manage to keep some secrets, and there are some fan favorite surprises. Unfortunately, most of the movie settles on the gimmick of seeing all these characters together, a form of cinematic giggling at "Can you believe this?"

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A tighter edit could have shifted the balance in the movie's favor. No Way Home doesn't have enough confidence in the emotional payoffs, so it relies on buffoonery. Like Homecoming and Far From Home, No Way Home diverts a lot of time to comedic asides that just aren't funny. It doesn't need to be 148 minutes, and at 120 to 130 minutes, the emotional moments might stand out more.

No Way Home is not as balanced as the Avengers movies, which are rather miraculous at keeping ensemble casts engaged. In No Way Home, the villains disappear for a long stretch, and so does Strange. So just when you were getting attached to Otto, Max and Norman, they're gone for a long time.

There is so much intellectual property in pop culture now that filmmakers are struggling to figure out how to give fans what they want but still give them something new. Shows like Cobra Kai and movies like Creed set the bar high for the way they re-contextualize classic characters in a new context.

Spider-Man: No Way Home seems content to keep the previous characters as they were. As such, it sells them short because all of these characters were capable and worthy of developing in a new story.

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Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001 and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012. Read more of his work in Entertainment.

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