Zendaya and Tom Holland in "Spider-Man: No Way Home."

Zendaya and Tom Holland in "Spider-Man: No Way Home." Credit: Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures

PLOT When Peter Parker’s secret identity is revealed, he turns to Doctor Strange for help.

CAST Tom Holland, Zendaya, Benedict Cumberbatch

RATED PG-13 (action-violence)

LENGTH 2:28

WHERE Area theaters

BOTTOM LINE Short on story, long on insider humor, this Spidey entry marks a sudden drop-off in quality.

Sony’s new "Spider-Man" movies have been some of the most pleasant surprises to come out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Whether or not superhero movies truly qualify as "cinema" — Martin Scorsese says no, Jane Campion says she hates them — the two most recent Spidey films have been undeniably entertaining. Thanks to an appealing Tom Holland in the title role and the light touch of director Jon Watts, the movies have found a nice balance between CGI-driven blockbuster and breezy teen film.

The third entry, "Spider-Man: No Way Home," is an unexpected disappointment. Rather than deepening the story line or taking it in new directions, the movie merely treads water and caters to longtime fans by bringing in special guest stars from past movies. In fact, unless you’ve seen every one of those movies — stretching back to 2002 — this episode might leave you feeling like a latecomer to a very clubby party.

I can’t say much more about "Spider-Man: No Way Home," for two reasons. One, the movie doesn’t offer much more than a lot of Spidey in-jokes, winking asides and the cinematic equivalent of back-issue references. Two, just about any description of the plot would require ruining several big surprises — and woe betide the film critic who provokes the outrage of a fan base.

A spoiler-free synopsis of "No Way Home" will begin here. Peter Parker, whose secret identity as Spider-Man was revealed in 2019’s "Far from Home," is now persona non grata in his native New York City. Stirring up anti-Spidey sentiment is newspaper editor J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons), amusingly recast as an Alex Jones-style figure who hawks ugly theories and vitamin supplements. As things go from bad to worse, Peter gets an idea: What if Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) could turn back time, in a way, by wiping out the world’s memories with a spell?

It doesn’t quite work, but instead opens holes in the "multiverse," which is becoming one of Marvel’s favorite plot devices. (See 2018’s animated "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.") This quasi-scientific concept is what allows the aforementioned guest-star phenomenon to occur. Some of these old characters still thrill, such as Willem Dafoe’s tortured Green Goblin and Alfred Molina’s wonderfully arrogant Doctor Octopus. Others, like Thomas Haden Church’s emotionless Sandman, not so much.

Hardcore Spidey fans may revel in this big old family reunion, but casual fans may find themselves missing the John Hughes-ian charm of the previous films. (Zendaya, as Peter’s girlfriend, MJ, and Jacob Batalan, as his nerdy buddy Ned, feel sidelined, though some strong emotional beats come from Marisa Tomei as Peter’s Aunt May.) There are many other major reveals worth discussing, but am I really going to take that risk? Not in this universe.

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