Producers: Kevin Feige and Amy Pascal   Director: Jon Watts   Screenplay: Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers   Cast: Tom Holland, Zendaya, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jacob Batalon, Jon Favreau, Marisa Tomei, J.K. Simmons, J.B. Smoove, Tony Revolori, Benedict Wong, Angourie Rice, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Hannibal Buress, Willem Dafoe, Alfred Molina, Jamie Foxx, Thomas Haden Church, Rhys Ifans, Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield     Distributor: Sony/Columbia Pictures

Grade: B

The real threat to any superhero franchise is not some villain, but bloat—the tendency to overstuff sequels with gadgets, supportive partners, and multiple bad-guys until the thing simply collapses under the weight.  That brought the Tobey Maguire “Spider-Man” series to a dead end after three episodes, and Andrew Garfield’s after only two. 

The revived franchise with Tom Holland struggled from the very start by injecting the “Marvel Universe,” and particularly Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, into the mix, along with his factotum Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau).  He was at once saddled with the whole “Avengers” business, and while the first solo film, “Homecoming,” managed to succeed despite that, largely because of Holland’s appealing naiveté, by the second, “Far from Home,” Peter Parker was turning into sort of mini-Iron Man, and was all the worse for it.  Still, Holland’s youthful exuberance kept it likable. 

“No Way Home” is certainly bloated, and not only in terms of the usual overdone CGI action scenes.  It gives lots of screen time both to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Dr. Strange and a raft of villains from previous Spider-Man cinematic iterations—Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin, Alfred Molina’s Dr. Octopus and Thomas Haden Church’s Sandman from Sam Raimi’s original 2002-2007 trilogy as well as Jamie Foxx’s Electro and Rhys Ifans’ Lizard from Marc Webb’s two 2012-2014 “Amazing Spider-Man” reboots.  (Topher Grace’s Venom from “Spider-Man 3” is ignored, presumably because the re-imagined symbiote now has his own series with Tom Hardy, as is Dane DeHaan’s new Green Goblin from “Amazing Spider-Man 2.”  Apparently one goblin is all the budget could handle.)

But there’s plenty of confusion anyway, because two other figures from the Raimi and Webb films are added to the mix and given a good deal of attention, both individually and in combination with one another and with Holland’s Spiderman.  They’re the previous versions of Spider-Man plated by Maguire and Garfield, whose presence will cause even more joy among fanboys than the brief appearance by Charlie Cox, TV’s “Daredevil,” as Matt Murdock early on.

It goes without saying, therefore, that this movie is even more bloated than previous “Spider-Man” sequels, which ordinarily would be the kiss of death.  The amazing thing that it’s rescued by the substantial doses of humor and heart that the filmmakers and cast bring to the picture, with Holland again making the largest contribution but Maguire, Garfield, Dafoe and Molina proving almost as important and the rest of the supporting cast offering sharp contributions too. 

“No Way Off” takes off from the very end of “Far from Home,” when Spider-Man’s identity was revealed by Jake Gyllenhall’s villain-posing-as-hero Mysterio.  The revelation makes Peter Parker not a famous figure but a divisive one, and leads to MIT turning down his application for admission but those of his girlfriend MJ (Zendaya) and his buddy Ned (Jacob Batalon).

Trying to fix the situation, Peter approaches wizard Strange to cast a spell reversing the revelation of his identity.  The ritual goes awry because of Parker’s interference, however, and as a result the five villains show up, leading to Spider-Man’s having to subdue and imprison them while Strange prepares a spell to return them to their own universes.

But as a result of a suggestion from his kind-hearted Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), Peter demurs at the thought of sending them back unreformed, and he defies Strange, enlisting his friends to seek a cure for their conditions.  That’s a nice twist to superhero movies’ normal fight-and-ask-no-questions philosophy, and though once again things go wrong and Peter is faced with confronting a small army of powerful foes, fortunately he will have reinforcements.

The result is a compulsory rip-roaring final fight, this time at the Statue of Liberty, which already served as the site of the culminating battle of the first “X-Men” movie.  Perhaps that duplication is proof that this sort of slam-bang finale has become sadly old hat.  Of course, the CGI has become far better over the past twenty years, and the integration of effects and live-action footage in big action sequences much improved.  But the visuals remain uncomfortably cartoonish, with the animation gradually inching toward real verisimilitude but not there yet.  To make matters worse, director Jon Watts and his technical team, including production designer Darren Gilford, cinematographer Mauro Fiore and editors Jeffrey Ford and Leigh Folsom Boyd, have not staged and cut the action scenes, especially the finale, well enough to clarify who’s doing what to whom and what the various moves are meant to accomplish.  The involvement of Strange’s magic muddies the waters further.  Michael Giacchino’s score, while not annoying, adds nothing special.

Watts is much more successful, happily, with the more intimate moments, and the cast respond with performances that are surprisingly heartfelt for this sort of film.  Though having to share the spotlight with so many other characters, Holland again gives Parker a refreshingly open, eager personality; but there are a couple of instances when he’s called on to show his dramatic chops, and he meets the challenge impressively.  Maguire and Garfield, however, demonstrate that the preceding portrayals of the character had strengths too. As for Cumberbatch, he does his familiar snooty riff, and is occasionally amusing at it.

Among the villains Dafoe and Molina endow Norman Osborne and Otto Octavius, the alter egos of Goblin and Octopus, with a surprising degree of nuance, while Foxx, Church and Ifans are fine, though having fewer chances to shine.  Tomei, Zendaya, Batalon, Favreau and others are all true to their previous characterizations, with the ones who are meant to be irritating—J.K. Simmons’ blusteringly loud-mouthed Jonah Jameson, now a crass broadcaster rather than a newspaper publisher, and Tony Revolori’s smarmy classmate Flash—certainly fulfilling that purpose.

One of the movie’s other great strengths is its ending—not that extravagant Stature of Liberty face-down, and certainly not the obligatory mid- and post-credits scenes that scream MCU, and in this case are particularly disheartening—but rather the fact that “No Way Home” in effect sweeps the Spider-Man saga clean, so that if another stand-alone Web-Slinger movie is contemplated, it will necessarily start from a place less burdened with all the Marvel Universe baggage.  In a way it takes Spider-Man back to his simpler sixties beginnings, and that’s a good thing.