Unlike Into the Spider-Verse, which felt like passion leaping from page to screen, the multiversal mayhem of Spider-Man: No Way Home feels palpably born of corporate synergy. The decision to include characters from Sony’s Spider-Man films comes conspicuously close to the latest copyright dispute between Sony and Marvel—No Way Home is, in essence, a crowd-pleasing custody agreement. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If the parents want to reunite to take the kids to Disneyland, why dissuade them?

READ ALSO: ‘Spider-Man: Far From Home’ is a bolt of energy

At its best, No Way Home is a beacon of hope for the studio system: proof that good work can claw its way out of the greediest corporations. A board meeting is but a canvas for the extremely well-paid artist. It’s hard to describe what “at its best” means for No Way Home, though, because some of the movie’s greatest pleasures are buried deep in the thickets of spoiler territory. Here’s as general a take as I can offer to start things out: it’s not as good as the first two Sam Raimi films—Spider-Man and its sequel are still unimpeachable—but it reflects a glimmer of what made them special. That alone makes it one of the strongest entries in the MCU.

Despite palling around with other universes, No Way Home is still firmly grounded in the MCU, so don’t expect a fraction of Raimi’s visual invention. The movie is too mired in Disney house style to look remotely like a comic book come to life. Marvel Studios’ one-size-fits-all post-production process leaves the movie looking, yet again, dull and flat—a misguided stab at magical realism that can’t even muster the colors of real life. Swinging through New York has never looked less exciting. Gone are the Raimi days of forging new styles of cinematography and CGI to create Spidey’s midair ballet; now it’s all weightless whooshes through nondescript backdrops. It feels more like floating than trapeze. The freeing kineticism of Spider-Man on screen is sorely lacking.

But where cinematography and style fail, the screenplay and performances thrive. The story is too busy not to smudge the finer details—it’s paced with the grace and rhythm of a fall down a flight of stairs—but the broad strokes of the narrative are admirable. From a thematic perspective, No Way Home gets to the heart of the Spider-Man mythos with more resonance than the MCU ever has before. “With great power, there must also come great responsibility” was the guiding principle of Raimi’s films—an ideal that Peter would strive for, fail to realize, and strive for again. Heroism was found in the struggle for virtue. No Way Home picks up that thread in surprisingly emotional ways. Where Homecoming and Far from Home took “responsibility” more literally—you have super-duties now, Peter!—this film concerns itself with the moral responsibility to rehabilitate rather than punish. That focus not only fleshes out the roles of the villains, it also deepens Peter’s character considerably. The commitment to rehabilitate even the worst offenders is restorative for the restorer.

Just as poignant is how the film closes out the thematic arcs of the previous Spider-Man series, neither of which wrapped up with a satisfying finish. Like a younger brother offered chances that its siblings missed out on, No Way Home extends its restorative scope to the characters from Raimi and Webb’s films. The actors make the absolute most of it. Dafoe and Molina were standouts then and are standouts now, imbuing their villains with tremendous weight and pathos. Dafoe in particular goes as hard as he did two decades ago. The movie is a cavalcade of great performances. The nostalgia even inspires the visual efforts: at its most thematically Raimi, so to say, the movie backlights its subject with the rising sun, and it looks as hopeful and buoyant as Spider-Man 2’s final scene.

No Way Home also captures the tone of Spider-Man 2’s final shot—MJ staring out the window, worried for her endangered lover—with a commendable turn to melancholy. It’s been a long time since we got a live-action Spider-Man this good, but it’s been longer since we got one this bittersweet. No Way Home is worth celebration and tears in equal measure.

★★★★   (4/5)