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‘Spider-Man: No Way Home’ is a big, fat Christmas present for fans

Zendaya, left, and Tom Holland in “Spider-Man: No Way Home.” (Matt Kennedy/Sony Pictures)
(3.5 stars)

“Spider-Man: No Way Home,” for fanatic followers of the webslinger, is a big, fat Christmas present, covered in shiny, blue-and-red wrapping paper and all tied up with a pretty web bow. For more casual consumers of the costumed comic-book superhero’s exploits, mileage may vary. But there’s a whole lot to like here.

There’s just a lot, period.

No spoilers, but trailers for the new film make it clear that Spider-Man’s effort to use the magic of his crime-fighting colleague Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to undo the repercussions of the last film’s climax — in which Spidey’s secret identity as Peter Parker (Tom Holland) was revealed — have, to put it euphemistically, made things worse. Not only did the doctor’s spell not take, and not only has Peter been publicly accused of murder, by J.K. Simmons’s Alex Jones-like tabloid newsman, but a tear in the fabric of space-time resulting from Strange’s sorcery has accidentally invited unwanted visitors from other dimensions into this one.

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Unwanted by Spider-Man, I suspect, but not by you. “No Way Home” is a Spider-Man story on steroids; a Spider-Man sundae with extra cherries.

The concept of a multiverse — infinite parallel universes introduced in its most glorious, Spidey-centric form in the 2018 animated Oscar-winner “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” — is the engine that drives the new film’s narrative, but the premium, high-test rocket fuel that powers it are its performances.

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These include Holland’s, chiefly, in his third title outing in the role, following Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield’s earlier, multi-film stints as the web-head, beginning in 2002. As the high-schooler Peter, now in his senior year and hoping to get into MIT with his best friend (Jacob Batalon) and girlfriend (Zendaya), Holland has reinvigorated the franchise with a likable, relatable, aw-shucks approach to superhero-dom. As rendered by the boyish-looking British actor, Peter’s approach to Spider-Man’s abilities and gadgets is that of a kid in a candy shop.

Guided by returning director Jon Watts, whose credits include both of Holland’s previous headlining performances as the wall-crawler, the supporting cast has so much fun here that it’s infectious. That cast includes, in addition to those already mentioned, Marisa Tomei as the orphaned Peter’s beloved Aunt May, Jon Favreau as Happy Hogan (familiar to “Iron Man” fans as the aide-de-camp of Tony Stark, Peter’s mentor) and Benedict Wong as Strange’s right-hand magic man.

But there’s a whole slew of special guests too, about whom the less said the better. Sure, you can already see several of them in the trailers. And on-set photos of others have been leaked online. But why tear off the wrapping early on a gift this good? Wait, and savor the surprise.

“No Way Home” is clearly not engineered for newbies, and a certain knowledge base is expected. If the line “I ‘blipped’ for five years” — delivered, early in the film, by Strange, as a reminder of events past in the Marvel Cinematic Universe — leaves you scratching your head, you may be in over yours.

As much fun as this movie is, it is, at heart, a story of loss and letting go. For a film that’s so stuffed — some might say overstuffed — with action, effects and quippy dialogue (by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, both of whom worked with Watts on his previous “Spider-Man” films), one of the film’s nicest moments is wordless and very still. It’s the expression of anguish on the face of a character who realizes that, with or without Strange’s magic — not to mention the awesome power of Marvel to hit the reset button, again and again — some things can never be undone.

That surprisingly touching moment underscores exactly what’s so wonderful about this film. It’s not the possibility of multiple universes existing side-by-side, but the acknowledgment, unexpectedly mature, for a comic book movie, that great joy and great sorrow often do, as well.

PG-13. At area theaters. Contains sequences of action and violence, some coarse language and brief suggestive comments. 150 minutes.