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Spider Man: No Way Home is in UK cinemas from December 15. 

Jon Watts’s third Spider-Man film is the epic-length equivalent of a ‘very special episode’. Its gambit (courtesy of reality-juggling guest sorcerer Dr Strange) is the timey-wimeyness used in anniversary editions of Doctor Who.

A forward-moving franchise acknowledges the shed skins of previous iterations and brings back versions of characters who’d seemed written out (or off) in long-superseded back issues. Without invoking the mysteries of the multiverse, Skyfall – the fiftieth anniversary Bond film – managed something similar, relying on its audience’s fondness even for weaker series entries. No Way Home summons antagonists even from arguably less-loved hodge-podges like Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 (2007) and Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014).

Electro (Jamie Foxx) makes an appearance and admits he was disappointed to discover Peter Parker wasn’t Black (“you’re from Queens and you help a lot of poor people”) and is cheered by the notion that there must be an African-American Spider-Man in some reality. This is a nod to Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018), an animated precursor with Afro-Latino Miles Morales as the prime Spider-Man amid multiple takes on a character who’s had a near-infinite number of faces behind the often-redesigned mask.

All this is enormously pleasurable if you’ve stuck with Spider-Man like the supporter of a football club with as many losses as wins (if the multiverse gives you pause, be grateful they didn’t go with comics’s disastrous ‘Clone Saga’). Returns for old friends and foes are staged as coups with pauses for applause, which mostly produce the desired response.

Revisions acknowledge earlier missteps: as we had guessed, Willem Dafoe is a much scarier Green Goblin when he doesn’t wear a mask. As with ‘very special episodes’ in general, the risk is that the whole story is about the franchise itself rather than any other business, compounded by the complex relationship the Spider-films have with Marvel’s other ventures. Here, the obligatory end credits sting is literally a trailer for a forthcoming attraction. 

Thus far, Tom Holland has been the most liked and likeable of the 21st century live-action’s Peter Parkers, partly because Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield had already covered the darker elements (bereavement, guilt and rage) that didn’t crop up in Spider-Man Homecoming (2017) or Spider-Man Far From Home (2019). Now, Holland’s Peter finally gets a harsh life lesson (‘with great power …’) that puts him through a Marvel-style emotional wringer and tests his core values (as a hero who saves rather than avenges). A satisfying conclusion of its own trilogy (and coda to two previous series), this cannily wipes the slate for whatever comes next.