This is Spider-Man: The Greatest Hits. A twenty-year franchise has been hanged, drawn and quartered and chucked into a huge celestial cauldron, reuniting friends, foes and audiences, who seem to absolutely love it.

I’ve heard that Americans like to clap and cheer at the cinema screen. Well, the British character isn’t quite so prone to excitement, or so I thought until the screening last night. I’ve heard gasps, seen walkouts and even clapped a little in the past, but never have I experienced some five rounds of applause and veritable choruses of whoops and cheers.

There’s no denying that Marvel films are events. Their success reflects a unique relationship between studio and audience. But what is driving the billowy narratives of the so-called Marvel Industrial Complex? As the name suggests, this is the domain not of auteurs but executives, hype merchants and intellectual property.

Of course, being a children’s film, the plot of Spider-Man: No Way Home is simple. After his identity exposure in the last film, Peter Parker goes to Dr. Strange and asks if he can cast a spell that will cause everyone to forget his identity. Now, Dr. Strange is Marvel’s answer to Superman. He can do everything, whether it’s flying through the air, punching souls out of people or controlling his environment with a fiery lasso. His real forte, however, is his ability to open the “multiverse”, which is key to the future of the Marvel Industrial Complex.

Spider-Man: No Way Home
Tom Holland stars as Peter Parker/Spider-Man and Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Doctor Strange in Columbia Pictures’ SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME.

When you have a character so powerful that he can reanimate villains that died about 10 films ago, the scope for making a buck is endless. “The multi-verse is real?” asks Spider-Man. Yes, and it’s lucrative, too. Never has high-fantasy omnipotence been so narratively convenient. With Dr. Strange, Marvel can send their moneyed behemoth in whatever direction they damn well please. And you will pay to see it once, twice, maybe even three times.

Now, even my cynical heart was excited by that moment. As the audience went wild it reminded me that I do actually like Spider-Man, albeit a Spider-Man that existed before the Marvel Industrial Complex. Sam Raimi’s first film was magic because it did what all the great superhero films do, it blended the banal with the fantastical; the dork who can barely look his crush in the eye and an alter-ego that can swing through the Avenue of Americas, free as a bird… or human spider.

Twenty years later and we have a very different kind of film. No Way Home hasn’t been directed, it’s been processed.  It’s too big, too fantastical. It’s vapid, weightless. It has nothing to say, nothing to comment on. It’s a just a gallery of intellectual property, a tray’s worth of cinematic junk food. Specifically, it’s a lukewarm mozzarella stick of a movie. Edible but stodgy.

Of course, there are some talented performers here and they riff in ways you’d expect from leading actors. Foxx is particularly dry, making full use of Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers’ dialogue, which has some wit to it. Yet the movie also overplays that awkward, bumbling humour that is so popular in Hollywood productions. You know, those exchanges where the characters talk over themselves and explain what they were trying to say with anxious self-awareness. Cringe humour can be brilliant and excruciating, but here, in this mozzarella stick of a movie, it’s pretty tired.

Spider-Man: No Way Home
Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Doctor Strange and Tom Holland stars as Spider-Man/Peter Parker in Columbia Pictures’ SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME.

Tired also are the visuals. Granted, there’s some pretty epic stuff, especially that nonsensical “mirror dimension” sequence, even if Inception did something similar 11 years ago. But No Way Home fails in its combat sequences, which go pew pew and smash smash but are utterly without consequence. They’re just a slurry of jumps, fists and roundhouse kicks in dimly-lit environments – ugly and uninvolving.

Then there’s the “drama”. When it isn’t bombarding you with metafictional quips or mind-numbing fight scenes, it tries to moisten your eyes with the old “great power, great responsibility” shtick. Thankfully, these moments are few and far between.

At its best, No Way Home is a bit of fun. The hype is infectious but ultimately it’s old rope. Rehashed, redone and wiped clean for the next installment. How will they spin him next?