Like millions of Americans, I thoroughly enjoyed watching the latest instalment of The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Spider-Man: No Way Home. In my estimation, with just a few exceptions, the movie was near perfect in its storytelling, performances, and plot execution. It also provides great content for deeper contemplation, but if you (for some strange reason) haven’t watched the movie at least once, then you should stop reading now as spoilers will follow.
No Way Home gives us a live action version of Into the Spider-Verse, with the appearance of villains from other Sony Spider-Man movies and of course, Andrew Garfield and Toby Maguire reprising their roles as Spider-Man. The chemistry between the three versions of Parker/Spider Man are executed well, with all of them experiencing an interesting character evolution as the story unfolds. Underlying the development and evolution of every returning nemesis and hero in this film is the overarching desire that all of us possess. We all like to imagine a better version of ourselves. Andrew Garfield’s version of Spider-Man admits as much, when by comparison to Holland and Maguire, he identifies himself as “the lame Spider-Man.” To which Toby Maguire’s version responds “No, you are the Amazing Spider-Man.” This kind of back-and-forth banter continues as ultimately the Spider-Men are forced to rank each other in order to better communicate during the epic battle with their returning foes, with Andrew Garfield gleefully exclaiming “And I’m Spider-Man number three!”
These exchanges joyfully resonate with us, because we live vicariously through these characters and their interaction is a cathartic immersion into the layers of our self-worth and self-acceptance. In addition to longing for a better version of ourselves, we engage in conversations with ourselves, evolve into reinventions of ourselves, and then end up ranking who we were against who we are, and who we wish to become. We judge our wardrobe choices, as Garfield does with Maguire, “Are you going dressed as a cool youth pastor?” We also recognize that there are discrepancies, inequalities, and hypocrisies that are perpetuated in how we choose to live our lives, with enemies never beyond redemption, and heroes who rarely live up to our expectations as when Jamie Foxx’s Electro laments upon discovering that Garfield’s Spider Man is Peter Parker: “I thought you’d be Black.”
Because I’m old enough to have watched all three in their original films in the theatrical release, Tom Holland’s Spider-Man is certainly my favorite -and in this movie his performance confirms all the reasons why, which include a naïve optimism and commitment to doing what is right even when it hurts. At the pivotal moment in the film, when Aunt May tells Peter Parker in the aftermath of Green Goblin’s assault, “With great power comes great responsibility,” these words (spoken for the first time inside the MCU) remind us why Spider Man resonates with all of us. The character of Spider- Man resonates because he is the most relatable superhero of all time. In the aftermath of May’s death, self-doubt sometimes bordering on loathing dominate Peter Parker’s thoughts. The ever-present vulnerability of Peter Parker, just a kid who makes dumb decisions is what separates Spider-Man from every other MCU superhero. It is impossible to forget that Spider-Man is Peter Parker. But in the end, this is exactly the scenario, everyone in the MCU, thanks to Dr. Strange, forgets that Spider-Man is Peter Parker -everyone except for Peter and those of us watching.
Although, I find Dr. Strange somewhat strange in his initial impulsivity to go along with Peter’s request to help his friends get their lives back on track, the plot device opens new worlds of possibility for this Spider Man as he continues to mature in the MCU. Especially considering Dr. Strange was previously known for his careful calculations in defeating Thanos, he doesn’t seem to give much thought to the implications of casting a spell that will give the entire world selective amnesia when it comes to the identity of Spider-Man. But Peter, doesn’t give it much thought either, until he does, which further serves to disrupt the space time continuum that is the multiverse.
But this scenario is completely relatable, as all of us at one time in our lives or another have wished for the ability to make others forget, or for the ability to forget ourselves. The truth is that our very existence complicates the lives of others, especially when we perpetuate harm, intended or unintended in their lives. We’ve all said or done things that we regret and wish that we had access to a wizard who could cast a spell to make everyone forget, rendering our devilish deeds invisible. All of us desire to only be associated with the good that we’ve done, the joy that we’ve added, and the blessings we’ve bestowed on others, but the truth is that we are all a mixed bag. We are good and bad, righteous and evil, equally truth tellers and propagators of lies, and sadly no incantation exists to make this all go away.
I believe that the complications of this spell and its implications will continue for the MCU, but specifically will be a major characteristic of Spider-Man stories going forward. However, this is what endears the hearts of many to the MCU and specifically Spider-Man: the idea that no effort in the Universe is without consequence; especially the efforts at doing good. This is something the MCU does well, it tells stories that illustrate that even the best of intentions at doing the greatest good often extract the highest sacrifices. Peter Parker loses everyone close to him, and he chooses to make this sacrifice for the greater good knowing that from this point forward he will live in anonymity and the good that he accomplished will no longer be associated with him, but only with Spider Man. In this way, Marvel continues to realistically portray the high cost of helping others. No one goes unscathed, not even superheroes.
No Way Home imparts the lessons of sacrifice and pays off on the appearance of every character from the cinematic versions of Spider-Man by giving them depth beyond a mere cameo. In the same way, all the versions of ourselves throughout our lives serve a purpose in defining the person we are now and the person we are to become. And by reminding us that sometimes the greatest good is accomplished by how little people may remember about who accomplished it.