This is your official spoiler warning. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, bookmark this review for later!
After a long stretch without many great movies coming out, it seems like we are back in business. I’ve been to the theater four times in the last two weekends – two of those viewings being Spider-Man: No Way Home.
I won’t waste any time: this may be the best movie the Marvel Cinematic Universe has produced. No Way Home carried considerable weight from fan expectations leading up to December 17, and even with so many hopeful fan theories and online rumors, this movie delivered across the board. Even where the Internet correctly guessed the details, the story was executed in a thoroughly satisfying way. The fanservice, though undeniably fanservice, felt as natural and unforced as fanservice can. Overall, the movie honored the character (and fans) of Peter Parker from every iteration of the hero.
At the beginning of “Phase Four” of the MCU, I had some trepidation about its expansion into the multiverse. However, once again, I was pleasantly surprised at the MCU’s handling of the potentially overcomplicated concept, with each project staying relatively self-contained. The inciting incident of this film – Dr. Strange’s botching of a spell due to Peter Parker’s interruptions – was explained simply enough. (Simplicity and speed were important for the sake of exposition in the two-and-a-half-hour movie.) The story was able to stay grounded and character-driven as a result. Despite its cosmic scope, I still cared about the protagonist’s relationships and motivation. (Another recent MCU project, Eternals, fell woefully short in its attempts to make me care about its characters, so it was reassuring to see No Way Home accomplish this task.)
Peter’s friendship with Ned and MJ, and the trio’s joint anxiety over college admissions, endeared them to the audience. Despite the global attention the three receive, they focus on their plan to get to college at MIT, all together, for a “fresh start.” With this opening sequence, the story was rooted enough in reality to allow for the comic book-scale problems of the multiverse later on.
In fact, the multiversal rift at the center of this movie allowed it to celebrate Peter Parker exponentially more. Long-rumored appearances of Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Men were finally confirmed with their second-act appearance, when they were plucked from their respective universes by the misfired spell.
Virtually every character in No Way Home gets a redemption arc – Peter 3 earned a cheer (and, at least in this writer’s case, a tear) with his redemptive scene – and our Peter is no exception to this character development. No Way Home sees Tom Holland’s Peter Parker grow from a witty, likable, intelligent-but-goofy young man into a resilient, humble, self-sacrificial hero – carrying the weight of the world, but not embittered by the burden.
When Far From Home, Tom Holland’s last Spider-Man movie, came out, I wrote in a reflection that “Peter’s duty to heroism and his desire for home are in conflict.His home is found in his close relationships, but heroism (and his secret identity) demands that he take the path of solitude…. The path of duty is a solitary one.” No Way Home redefines heroism for Peter, expanding its scope, encompassing the hero’s duty even to villains like Electro and Green Goblin. As in Far From Home, Peter wants to have it all, to live two lives: one of normalcy (for all the “Peter Parker stuff”), and one of heroism.
Aunt May plays a key role in guiding Peter’s decision. Her compassionate defense of Norman Osborn/Green Goblin helps Peter see Osborn in a different light, and he even enlists the scientist’s help in curing Doc Oc, Electro, Sandman, and Lizard of their respective physical and mental issues. Rather than merely sending them back to their own universes to be dealt with, Peter makes the decision to help the villains find healing and restoration. Unsurprisingly, this does not end well, and Aunt May is tragically caught in the crossfire. (Cue another tear from this writer.) With her last words to Peter, May assures him that it was still worth it to cure Osborn. She utters the iconic line, with a small twist: “With great power, there must also come great responsibility” – emphasizing that Peter must choose, perhaps all over again, whether he will take up his duty as a hero.
It almost seems as if Peter will make the wrong choice. In the wake of May’s death, he receives comfort from MJ and Ned, and wisdom from Peter 2 and 3. The alternate-universe Peters are able to offer unique empathy and insight: Peter 3 from the midst of a wounded bitterness, and Peter 2 from the other side of it. Even with their guidance, Peter is nearly overwhelmed by rage during the climactic battle. Tom Holland’s Peter Parker is at his darkest and most brutal; he has stopped pulling his punches. (On my second viewing of the movie, this scene in New York Harbor at sunrise struck me as visually and thematically similar to a scene from Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, when Anakin Skywalker stands in the Jedi council room, bathed in the yellow light of sunset, deciding on a course of action that leads him to the Dark Side. Peter here faces a similar tipping point.) At the crucial moment, as Peter prepares to deliver the killing blow with Goblin’s own glider – a parallel to Goblin’s death in his original universe – Tobey Maguire’s Peter steps in. It doesn’t take much – just enough to break through Peter’s anger and grief long enough to remind him what kind of hero he is. Moments later, Norman Osborn’s mind is restored to wholeness, Goblin defeated.
But Peter’s duty is still not accomplished. Despite Dr. Strange’s best efforts, the multiverse is splintering due to the broken spell, and the only answer is for Peter Parker to be erased from global memory. More than ever before, Peter’s heroic journey is one he must make alone; his duty compels him to solitude. The friends he fought so hard for, the relationships that set this Spider-Man apart from others, must be sacrificed for the greater good of the universe. In his goodbye to Ned and MJ, he promises that he will find them and make them remember… but the final scene leaves things open-ended. Peter, now nonexistent to those closest to him, is shown to continue as Spider-Man as he studies for the GED, presumably so he can join Ned and MJ at college despite being wiped from the school records. They will indeed be at MIT all together for a “fresh start” – just not as they originally intended.
(Tom Holland’s hesitancy in interviews to commit to more Spider-Man movies only increases suspense of what’s next for Spidey. We can hope that the web-slinger will make an appearance in the Hawkeye show this Wednesday, since Spider-Man was last seen swinging over the skating rink at Rockefeller Center, and Hawkeye’s trailer hints at a season finale fight scene in the same rink. Even if Clint Barton no longer remembers Peter Parker.)
Whether Tom Holland returns for another trilogy, or if he only dons the mask long enough to reintroduce himself to his friends and pass on the Spider-Mantle, No Way Home cemented his iteration of Peter Parker as the Peter Parker. With the blessing of his predecessors, the MCU’s Spider-Man is confirmedly a tried-and-true hero, one who takes up the responsibility that his power demands of him.