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[This story contains spoilers for Spider-Man: No Way Home.]
The climactic moment at the heart of Marvel and Sony’s new Spider-Man movie is something that is at once inevitable and utterly surprising, as well as a way to make the title No Way Home true in a manner that few saw coming.
On the one hand, it’s nothing new for Peter Parker (Tom Holland) to have to wrestle with the death of a loved one in his career as the masked wall-crawler — but, really, who actually saw Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) being the one to have to bite the bullet and propel the movie into its final act?
The death of May Parker is, in terms of Spider-Man mythology, a big deal. May is a constant in Spider-Man lore across different media, to the point where she outlived Peter Parker in at least two different realities. (The comic book Ultimate Universe, which introduced Miles Morales, and 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which brought Miles to the big screen and positioned May as a mentor figure.) May is enough of a constant that, in Marvel’s main comic book continuity, her death in 1995’s Amazing Spider-Man No. 400 was undone three years later because, well, Spider-Man needs an Aunt May in his life.
(The method of her revival proved to be amazing in and of itself; it was revealed that the real Aunt May had never died, but instead it had been an actress pretending to be Aunt May as part of a labyrinthine plot hatched by the Green Goblin, who knew Spider-Man’s true identity. The fact that she had died in a hospital, surrounded by medical professionals who had assumedly confirmed her identity be damned!)
Aunt May is a lot more than just a family member to be put in peril by whatever circumstance the plot demands, although that is one story element she serves — a reminder that Peter Parker’s everyday life is as important as Spider-Man’s superheroing, if not more so. Her presence is a link to the very first Spider-Man story, and the character’s original sin: failing to save his Uncle Ben as a result of his own self-interest and inaction. Aunt May is a widow — and, more often than not, a widow ailing in terms of both health and finance, to emphasize her unfortunate situation as obviously as possible — because Peter failed, because he didn’t live up to Ben’s belief that, with great power must come great responsibility. She’s a living, breathing reminder of what happens when he fails; a wonderful dramatic conceit for a character so fueled by his fear of failure.
Of course, the MCU Spider-Man doesn’t have any of that — or, at least, didn’t, prior to No Way Home. Not only were the actual origins of that Spider-Man more vague (Who was Uncle Ben to Peter? How did he die?), but any idea that Peter was truly struggling with his everyday life felt somewhat false, considering a connection to Tony Stark formed in his first solo movie. Holland’s Spider-Man had the costume and an entertaining level of anxiety and imposter syndrome, but he was particularly distinct from the classic version of the character, whose roots were in a tragic past that the MCU Spidey simply … didn’t share.
With the MCU May’s death, it’s tempting to look at the trilogy of Homecoming/Far From Home/No Way Home as an extended origin arc for this version of Spider-Man, finally bringing him to the point that all other Spideys reach about half an hour into their own movies. (Or at the end of their first comic book story arcs, whether it’s an issue or seven.) Certainly, Holland’s Peter Parker finally has a tragic death that he can feel responsible for and try to spend the rest of his career working to prevent moving forward, and there was even a speech about needing to be responsible to set him off in that direction. Finally, he made it!
In that case, the question becomes: Who will be the MCU version of Aunt May, if we get more Spider-Man stories? Not in the sense of, “Who will play May Parker?” — because, well, it was Marisa Tomei and the character is dead until Norman Osborn says otherwise — but instead, who will be the character that reminds Peter of his failure, and of easier and happier times before his loss?
The ending of No Way Home leaves that unanswered — especially given a mechanic that suggests that Peter has isolated himself in a way that the character has rarely, if ever, been in the past. It’s a new place not only for this version of the character, but Peter Parker and Spider-Man in general; somewhere for the character to grow from, and potentially build a supporting cast similar to those other Spider-Men have enjoyed, if that’s where the fates (and studio executives) lead him. If nothing else, he needs at least one character who knew him way back when to remind him of his lowest moment, someone he could never ever cut ties with … but who could that be, without a May Parker in the picture?
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