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[This story contains spoilers for Spider-Man: No Way Home.]
“With great power there must also come great responsibility.” That line, even in all of its many variations over the years, has always been at the core of Spider-Man. Consistently they’ve been the words, delivered by Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben, that have begun the journey of Spider-Man, that is, until Spider-Man: No Way Home.
Jon Watts’ latest installment of the Tom Holland-led Spider-Man franchise is a joyous and sincerely moving celebration of three generations of Spider-Man films, and there is plenty, and will continue to be plenty, to talk about in terms of how it brings back familiar faces, deftly navigates nostalgia with genuine payoff, and sets up the future. While I usually tend to look ahead in the aftermath of these Marvel Cinematic Universe event films, I want to break that tradition and look back at how the Spider-Man Home trilogy broke new ground with the character for a contemporary generation, told the story of a boy’s growth into manhood, and ultimately built a better Spider-Man.
Comic book purists always fear change, or at least change that isn’t sparked by their own concepts of what those changes should be. Holland’s Spider-Man has always been widely beloved, but with Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) and Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019) there have been certain sticking points that fans, particularly those who grew up with Sam Raimi and Marc Webb’s iterations of the character, didn’t vibe with. There was concern over the fact that Peter didn’t struggle with money, which as a high-school student on an academic scholarship felt like a non-issue. And there was irritation over his adversaries’ ties to Stark, which felt more like an acknowledgment of how Stark Tech shaped the world, akin to Microsoft or Apple, but didn’t diminish their grudge against Spider-Man. But the major point of contention was the absence of Uncle Ben and his famous line. There was a notion that his death didn’t define Peter and that it was Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) who led to Peter becoming a hero. I think this reading on Peter’s journey in the MCU is accurate, but it’s a feature rather than a flaw.
Iron Man is Spider-Man’s guiding light initially, which is the very thing that has led some to refer to this iteration of Peter Parker as “Iron Boy Jr.” and claim the films are Marvel Studios’ attempt to make another Iron Man franchise, instead of Spider-Man. On that point, I disagree, even more so after the events of No Way Home. None of the other Spider-Man movies featured a whole world of heroes, but in the MCU Peter has grown up seeing men in metal suits, gods, and resurrected war heroes fight to protect the world, which had to have created inherent differences in his character and his perception of the world. It makes sense that a kid who suddenly found himself with powers would aspire to be a superhero, rather than a wrestler, and have certain ideas of nobility already ingrained within him without need to be responsible for his Uncle Ben’s death.
When we’re reintroduced to Spider-Man in Homecoming, shortly after the events of Captain America: Civil War (2016), Peter Parker is struggling with what his role is in a world full of Avengers. He aspires to be one of Earth’s mightiest heroes, not unlike Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s Spider-Man aspired to be on the most popular team of his era, the Fantastic Four, in the first issue of his self-titled series in 1963. He’s been given all the tools to be an Avenger thanks to his Stark tech-enabled suit, but he has none of the patience or lived experience to truly use that tech in the best way. The ferry fiasco, after which Tony takes his suit away and says, “If you’re nothing without the suit, then you shouldn’t have it,” is Peter’s first real lesson of responsibility on a larger stage than he’s ever been before. This lesson isn’t one that separates Peter from being a hero or being selfish, money-obsessed showboat as the comic book origin and previous films suggested. It’s what makes him a hero who has to rely on his own ingenuity. It’s key that this lesson come from Iron Man because he was forced to learn the same one in a cave in Afghanistan. Peter has his own cave moment, when buried under rubble after a brush with the Vulture, and dressed in the Spidey sweatsuit he made himself he says, “Come on, Spider-Man,” urging himself to be the hero he knows he can be without all the fancy trappings.
Homecoming ends with Peter turning down a spot on the Avengers and feeling comfortable with his choice to look out for the little guy and be the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. But that’s all easier said than done. In the aftermath of Avengers: Endgame (2019), Peter Parker is forced to once again question his place in the world during Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019). He runs into trouble with Stark tech that has been left to him, this time in the form of the drone deployment system E.D.I.T.H. Is he being forced to re-learn the same lesson he learned in Homecoming? I’d argue no because the context is different.
Now, rather than having to figure out his place in a world of Avengers, he has to figure out his place in a world without them, while also dealing with the fact that he died and came back five years later, and the planet is searching for the next hero to be its world-saving savior. Peter is faced not only with his own mortality, but that of his idol, Iron Man, a reminder that just because he has powers, he is not invincible, something all adolescents must learn at some point, and something Quentin Beck, Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal), who fancies himself an immortal artist, fails to comprehend for himself. It could certainly be argued that Peter’s choices, to go on summer vacation, to use E.D.I.T.H. and then pass it off to someone else, are all irresponsible decisions. But that is what makes Peter’s journey in this trilogy compelling and believable. He’s a 16-year-old. Of course he’s not going to always be the exemplary figure of responsibility. This is Spider-Man on a learning curve, a process he shares with most other MCU heroes who become healthier and better versions of themselves through the franchise. While this perspective on the character is not a direct adaptation of the character Lee and Ditko created, it values the spirit of what they aimed for: to approach these characters as humans first and super-beings second.
Fact is, the world in which Watts’ Spider-Man films take place isn’t the world of 1962 and our concepts of what being a hero and what growing out of adolescence mean are different. Power and responsibility aren’t fixed ideas, certainly not for a teenager, nor are they lessons learned and nailed to an individual in an instant. This is not to slight Lee or Ditko in any way, but their idea of a 16-year-old is very much born of the ideals of two men who served during World War II and lived in a time in which children were expected, often without question, to share the values of their elders. In the comics, Peter is burdened to live by Uncle Ben’s singular mantra, at great cost to his personal life and happiness. Spider-Man becomes a cross to bear in some cases, rather than an identity desired.
I often reflect on a line in Spider-Man 2 (2004) where, in a dream sequence, Peter (Tobey Maguire) tells Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson), “I can’t live your dreams anymore. I want a life of my own.” Raimi’s Spider-Man films are very clearly situated in the ’60s interpretation of the character, so this request of Peter to live his own life is positioned as a selfish, though understandably human desire. Peter’s chat with Uncle Ben parallels Christ’s conversation with God in the garden of Gethsemane just before his arrest and crucifixion in which The Bible states he said, “My father, if it is possible, let this cup pass me by.” The Christ parallels are numerous in Spider-Man 2, including a shot of Peter being held up by the subway passengers he saved with his body in the position of Christ on the crucifix.
But must Peter Parker be a Christ figure and bear the weight of Spider-Man as a cross? Should Spider-Man exist, cost Peter numerous personal relationships, including his wife and child, because of a mistake he made as a teenager, and the seemingly infallible Ben Parker? This is something contemporary comics have sought to address, most recently in Nick Spencer’s run on The Amazing Spider-Man, in which the villain Kindred, a resurrected Harry Osborn, prodded Peter over: Has Peter’s self-righteousness of being Spider-Man made up for what it’s cost himself those around him? Is Spider-Man a god, demon, or simply a man living with tremendous trauma, leading him to make unhealthy life choices?
Power and responsibility, and their relationship to each other become a course learned throughout the Spider-Man Home trilogy, each time taking on different contexts and leaving Peter to face different repercussions and have time in which to process them. And this brings us to No Way Home in which Peter reluctantly agrees to try to cure a collection of Spider-Man villains from the multiverse on behalf of his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei). He tells her that they aren’t his responsibility, and that looking out for his girlfriend, MJ (Zendaya) and Ned (Jacob Batalon) and ensuring they are able to go on with their lives are his priorities. May reprimands Peter and reminds him that helping people is who they are. Just as it seems Peter might be successful in curing this cross-dimensional baddies, tragedy strikes when Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe) sinks into his Green Goblin persona, destroying the cures and ultimately killing Aunt May. In her dying moments, it is May who delivers the iconic Spider-Man mantra. If it seems as though Peter is hearing these words for the first time, it’s because he is.
Rather than have Spider-Man’s origin as a hero begin with the “with great power comes great responsibility” line, his origin story, his training concludes with it. Those words and the death of Aunt May mark the end of his childhood, and segue into a more mature Spider-Man. What’s important about this revision of events that every Spider-Man fan knows by heart is that Peter gets this final lesson in responsibility not because he did the wrong thing, but because he did the right thing. He isn’t guilty of Aunt May’s death, and by removing that guilt it allows Spider-Man to continue to be Peter Parker’s choice, rather than a burden, or the fulfillment of someone else’s dream.
I believe this will lead to Peter Parker having a healthier relationship with his Spider-Man persona because the role isn’t his punishment. What’s more is that Watts, and screenwriters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, drive home the idea that May’s death and delivery of those words isn’t the same as Uncle Ben’s to the other two Spider-Men (Maguire and Andrew Garfield) who come to Peter’s aid. It’s not as though Peter being responsible for Ben’s death made them better Spider-Men as both of these Variants of Peter admit they’ve dealt with their fair share of darkness, with Garfield’s iteration admitting he stopped pulling his punches, and forgot the Peter Parker side of himself, resulting in the deaths of his adversaries, and Maguire’s version admitting that things were still complicated between him and Mary Jane and that he was still “trying to do better.”
There’s a healing moment across three generations of Spider-Men as they all deal with the fact that there is no perfect version of themselves who made all the right choices. “With great power comes great responsibility” is a process which there is no right way to find. But it’s made clear that for three Spider-Men, who all wish they had done something differently, holding on to guilt and grief doesn’t make the mantra stronger or more noble. In having the chance to cure others they cure themselves, emerging vindicated as better heroes and better people.
In the epilogue of Spider-Man: No Way Home, Peter visits May’s grave, which is notable in the fact that there is no Uncle Ben beside her, lending further credence to the fact that Ben may not have been someone Peter even knew, and didn’t shape his journey as Spider-Man in the same way. It’s refreshing to see Peter Parker get back to the basics of the character at the end of the film, a poor adult in a crappy New York apartment, with a homemade costume, and content, because of the lessons he learned across three films from a superhero idol who initially seemed so different from him, from two other versions of himself who solidified for him what it means to be Spider-Man, and from Aunt May who not only got to raise Peter Parker but Spider-Man as well, leading him to go off in the world and continue her legacy of helping those who need it most.
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Santa Barbara International Film Festival