My childhood superhero allegiance constantly shifted between Spider-Man and Batman. A photo exists of me at age five sporting the 1980’s Michael Keaton-Batman logo head-to-toe, so the bat claims longevity. But Spider-Man swung into my adolescent life with the 90’s cartoon, and I learned every obscure storyline the Marvel comics offered about this web-headed hero. The latest film, Spider-Man: No Way Home is breaking all kinds of box office records and resonating with fans young and old (and “geriatric millennials,” like me). Here’s a mostly spoiler-free rumination on the heavier themes within this latest film, which closes actor Tom Holland’s solo trilogy and brings us a Spider-Man who, in facing the unintended consequences of his actions, rages at his own limitations and finally embraces a call to love selfishly. In fact, in No Way Home, Peter Parker is walking his own via dolorosa, his own way of the Cross.
Tom Holland’s consistently charming portrayal of Parker picks up right where we left him in Far From Home. Doctored footage from a battle overseas exposed his identity as Spider-Man, and Peter must navigate finishing his senior year of high school with the eyes of every smartphone on him and every media outlet at his doorstep. His friends suffer from their mere association with Peter, and the negative consequences befall his only living family member, Aunt May, played by Marisa Tomei. Aunt May, as both Peter’s legal guardian and director of the local homeless shelter, is Peter’s moral compass. She instructs him to always do good, even while carrying the burden of being misunderstood and the ire of others. “This is what we do,” she tells Peter, “We help people.”
Still, Peter wants to fix the situation at hand. He seeks out Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) a wizard who casts a spell that will undo the world’s knowledge of his superhero alter-ego. The spell misfires and villains from across the Spider-Man cinematic canon appear to seek Peter out. Upon learning that sending many of these villains back to their original universes will result in their deaths, Peter takes on the daunting task of attempting to rehabilitate each adversary of their evil compulsions. No one is too far past atonement: “Everyone deserves a second chance,” Peter asserts. Literary and cinematic echoes of this undeserved redemption reverberate from Jean Valjean to Ebenezer Scrooge, from Luke Skywalker redeeming his father to Frodo Baggins staying his blade against the undeserving Gollum. Every great redemption story is rooted in the biblically true story of our God, who “loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins.” (1 John 4:10)
Of course, we can’t be redeemed against our will. What happens when we refuse to cooperate with the good and instead stay in the corruption of evil?
William Dafoe is, in a sea of rogues present in this film, the archvillain who, like the serpent in the Garden of Genesis 3, slithers in to manipulate his way into a position of trust. His character and alter ego, the Green Goblin, goads Peter for “struggling to have everything you want while the world tries to make you choose. Gods don’t have to choose. We take!” Dafoe’s power-hungry Goblin is the foil to Aunt May’s selfless goodness. “No good deed goes unpunished!” he taunts, as he eventually unleashes chaos upon Peter’s world. He prompts moral questions we viewers must answer: What is the moral response when evil pervades the world in the face of our good and righteous actions? Do we still bother being moral agents of goodness? Shouldn’t we fight fire with fire? Is our morality truly choking, as the Goblin asserts? Why shouldn’t we fight evil with evil so that good might come?
The fight scenes in this film are brutal; this is a Spider-Man betrayed, enraged, and thus fully unleashed, not pulling any punches. In the comics, neither Spider-Man nor Batman employ guns, for their “one rule” is to never take a life, but in this movie Peter Parker walks right up to that line of lethality. It’s a rage we can all identify with—one we experience when we’ve lost control, when our loved ones are hurting, or when all our good intentions and deeds end up making things worse.
“Deception, division, diversion, and discouragement: four strategies of Satan as he tries to prize us away from God,” writes Fr. Billy Swan, and Peter Parker experiences all of these in No Way Home. “The devil urges us to do like Jonah: to run away from our prophetic calling, to opt out for an easier life and conform to the opinion of the crowds.” Isolated and beyond despondent, Peter is tempted to throw in the towel completely.
“Humility is the proper attitude towards all true greatness, including one’s own greatness as a human being,” Karol Wojtyla (before he became Pope John Paul II) wrote in his treasured work Love and Responsibility. Magnanimity, knowing one’s greatness of soul, begins first with the humility of knowing who one is before God—nothing more, nothing less. Moments of humiliation when our guards and gates are finally down are often when we permit God to bring his healing balm to our deepest wounds. Despairing and humbled, Peter Parker’s comfort comes from the rallying of his friends who meet him in his sorrow. They call him out of himself and back to his mission of being a bringing of the good. “You have a gift. You have power,” Tom Holland’s character is affirmed, “And with great power, there must also come great responsibility.”
Most of our generation know this Spider-Man motto by heart. It sums up the entire ethos of who Spider-Man is. We all resonate with this call to step forward into greatness because we are literally made for such a task, to go out of ourselves and love responsibly, as a gift for others. As Wojtyla wrote, “A person who has a vocation must not only love someone but be prepared to give himself or herself for love.” This is precisely the sacrificial choice that Peter embraces (and every great story’s hero must make) by the movie’s end.
As Peter recommits himself to the good that Spider-Man will always work towards, so should we also “not grow weary in well-doing” (Gal 6:9), even in the face of disappointment and failure. Jesus implored us to not despair in the face of the earthly evil we face: “I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Matt. 28:20). This geriatric millennial left the theater smiling from ear to ear. There’s plenty to be theologically mined from Spider Man: No Way Home; it’s full of fan service in all the right ways. Spider-Man continues to resonate with each new generation because, just as with the Gospel challenge of Christ, we are all called, despite our faults and flaws, to be bringers of the good—to practice great love, coupled with great responsibility.