Spider-Man: No Way Home and Stories of Hopeful Restoration
Every other Tuesday in Storied, K. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.
**Spoiler Alert: This article contains spoilers for Spider-Man: No Way Home.**
Spider-Man: No Way Home is the first MCU movie to introduce Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) to the big screen, and his appearance means a lot more than long-awaited fan service. In the world of Marvel, Matt Murdock is a blind, Catholic criminal defense lawyer by day and the vigilante known as Daredevil by night. Although he’s a master of martial arts, it would be more accurate to say that Matt’s superpower is listening. Matt represents restorative justice on the behalf of those who don’t deserve it. He steps into Spider-Man: No Way Home for a brief scene early on to help Peter Parker, and then he steps out, but he sets the stage for where the story is going. And even though Matt Murdock doesn’t reappear in this movie, my mind wandered back to him again and again as Peter Parker (Tom Holland) faced his biggest challenges yet.
Spider-Man: No Way Home begins immediately following the post-credit scene in Spider-Man: Far From Home where Quentin Beck/Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) reveals to the world that the identity of Spider-Man is Peter Parker. Believing Spider-Man to be the murderer of Beck and the mastermind of the London attack, law enforcement goes on the hunt for Peter Parker, labeling him “public enemy number one.” Peter swings home to safety, and we’re reminded at every turn that he is still just a high school kid. Home is his refuge, the apartment he shares with Aunt May, his room, his Legos. But when he gets home, he discovers Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) and Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) mid-breakup, so he tries to shut out everything else happening in the world to focus on the breakdown of his family dynamic.
Peter Parker is just a teenage kid, and the MCU Spider-Man movies have always leaned into these being stories told from a teen perspective. Even though Peter has fought aliens and robots and been to outer space, even though he’s saved the world with the Avengers, he still runs home when things are out of control. All he wants is his aunt to be happy, to go to college with his friends, and to finish his senior year of high school like a normal kid. But when he becomes a public enemy, his home is compromised as a place of safety, and his friends’ lives are strained. Peter Parker does an impetuous teenage thing: he makes a big, dangerous decision without thinking about the possible long term consequences.
Adolescents sometimes have perspective issues, which means that for young people, small problems can seem like very big problems. For Peter, he cannot stand the fact that his friends MJ (Zendaya) and Ned (Jacob Batalon) don’t get into MIT because of their association with him/Spider-Man. He’s supposed to be a “friendly neighborhood Spider-Man,” but he’s disrupted the lives of those closest to him, which is far from “neighborly.” So Peter goes to see Dr. Strange to ask him if there is a way to erase what happened—to cast a spell that causes people to forget that Peter Parker is Spider-Man. Strange reluctantly agrees, but as he’s casting the spell, Peter makes changes to it; he doesn’t want MJ, or Ned, or May, or Happy to forget who he is! The spell backfires as Strange tries to contain it, resulting in tears in the Multiverse that let through people who know who Peter Parker is from other universes—most notably five villains Peter now has to find, contain, and send back to their proper homes.
As a mother of a teenage boy, I laughed out loud when Dr. Strange admonishes Peter for never even trying to call the admissions office at MIT to plead a case for his friends. His friends not getting into their college of choice is, by all accounts, a small problem that a level-headed adult would know how to rationally navigate. But Peter leaps way over rationality to a bizarre solution that is going to have catastrophic consequences. What happens as a result of Peter’s actions is not funny, but it is such a teenage thing to do.
Because Peter Parker is a teenager. But it’s also important that Peter is a teenager for what follows, because while teenagers tend to be impulsive and myopic, they are also more likely than adults to hope for the seemingly hopeless outcome. To believe in restoration, to deny cynicism, to have a moral compass that sees goodness in people where grownups might see only what is bad. Less jaded by life, when faced with impossible scenarios, teenagers tend to make a way. They are more likely to believe that anything is possible.
This isn’t true of all teenagers or all adults, of course, but there is a through-line of truth here, and it’s important to understanding Spider-Man: No Way Home. As Peter begins to round up the villains who have come through the rifts in the Multiverse, he comes to a shocking realization: the botched spell pulled each of them into his world at the moment before their deaths. And not just that, but each of these villains was killed fighting their own Spider-Man in their own universe. So if and when Peter sends them home, he’s sending them home to die.
What is Peter Parker to do with this knowledge? What is any teenager supposed to do with the knowledge that he is about to condemn five men to death?
Dr. Strange says they must go back. The fate of the five villains is set, and their presence in their world cannot be tolerated. There is the bigger picture to consider, and by sending them back, Peter isn’t killing them so much as setting the Multiverse back to what it is supposed to be. But Peter doesn’t see it that way; he can’t see it that way. Especially after Aunt May calls him to see the villains as people who are broken, in need of help. Peter decides he is morally bound to cure the men before sending them back so that they have a chance at life. Anything else would be murder.
What is the life of a criminal worth?
In episode 3, season 2 of Marvel’s Daredevil on Netflix, there is a conversation about morality between Charlie Cox’s Daredevil and Jon Bernthal’s The Punisher. The Punisher has captured Daredevil, trussed him up on a rooftop, and is arguing with him about why he operates the way he does: as a vigilante who kills his targets. Daredevil—dressed in Catholic red to contrast The Punisher’s Grim Reaper black—counters The Punisher’s arguments with his convictions that it is not his job, it is never his job, to kill the people he hunts. He believes in hope, and he’s seen redemption, and even the very wicked deserve the chance to change before they die.
It’s one of the greatest episodes of TV to ever air. But maybe I feel that way because it softened my heart—reminding me that God is a God of mercy, compassion, and restoration. Restoration, however, red like blood, is costly; it asks a price of the restorer. Like the Good Samaritan who had to pay money out of his own pocket, take time out of his own schedule, and risk his own reputation to be seen helping a man who could tarnish it. Like a bloody man on a cross, death and resurrection to restore unto life. To restore someone to life is a costly act. Retribution demands a price out of the condemned. Tit-for-tat, retributive justice says that to level the scales, the cost must be paid out in equal measure. Eye for an eye—let the punishment fit the crime. Restoration offers hope, but retribution condemns.
This is why my mind wandered back to Matt Murdock throughout Spider-Man: No Way Home, because restorative justice versus retributive justice is an important theme, but Peter Parker is also still just a kid. And it became clear to me when Peter did the hopeful teenage thing and opted to go the restorative justice route that so few others would have chosen if faced with such hardened criminals that he wasn’t aware, in his youthful myopia, how much it could cost him. An adult hero like Daredevil would be more aware of the cost. Even the criminals Peter sets out to cure are more aware of the cost of trying to help people like them.
“No good deed goes unpunished,” Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) tells Peter during a moment of critical loss. Peter faces a lot of critical losses in this movie—more than ever before. Curing the villains of their villainy rather than “kicking their a—!” is a more costly ending to a great story. It demands everything of our hero and leads to a demonstration of what true heroism looks like: Someone who lays down their own life to restore what was broken and bring new life.
At the end of J. R. R. Tolkien’s great fantasy work The Lord of the Rings, Frodo tells Sam that he’s leaving the Shire and Middle Earth, his home, because, “I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: someone has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.”
All of the MCU Spider-Man movies have been about “home” (it’s right there in the titles) and what home means in the development of a young person and a young hero—this film is no different. “No Way Home” doesn’t mean there’s no way home for the Multiverse villains who come into Peter’s world; it means there’s no way home for Peter—not for Peter Parker the teenage hero. There will be no homecoming for him, this time. He saved “his neighborhood,” but not for him; this time he has to give it up so others can keep it. Spider-Man: No Way Home is not a happy movie, but it’s still resonating with audiences because restoration is better than retribution. Even criminals deserve a chance at redemption, and there is always hope where there is new life.