Spider-Man: No Way Home: The Worth and The Cost of Being Seen
**Spoiler Alert: This article contains spoilers for Spider-Man: No Way Home.**
On the Monday after its release, I checked my son out early from school so that we could see Spider-Man: No Way Home in a relatively deserted movie theater. The eleventh and twelfth graders I teach warned me to bring tissues. They also said, though, that I would laugh, and that “it was the best Spider-Man yet.” I was pleasantly surprised to find that their assessment was correct. I didn’t cry, but I did empathize with the very human moments Tom Holland’s final installment as Spider-Man invoked. And, really, that is what sets this film apart from many of the other Marvel movies my son and I have watched together: both the film’s highs and lows are mined from something viscerally human and somehow understated: the desire for connection.
The movie opens with the chaotic revelation that Spider-Man’s defeat of Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) has been wildly misconstrued to portray Spider-Man as a sort of villain. And, to complicate matters further, in his dying moments, Mysterio reveals Spider-Man’s identity to be that of Peter Parker. This moment works to not only incite the plot’s central conflict, but to similarly establish the major motif driving the narrative: the desire to be seen.
After years of pining to be wholly known, Peter’s identity is revealed to the world—but not on his terms, and not in a way that accurately captures his personhood. The resulting impact lands not just on Peter, but on those closest to him too. He understandably begins to grapple with the compulsion to hide himself—another innately human feeling. In this way, Mysterio’s outing of Peter as Spider-Man works to hold these dichotomous human desires—to be seen, and to hide—in tension with one another, and it is this tension that propels the story forward most meaningfully.
For example, shortly after receiving the news that he and his friends would not be considered for admission to MIT, Peter’s desire to hide finally carries him to action. He seeks out help from Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), and together they manage to badly botch a spell meant to erase Peter Parker from the universe’s collective memory. After he believes he’s contained the spell, Dr. Strange encourages Peter to stop hiding from the world and, instead, to work to make himself more accurately known. Peter takes this advice to heart, seeking out an MIT admissions officer whom he convinces to reconsider his and his friends’ applications. It seems too good to be true—and too early on in the film for any real success—and it is. Peter is quickly pushed to distraction by the revelation that, thanks to Dr. Strange’s failed spell, villains from across the Spider-Man multiverse have slipped into Peter’s New York City. Peter is once more forced underground—literally—to put things right. Once more, the desires to be seen and to hide are held in tension, but unlike at the outset of the film, it is the latter that foils the former.
This thread continues as a series of villains from Spider-Man films past appear and are summarily caught. As Peter, MJ (Zendaya), and Ned (Jacob Batalon) prepare to return them to their rightful universes, Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) challenges Peter to truly see—and to help—the people he has deemed villains. This comprises the bulk of the film’s plot, and it raises compelling questions surrounding redemption. Further, though, this moment continues the motif the film’s opening scene invokes: the human desire to be seen and to connect with others. This is perhaps most aptly summed up when Dr. Octavius asks why Spider-Man does not simply send the villains back to their respective universes to die, and MJ replies, “Because that’s not who he is.” Though there is nothing intrinsically romantic about this moment, its intimacy is honest and captivating: MJ’s clear perception of Peter pushes him forward in his journey. MJ’s surety of Peter’s identity validates his most guileless values; just like Aunt May’s, MJ’s perception of Peter works as a sort of mirror through which he can see the truest—or maybe simply the best—version of himself. And so he proceeds with his perhaps slightly naive plan to redeem the villains that have haunted the Spider-Verse for the last two decades.
Many of the movie’s high beats follow here, from Peter’s earnest belief in the possibility of redemption. They retreat to Happy’s high-tech apartment where, together, they begin to actually cure the villains. It harkens back to the “too good to be true” trope superhero films sometimes employ. Just like Peter’s initially successful confrontation with the MIT admissions officer earlier in the film, Peter again finds quick success, this time in living openly as Peter Parker/Spider-Man. The film’s campy mood darkens, however, when Peter suffers a catastrophic loss. For the first time, Peter must face the cost of marrying his ideals with his power and, at first, it is a lonely decision.
Shortly after this moment, however, Ned and MJ accidentally summon two other Peter Parkers (à la cameos from Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire) because, apparently, if villains from the multiverse can slip into New York City, why can’t heroes? They quickly bring the Peters to, well, Peter, who is in the throes of a full existential crisis. Precisely because they have lived very similar lives—albeit in alternate universes—it is Peter (Tobey Maguire) and Peter (Andrew Garfield) who manage to bring comfort to Peter (Tom Holland). They not only sympathize with Peter, they see him—a human need echoed by one of the multiverse Peters when he says, “I’ve always wanted brothers.”
These scenes between the three Peters have the potential to be nostalgic at best and cheesy at worst, but as with most of the film’s other shining moments, it is the invocation of something deeply human that helps the movie to sidestep schtick and land in something otherwise compelling. Holland’s performance as Peter-in-crisis is utterly believable, which creates fertile ground for Garfield and Maguire to connect with him meaningfully. Cameos that could easily read as cheap plays to the audience manage not to, among the sheer vulnerability of human communion woven throughout the narrative.
The film’s end brings both the plot and this motif full-circle. Peter is left with no choice but to let Dr. Strange erase him from the universe’s memory—including the memories of MJ and Ned. Unlike at the beginning of the movie, this decision comes at Peter’s personal expense. He has done the work of reconciling the two identities he embodies, and yet, he must hide himself not only from the world at large but from those closest to him. Though it resolves on a note of dissonance, the tension held between the dichotomous desires to be seen and to hide is finally brought to a denouement of sorts. Peter knows both the worth and the cost of being seen, and is prepared for both, but he hides himself for the betterment of those around him.
Just before the spell takes effect, Peter promises MJ that he will reveal his true identity to her, that he will make things right. In the film’s penultimate scene, he nearly does just this. As he prepares to enter the coffee shop at which MJ works, he rehearses his revelatory speech. Once inside, however, he changes his mind. This reads as a sacrifice—Peter observes MJ enthusiastically preparing for MIT with Ned, a stark contrast from the girl whose previous motto had been, “Expect disappointment and you will never get disappointed.”
As the film closes, Peter retreats to a lonely apartment with a small box of his belongings—among which is a GED study guide. His intentions for the future are largely ambiguous, but his current disconnection is clear. The film—and trilogy—ends as Peter/Spider-Man launches himself out the window into the crowded, Christmas-decked streets of New York City. The juxtaposition is clear: in a world in which human beings thrive on connection, Spider-Man—a largely tragic hero—continues to exist in disconnection.
While a bitter ending, it is perhaps slightly ameliorated by the fact that, at this point in his character arc, Peter has confronted himself—literally and figuratively. He can no longer rely on his friends to see his character when he cannot, but that may be precisely the point; thanks to them, he can see his character more clearly than ever before. Their connection has taken root and grown within him; framed this way, memory of connection becomes little more than a memento—only peripherally important when compared to connection itself. By emphasizing the transient nature of memory, the filmmakers succeed in shifting the audience’s gaze towards the enduring impact of connection.
Unlike the big scenes in Avengers: Endgame, which felt like contrived plays to the audience, Spider-Man: No Way Home felt simply and deeply human. The desire to see and be seen is one that pervades nearly every facet of daily life. This desire, however, is frequently foiled by the fact that finding meaningful communion with others is often as repulsive as it is attractive. Deep within the human heart, as ancient as Adam and Eve’s hiding from God, is the fear of being seen. And yet, isn’t there also, like Hagar, the desire to be known? At its heart, this is the question that Spider-Man: No Way Home invokes, and it is this that makes the film worth seeing.