**Spoiler Alert: This article contains spoilers for Spider-Man: No Way Home.**
Once upon a time, when I was still a newly minted Christ and Pop Culture writer (2013), I stumbled across a seemingly unlikely nexus of film and philosophy: the ways in which Man of Steel (the launching point for the troubled DC Extended Universe) seemed to be consciously interacting with Plato’s Republic. This connection now appears fairly well-established, but I gave myself a little pat on the back for having spotted it at the time.
Going into Spider-Man: No Way Home, I was optimistic about finding some similarly good material to work with. CaPC’s own writers have already identified its emphases on the costliness of redemption and the desire for connection, added to countless other thoughtful takes on the biggest movie since COVID-19. However, I didn’t expect to see what might be another angle on Socratic ethics via The Republic.
Unlike my viewing of Man of Steel, I was unable to spot any explicit Plato references in No Way Home in either the film’s imagery or dialogue. Thus, I can’t be certain that writers Chris McKenna and Erik Summers or director Jon Watts consciously intended to apply The Republic to their blockbuster. Even so, I believe that Plato’s conception of the Just Man, as explicated in that seminal text of philosophy, provides a useful interpretive lens through which we can understand Peter Parker’s journey as a character in No Way Home.
Since most readers of this spoiler-heavy piece will have seen (or become familiar with) the film, I’ll jump to the key dynamics at play. Though Disney and Sony’s behind-the-scenes wrangling has at times left the fate of Tom Holland’s MCU iteration of Spider-Man in doubt, Jon Watts’ three films nonetheless function as a trilogy regarding Peter’s development. Of course, as K. B. Hoyle observes, Peter is still a teenager in No Way Home and still immature. But he’s gone through an awful lot as a teenager, so he’s not coming in with quite the same level of immaturity that he had when he began.
I pointed out some of this development in my analysis of Watts’ first film, Spider-Man: Homecoming. Our initial glimpse of the MCU character in Captain America: Civil War presented him as ebullient and fun-loving, deferential to an extent, but also reckless and vain. He began that way in Homecoming as well, leading to near-catastrophic consequences. Following Tony Stark’s castigation that “[i]f you’re nothing without the suit, you shouldn’t have it,” the film culminates in a climax that forces Peter’s own humbling: he must fight a villain in a makeshift suit outside the limelight, a villain whose life he not only spares but actually saves. In Far from Home, Peter comes close to leaning too heavily on his return to teenage life as a “friendly neighborhood Spider-Man,” to the extent of trying to avoid peril so that he can stay normal. He is afraid of taking on the mantle and responsibility of becoming the next Iron Man. This backfires somewhat, and in the process we get the only film in the trilogy in which Peter is responsible for the villain’s death.
So No Way Home begins with a greater process of overcompensation. If Peter in the previous film had learned to crave anonymity, now he desires it to a fault. Again, this is thoroughly understandable for his own sake, and it also has an altruistic side, as Peter’s friends and family are adversely affected by the mob-mentality information ecosystem that outed him. The result, though, is his desire to use magic selfishly, a desire that Stephen Strange unwisely capitulates to. Notwithstanding a sincere desire to protect his loved ones, Peter’s decision to seek an easy solution through mystical arts is rash and immature. At the start of the film, his character may be more mature than it was in the earlier installments, but he is still rash and juvenile — he’s still a teenager. And he’s certainly not a just man.
The movie’s arc will bring him to that point, though not before he must experience the pain and trial necessary to teach him this lesson. In good trilogy form, this third entry moves toward the synthesis that the first two hinted at in their polarities. Homecoming crushed his vainglorious pursuit of fame while Far from Home thwarted an equally self-serving desire to remain protectively small. No Way Home requires him to preserve his squelched ego while at the same time accepting the burden of his status as superhero.
It is about how he will go from being just a silly boy to being a just man.
What does it mean to be a just man in the first place? It was a question that appears to have occupied much of Socrates’ thought, and he passed that preoccupation on to his literary pupil Plato. Many of Plato’s Socratic dialogues touch on such ethical considerations, but the most famously extensive discussion comes in Plato’s monumental Republic. Here, the character of Socrates will ultimately be interested in the just society, the eponymous republic. But he argues outward, beginning first with a conception of what the just man will look like.
Early in The Republic, Socrates dispenses with some bad arguments from one of his interlocutors, Thrasymachus, pretty quickly. But two other dialogue partners, Glaucon and Adeimantus (Plato’s actual brothers), remain dissatisfied with his responses and push the point further. Glaucon tells the story of Gyges, a man whose invisibility ring gives him superhuman power. He is now free to indulge any appetite he may desire, free of external consequence. To know for certain that a man is truly just, Glaucon claims, he would need to be afforded that much power and choose not to wield it wrongly. Indeed, even more,
We must, indeed, not allow him to seem good, for if he does he will have all the rewards and honours paid to the man who has a reputation for justice, and we shall not be able to tell whether his motive is love of justice or love of the rewards and honours. No, we must strip him of everything except his justice, and our picture of him must be drawn in a way diametrically opposite to that of the unjust man. Our just man must have the worst of reputations for wrongdoing even though he has done no wrong, so that we can test his justice and see if it weakens in the face of unpopularity and all that goes with it… (Translated by Desmond Lee).
How can we tell if someone’s character is truly just? The only way to know for certain is if the person in question 1) has the power to get away with wrongdoing and 2) is actually scorned for acting rightly, yet ultimately chooses the cause of justice anyway.
This sounds extreme, but then, superhero stories (like the ancient myths that they so resemble) tend to deal in extremes. They provide excellent matrices in which to embed such philosophical narratives. And Christian philosophers have long recognized that Plato’s concerns, while not founded in any direct interaction with Scripture, dovetail in significant ways with Christian understandings about the pursuit of justice and righteousness.
Superman is arguably the most obvious case of this narrative direction, since his powers exceed those of even most comparable superheroes: he has enough power to decimate whole nations if he chose to do so. The MCU’s Spider-Man isn’t operating on that level, yet he’s clearly powerful. By the time No Way Home occurs, Tom Holland’s iteration of the character has already defeated Vulture and Mysterio while also participating in the defeat of Thanos’ army (and even some Avengers). Adding to this emphasis is the audience recollection that previous versions of Spider-Man have beaten a wide range of past villains (which becomes quite relevant later in the film). Young though he may be, Spider-Man is a powerful hero.
But he is young, so it makes sense that audiences must be patient to see his transformation into Glaucon’s just man. In the end, though, that is the situation that No Way Home finally establishes. In one sense, the story begins selflessly enough. Peter is frustrated that his identity has been uncovered and quite aware of the implications that this unmasking has for his family and friends (in addition to himself). Yet his initial attempt to circumvent the consequences of this discovery — i.e., asking Doctor Strange to use magic to effect a worldwide erasure of his true identity — is undoubtedly foolish. Acceding to this desire is likewise foolish on Strange’s part; as a wizard with immense power, he should know better. The movie’s key conflict thus begins with the abuse of immense power.
However, when the mangled spell opens up avenues from other universes through which Spider-Man’s adversaries begin to emerge, the implications become evident. Strange inadvertently presents Peter with a Glauconian situation. Having assembled most of the transdimensional enemies into a single location, the two now have the power to return them to their original environments. This will conveniently rid Peter of having to deal with villains who have directed their hatred toward him — though he now realizes it will result in their deaths.
Strange, of course, strongly advocates proceeding with the plan he has set, using his magic to set things back the way they were. But face-to-face with the consequences of his own actions and the actions of his Spider-Man counterparts, Peter chooses a different course, temporarily trapping Strange while releasing the “bad guys” in hopes to reform them through kindness and weird science. One can, I think, legitimately question the wisdom of Peter’s decision here. Is he under a moral obligation to assist the villains in their (possible) quest for redemption? That’s by no means a given. However, one can certainly make the case that it is at least morally tenable, and certainly No Way Home treats it as the correct course of action.
So in the end, if we regard Peter’s actions as just (at least from a restorative understanding of justice), we’re able to watch him transform into a just man. He encounters dangerous foes who would seek to destroy him, and between his own super-powers and his access to Doctor Strange’s magic, he holds the power and the extrinsic motivation to defeat them. Moreover, as quickly becomes evident, choosing the alternative seems harmful. It’s harmful to his reputation, adding social opprobrium to his life even as he’s seeking to escape from such disgrace. It causes a rift between him and fellow hero Stephen Strange. It puts not only himself but also his friends in danger, and ultimately leads to Aunt May’s death. And it’s not even clear that all these actions will be pragmatically successful, as his attempts to rehabilitate the villains initially meet with failure and betrayal.
It is Aunt May who, in the end, declares to him Spider-Man’s signature line: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Plato’s concern in The Republic is that, too often, those with power use it irresponsibly — that is, unjustly. May’s words prompt Peter to travel down the same path as his other two multiverse Peter counterparts: choosing responsibility and justice. In the process, he’s rewarded by the MCU in some senses: his other comrades are saved, the bad guys are reformed and restored, and the multiverse is brought back into balance.
But this is not before he must suffer one last indignity and make one final sacrifice: he must become anonymous, his identity wiped clean from everyone’s experiences. This sacrifice not only preserves his universe; it also allows his friends to proceed with their lives untrammeled by his sullied reputation. But it also cuts him off from all of his relationships — from the very relationships that led him to use magic illicitly in the first place.
This is the right place for him to land, though. Having become the just man, he can now take on the burden of being a hero without the shallow allure of fame, and also without the weight of expectation that would threaten to make him retract back into an equally self-serving obscurity. Spider-Man: No Way Home is about a boy becoming a man — and a just one at that.