A Dark Reading of No Way Home
I need to start this by saying I absolutely love No Way Home. Not only was it a spectacular and amazing movie on it’s own, it expertly walked the tightrope of delivering on our expectations, exceeding them, and deftly set-up a new era for Spidey which sees him stripped back from all the Stark Tech and able to embody the wall-crawler we know and love from the comics. So why am I going to a dark place in this post?
The Oscar nominations were just announced and a few people were disappointed not to see the Marvel juggernaut get a nod. With big budget action blockbusters dominating cinema for all of recent memory, it does seem like there is some snobbery in the divide. Kevin Smith thinks Spider-Man should have gotten a nomination for best picture. So, I started to wonder if he was right. Should Spider-Man be up for best picture? What was the theme of the film, what message did it have for the world? And the answer I got was dark. Spoilers ahead.
No Way Home picks up where Far from Home left off. Peter Parker has been outed as Spider-Man by Mysterio and all the consequences you can imagine are coming crashing down on our hero’s head. The authorities are pursing charges against him, against Aunt May for child endangerment, against Happy for stealing Stark equipment, his friends are refused admission to university because of their association to him. It’s a nightmare.
In desperation, Peter turns to Dr. Strange and asks the Sorcerer Supreme to work his magic and make it so the world forgets who Spider-Man is. Only things aren’t that simple as Peter soon discovers. It’s a set-up similar to It’s a Wonderful Life with Peter wishing he’d never existed instead of George Bailey.
That sets the film up to be about suicide. While It’s a Wonderful Life is more explicit with the connection, No Way Home plays its cards closer to its chest, but the connection is there. Peter is going to erase himself from the world, the life he knew will end and he will be gone.
Despite his heroics, Peter is still a high school student, and this sudden attention, pressure, and drama is too much for him. He definitely scores high in the risk factors for suicide.
Loss of a loved one. Even before the movie starts he’s already lost Uncle Ben, his parents, and Tony Stark.
Physical abuse. He is Spider-Man, he’s taken more than his share of hits.
Emotional abuse. Mysterio has betrayed his trust, tricked and manipulated him before destroying his entire world. He’s been tricked and abandoned by fake Nick Fury. The first movie had him go up against his girlfriend’s Dad.
Bullying. This is a defining trait of his childhood with Flash Thompson making his school life hell but now the entire world seems to have turned against him and the abuse is constant with J Jonah Jameson’s giant head screaming round the clock vitriol at him.
It’s not surprising then that things have become overwhelming. Given all his trauma, the reaction of wanting everything to stop is understandable as well as his first instinct to reach for the nuclear option. As Dr. Strange jokes, Peter resorted to erasing himself from existence even before appealing to the university admissions board.
However, on the cusp of his first attempt, a rush of thoughts snap him out of it mid-way through. His mind drifted to MJ, and his Aunt May, and Ned, and Happy. This reminds me of Ken Baldwin who survived a suicide attempt from the Golden Gate Bridge and said “I instantly realized that everything in my life that I’d thought unfixable was totally fixable – except for having just jumped.”
The Hidden Antagonist
That thought seems to drive the rest of the movie. Peter talks about his problems, he leans on his excellent support group and he sets out to undo the mistakes he has made. Even though this film has the Green Goblin, Dr. Octopus, Electro, Sand-Man, and the Lizard battling Spider-Man, death is the antagonist. It’s the inevitability of these villains’ deaths that Peter is fighting against. He is determined to save them from it, even if that puts him at odds with Dr. Strange.
The villains shift back and forth from enemy to ally but death remains the constant threat. It’s the motivating decision that drives every villain’s action. The Goblin’s fear of death causes him to override Norman and take back control, fear of death convinces Otto and the tentacles to allow Peter to install the chip enabling him to be on the right side of the end battle, it deals the toughest blow to Spidey and the audience when we lose Aunt May, and death is the villain that lingers heavily over the Spider-Man support group of Tobey, Andrew, and Tom.
Each Spider-Man laments and connects over the losses they have suffered. Three Uncle Bens, Gwen Stacy, Aunt May, Two Harry Osbornes. Tobey’s Peter regrets taking lives, Andrew’s Spider-Man admits he has given up life as Peter, while Tobey’s acknowledges being Peter is a struggle and that his is taking it day by day.
The Spider-Man support group and the final act seem to help each Spider-Man overcome their trauma, acknowledge their pain, and envision a path forward. Tobey is further along, being the oldest and having been working at this the longest. He gets to embody the greatest ideals Uncle Ben instilled in him. By the end he’s helped mentor Tom into avoiding a deep regret, given hope to Andrew, and gathered the resolve to make things work with his MJ.
Andrew has further to go but you feel he has gained the courage to be Peter again, redeemed his mistake, and saved Tom from knowing the greatest trauma he ever suffered. The comradery and shared experience with his “brother” Spider-Men definitely seems to heal him. But what about Tom?
Heart-breakingly Tom’s Spider-Man can’t fix his mistakes without the ultimate sacrifice. He gives in to the inevitable, to the force he has been battling the entire movie, and he asks Dr. Strange to erase him from existence.
A tearful goodbye follows with Dr. Strange declaring that he loves Peter and that many love him and will miss him. Ned and MJ force Peter to promise he will find them and make them remember. Peter agrees and honors half his promise. He tracks down Ned and MJ where we cycle back to the Wonderful Life set-up.
Peter gets to see a world in which he was never born just as George Bailey does. We can see the hole Peter’s absence has left, we know, even if they don’t, that they miss Peter and are poorer for having lost him. But, unlike George Bailey, Peter Parker decides to stay dead. Suicide remains his decision and the MCU Spider-Man is gone.
Should No Way Home have been up for best picture?
That was the question that started me thinking this and looking for depth I didn’t appreciate was there. It’s rare we see the trauma of being a hero explored in a blockbuster and rarer we see that there isn’t an easy answer to recovering from it.
Each Spider-Man copes in his own way and moves through their own avalanche of trauma differently despite them being as close to identical as possible. They may all show traits of wanting to withdraw from those who love them, but while Tobey and Andrew come to realize that the isolation has harmed them, Tom can’t shake the idea that his world would be better off without Peter Parker.
We get to see ways of coping, the importance of support networks, talking through problems, especially with those who can relate and empathize with them. We get to see Tobey and Andrew healing, and we get to see it help Tom, but Tom still chooses death. At the end, we understand his decision, even if we, or one of the other Spidey’s may have chosen a different path.
Without romanticizing, glorifying, or fetishizing it, No Way Home offered us insight and understanding of suicide. It showed us how to cope with the trauma that might lead to it. It showed us that there is hope to heal from pain. And, it also showed us that sometimes, even if we do everything right and support those we love, they might still decide to leave us.
So, in my opinion yes! No Way Home is a movie worthy of recognition. Not only did it expertly play with nostalgia, fan appreciation, excitement and spectacle, it also gave us a deeply profound story worth telling.
This is heavy stuff and a dark take on a fantastic movie. If you are in a place where this is speaking to you more than you thought it would, remember there are people out there who want to help and support you, even if you haven’t met them yet.
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