Spider-Man and Redemption

Spider-Man
No Way Home
PG-13

Review by Leonard Freeman

A few early critics did not give Spider-Man: No Way Home a lot of love, but apparently they forgot to check with the rest of the moviegoing public. The first film to pass $1 billion at the box office in the COVID pandemic era, Spider-Man: No Way Home has apparently spoken to an entertainment need significantly underserved in what has been gracing theaters recently.

In recent years many critics have applauded dark, murky, odd films like 2021’s Nightmare Alley (bad psych-out carnival), Don’t Look Up (the asteroid is coming), Titane (woman gets impregnated by a car), and Power of the Dog (Benedict Cumberbatch as a really dark, brutal cattleman). But as Variety’s film critic Owen Gleiberman headlined: “I hated No Way Home, but the Academy should absolutely nominate it for Best Picture.” The Academy Awards have gotten out of touch with what people really like, as opposed to what auteurs think we need.

What is popular tells us things about ourselves — what we are wanting, wishing for, fearing, needing, hoping, believing in — at any particular moment. As communications research affirms, the primary effect of mass media is to reinforce and support us in things we already believe in. And for transitional, angst-ridden 2021-22, Spider-Man is the vehicle, and a welcome one.

Part of it, of course, is that No Way Home is an eagerly awaited installment for a Spider-Man fan base dating to 1962 in comic books and 2002 on film. There have been three cinema Spideys so far, in eight live-action films:

  • Tobey Maguire: Spider-Man (2002), Spider-Man 2 (2004), Spider-Man 3 (2007);
  • Andrew Garfield: The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014);
  • Tom Holland: Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017), Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019), and Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021).

But you don’t need to be a Spider-Man geek to enjoy this show. Yes, there are lots of inside nods to various arcane fan points, but the basic flow is a fun ride for most — like a Shakespeare play where you really don’t understand all the language but don’t worry about it, just roll with it. You’ll get the point.

So what is going on here that people are responding to? A fun, fast-paced film about redemption, forgiveness, sacrifice, loyalty to friends, care for the larger community — and did I mention redemption?

Plot-wise it’s a little messy. The opening crisis is that somehow in his fight with the villain Mysterio (before we get here — don’t worry about it) Spider-Man’s secret identity — teenager Peter Parker — has been revealed in raging news headlines. What’s the point of being a secret hero if everyone knows your name? Never mind how difficult is it in “real life” if you’re a teenager who just wants to go to college with your friends, but because of all the hoopla, no school will accept you or your friends.

Peter’s reveal has ruined his closest friends’ lives, and led to other disasters. And so to amend, Peter approaches the wizard Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch as a good, powerful Marvel hero), to alter the multiverse — turn time back in the different universes the different Spider-Men have appeared in— to where no one knows his identity. Except as the good strange Doctor whirls his spells, Peter keeps interrupting — “Well, let MJ know … and Ned … and…” The interruptions cause complications, part of which is that the villains of the previous times/spaces will need to be dealt with again.

There have been plenty along the way. Five of the most difficult (and most cinematically popular) will appear one by one: the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), Doc Ock (Alfred Molina), Electro (Jamie Foxx), Sandman (Thomas Haden Church), and the Lizard (Rhys Ifans). Each of them, like Peter, was originally mutated into their demonic/monstrous version by some chemical, electrical, or research accident. This time Peter/Spidey hopes to redeem rather than destroy them, by reversing those processes.

And along the way, much to fan delight, all three Spider-Men — Holland, Maguire, and Garfield — will emerge out of their dimensions to work together. As they prepare to challenge their five foes to a showdown on the Statue of Liberty, Andrew Garfield — the most insecure and regretful of the Spidey versions, acknowledges their odd, awkward bro-dom. “I … I … I love you guys!” Frozen faces. “Ahh … thank you.”

Throughout, choices are made by many not to just beat up bad guys, but to sacrifice for each other, to care, to work out of a sense of responsibility to a larger community, and even to sacrifice for the good of those who were previously enemies. Redeeming moments abound, though to learn exactly for whom, you’ll have to buy your own ticket.

At a dark, difficult, dangerous time in our common life, one could do much worse than forgiveness, sacrifice, and redemption as things to be reminded of, and to believe in. Sounds Christian to me.

The Rev. Leonard Freeman is a veteran journalist, retired priest, and contributor to The Living Church.

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