The Greatest Responsibility: A Look at Justice in “Spider-Man: No Way Home”

Before we get started, let me just put a quick disclaimer: SPOILERS ABOUND HERE. I could not think of a way to discuss Spider-Man: No Way Home without revealing some pretty big plot points (both for the movie and the MCU as a whole), so if you have not yet seen the film, please read on at your own risk.

So, let’s get right to it, shall we?

‘No Way Home’ picks up immediately where Spider-Man: Far From Home ended: with the reveal of Peter Parker’s identity. There’s a reason that superheroes without billions of dollars or the protection of the U.S. Government keep their identities a secret, as Peter quickly finds out. He essentially becomes the most famous person on the planet in the blink of an eye, and that kind of celebrity comes with…a lot. Privacy? Gone. Ability to work in secret? Gone. Chances of getting into MIT? Zero.

What’s new, Spider-Man?

When Peter, MJ, and Ned all get rejected by their dream college, it is then that Peter realises that his newfound celebrity status doesn’t come with many perks, and, in fact, is hurting two of the people that he cares most about. His solution? Find Doctor Strange and have him brainwash the Earth with magic.

While it’s refreshing to see a teenaged character have rash teenage impulse decisions, Peter’s plan hits a snag when, well, Peter himself screws up the spell. Instead of the world forgetting Peter Parker, everyone from other dimensions who remembers Peter Parker is sucked into what we know as ‘our’ Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Yup. The spell pulls in all the Spidey villains from the other Spidey franchises, namely: Doc Ock, Green Goblin, Sandman, The Lizard, and Electro. They’re all looking for Peter Parker, but when they find our Peter Parker, chaos ensues. It’s up to Peter to make things right, but is it his responsibility to try to save everyone or just to clean up the mess that he made?

The Responsibilities of A Hero

The superhero film has been a staple in cinemas for the past almost-30 years, and modern audiences are no stranger to the superhero formula: hero with tragic backstory meets villain who is irredeemable. Hero fights villain and almost loses but ultimately saves the city (and gets the girl). It’s a tried and true formula and it is what we’ve come to expect from superhero films, MCU included.

What makes this film different than every other superhero film out there? There’s still plenty of spandex in the costumes, plenty of villains running amok, and plenty of cities to be saved. The superhero’s mission hasn’t changed, but thanks to Peter’s Aunt May, the parameters have.

Marisa Tomei as Aunt May in Spider-Man: No Way Home

Aunt May is not only Peter’s legal guardian, she is also his moral compass. Everything about Peter that we love—his goodness, his compassion, his sincerity—he has because he has Aunt May. It is May who tells him that everyone, and yes, that includes Norman Osborne, deserves help. Ultimately, May dies defending that idea with and for Peter, and at the most emotional moment of the film, we can feel Peter’s grief, despair, and anger as he becomes Spider-Man for the first time without her by his side.

The pain that Peter feels cannot be understood by anyone other than himself, and, well, isn’t it lucky that he’s got two other versions of himself to help him through this bitterness and suffering?

Y’all, I’ve been waiting for YEARS to use this meme unironically.

Yep. That’s right. Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield are now canonically in the MCU. (Cue me screaming about Tobey.) This is something that’s never been done before in a superhero film, and I think I can pretty certainly say that No Way Home has changed the landscape of future superhero films forever.

I am currently teaching a class on the themes of justice in literature, and in the last class session, we discussed poetic justice. (As a refresher, in poetic justice, virtue is always reward and evil is punished, often with an ironic twist in how the punishment occurs.) Poetic justice is pretty much omnipresent in most forms of entertainment that present the good v. evil trope. If we look back at past Spidey films’s villains, particularly the ones from the Sam Raimi and Marc Webb series, we see plentiful examples of poetic justice. The Green Goblin? Stabbed with his own hoverboard. Electro is killed by the thing that gives him power (…power.)

The thing about poetic justice is that while it is satisfying for audiences to see good rewarded and bad punished, it is not realistic, especially not in a 21st century world that is incredibly in tune with social and restorative justice. When the bad guy is punished by the good guy, we recognize that our hero isn’t walking away emotionally unscathed. In Spider-Man (2002), we see Peter’s anger and rage after the murder of Uncle Ben. In The Amazing Spider-Man 2, we see Andrew Garfield’s Peter Parker give into depression and despair. While these feelings show the humanity of our heroes, it does lead to Peter Parker(s) having regrets and things that they wish that they could go back and change.

Spider-Man: No Way Home gives Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Mans (Spider-Men? …this is getting confusing you guys) the opportunity to address some of these regrets and maybe, just maybe, change the outcomes. When Aunt May reminds Peter that is true heroic responsibility is to help people, it’s also a reminder to the audience. Perhaps with the release of so many superhero films, it’s easy to think that the purpose of the superhero is to punish the bad guy, but if you look at any superhero’s origin stories, they typically begin with the desire to do good and help people.

“With great power comes great responsibility,” is, perhaps, the most famous of all superhero quotes, and it’s a good reminder that this responsibility is not just to the people they save, but also to the heroes themselves. Keeping themselves accountable for the use of their great power and how it is used is a great responsibility, but even greater is their responsibility to themselves. ‘No Way Home’ gives each Spider-Man the chance to be the kind of hero that they have the responsibility to be, the kind that saves rather than punishes, and, yes, that includes Peter Parker saving Peter Parker.

Is it poetic justice? No. The ‘villains’ are redeemed after a long and arduous struggle, and the heroes are not rewarded by anything other than the fact that they don’t die. In fact, in a way, it is Peter Parker (Tom Holland) who ends up punished, because the only way to save everyone is to have everyone forget him, including the love of his life.

This isn’t the kind of justice we’re used to seeing in superhero films, and you know what? It’s about time. Maybe, as a society, we’re ready to see our heroes work on rehabilitation and restoration rather than revenge and punishment because that’s what we as a society need. 2020 and 2021 were long, difficult, sucky years, and maybe we need the hope that somewhere there’s a hero (or three) ready and willing to take responsibility, to say, “Hey, I’m here to help” just because it is within their ability to do so.

It’s 2022 now, and perhaps we should all take a good look at ourselves and ask, “What Would Peter Parker Do?” as our New Year’s Resolution.

(Hint: The answer is always “help.”)

Spider-Man: No Way Home is currently playing in cinemas worldwide.

P.S. Oscars season is coming up, and I know that there’s been buzz about the possibility of ‘No Way Home’ being nominated. If poetic justice is served, it will win many, many, many awards.