Marvel Explained is our ongoing series where we delve into the latest Marvel shows, movies, trailers, and news stories to divine the franchise’s future. This entry considers the Spider-Man: No Way Home ending and how it challenges the comic book source material. Yes, prepare for SPOILERS.
Spider-Man soars out the window, leaving an empty apartment behind him. His “mom” is dead and his friends don’t know him. All he has is his mission, which is succinctly summarized on a coffee cup captured onscreen in extreme close-up, “We are happy to serve you.”
But that’s not right. Is it?
Spider–Man: No Way Home offers a brand new day for its hero and an ending familiar to anyone who tortures themselves with monthly comic book subscriptions. Director Jon Watts’ run is over, but another creator will follow, and the story will continue. There are no conclusions, just pauses. You’ll get new paint, but the foundation is always the same.
Peter Parker (Tom Holland) makes a bold decision in No Way Home. To protect the Multiverse, the high school web-slinger asks Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to erase his identity from the memory of everyone across every universe. The Avengers will forget him, and so will his bud Ned (Jacob Batalon) and girlfriend MJ (Zendaya).
They’re allowed a tearful goodbye, and MJ makes Parker promise to find her and explain this madness after Strange’s spell is cast. But when he meets back up with her and Ned, he spies their happiness and can’t bring himself to break it. He’s already played this game. Danger is not his reward; it’s theirs for knowing him. He ignores MJ’s wishes and leaves them to their fantasy.
Alone, Parker can only provide service to strangers. He is selfless. And that’s bullshit.
Peter Parker is a killer. He didn’t pull the trigger, but his actions or inactions put Uncle Ben in the ground. And the resulting shame is what motivated him to transform his gifts into friendly neighborhood protection.
Those nine words first appeared in Amazing Fantasy #15, published in June 1962 by Marvel Comics. Uncle Ben did not speak them. Stan Lee wrote them, and they appear in a caption box on the last panel of the eleven-page comic. In the previous panel, Steve Ditko illustrates a weeping Peter Parker, exclaiming, “All my fault! If only I had stopped him when I could have.”
The “him” is the triggerman, the home invader who snuck into May and Ben’s place while Parker showed off his radioactive powers to a live studio audience. Having spent years as the put-upon bookworm, Parker’s first instinct is to flaunt his new skills, premiering his suddenly beefy body during a wrestling match with Crusher Hogan. To everyone’s shock, the kid demolishes the meathead, and fame flocks rapidly around him.
In Sam Raimi’s 2002 adaptation, we first meet the burglar after robbing the wrestling promoter’s office. Parker lets the thug whiz by, not wanting to interfere after the promoter stiffed him on a cut of the box office. In Amazing Fantasy #15, Parker has even less justification. He doesn’t stop the criminal simply because it’s not his job, telling a chasing police officer, “I’m thru being pushed around – – by anyone! From now on, I just look out for number one – – that means – – me!” A page later, Aunt May is a widow.
Great Power. Great Responsibility.
Or, as Tom Holland’s Peter Parker remixes it in Captain America: Civil War, “When you can do the things that I can, but you don’t…and then the bad things happen…they happen because of you.”
What bad things is this Peter Parker contemplating? Where is his Uncle Ben? Is he just a wise little dude, or is he merely scrambling to defend his caught-on-YouTube antics to a billionaire?
When we watched Spider-Man’s MCU introduction in 2016, we assumed he’d gone through the same horrific rigamarole as the Amazing Fantasy #15 Peter Parker, or Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker, or Andrew Garfield’s Peter Parker. By the time he was ready for the Avengers, we did not need another Uncle Ben origin story. We could skip to the end, or at least skip over the sad.
The challenge for Spider–Man: Homecoming was maintaining the shame bubbling beneath every quip and thwip. Marvel Studios denied Peter Parker Uncle Ben, allowing Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) to slide into that father figure position. Holland’s Parker is desperate to please, pursuing threats beyond the neighborhood and nearly killing a ferry full of civilians in the process. Stark’s disappointment and repossession of Parker’s spider suit do not deter the young vigilante from confronting Michael Keaton’s Vulture, but it reinforces the gravity of his actions. Lives are at risk; he has the ability to help; therefore, he must help.
Again, why does Holland’s Parker think this? Where is his core failure?
In Spider–Man: Far From Home, when Parker travels to Europe on a school trip, the luggage he’s hauling bears the initials “BFP,” presumably representing Benjamin Franklin Parker, his dead Uncle. As long as Ben’s ghost hovers over Parker’s origin, we can infer the guilt driving the heroism, forcing a potential romance with MJ into a secondary position behind the costume. He can never choose a selfish desire because he did once, and it destroyed his family.
MJ connecting the dots and naming Peter Parker as Spider-Man grants Parker a tremendous relief; his choice is removed from the equation. Her choice alters their dynamic and pulls Parker out of his head, unveiling a world that does not actually revolve around him. A weight is lifted, revelation is on the horizon, and then Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) outs Spider-Man to the world.
No more secret identity. The notion is so dreadful because it could further harm his family. Creatures like Vulture could exact their anger against Spider-Man through Peter Parker’s family and friends. Except Vulture already knows Peter Parker is Spider-Man; we clocked Keaton’s wry smile during Spider–Man: Homecoming’s end-credits scene.
Picking up immediately after Far From Home’s “Oh Sh*t” climax, No Way Home shows that rogues are not the real threat after an unmasking. It’s the media and the fall out of a confused, judgemental society that threatens personal armageddon. Parker and his friends are front-page news, and no one wants to touch them, especially college admission boards. It’s witnessing how he’s altered MJ and Ned’s educational future that puts him on Doctor Strange’s doorstep, begging for a magical solution. A quick fix that ultimately leads to Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) ‘s death at the hands of a Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) from another dimension.
Here is his shameful moment; only May quickly lets him off the hook. With her torso punctured and her body gushing blood, May cannot leave this Earth letting Parker take the blame for her death. Amazing Fantasy #15 spews from her mouth, “With great power, there must also come great responsibility.” It’s an echo of what she was trying to tell him several scenes earlier when they were in the homeless shelter. Parkers help those who cannot help themselves, and they help even if the outcome seems unfavorable. Aunt May dies proud, and Peter Parker absorbs that pride even in his devastation.
Whatever guilt he’s holding onto is obliterated when the other Peter Parkers appear on his school rooftop. They relate to his loss, exposing the deaths of their Uncle Bens and Andrew Garfield’s Gwen Stacy. The Uncle bit doesn’t phase Holland’s Parker one iota, and his un-shock seemingly confirms Uncle Ben’s MCU erasure. The final nail in that non-existent coffin is the lack of Ben Parker’s tombstone next to Aunt May’s grave during No Way Home’s final moments.
Tom Holland’s Peter Parker never had an Uncle Ben. He never told a cop, “I just look out for number one.” He never looked into the face of a loved one and saw his actions in their death. He is unburdened, free to serve and protect in a manner that would make his Aunt May beam.
There’s only one problem: that damn magical spell and the decision this Peter Parker stole from MJ. The Spider-Man soaring through New York City during those last few shots in No Way Home is not done confronting his selfishness. He does not have faith in MJ’s autonomy. He may believe that pushing her and Ned from his life is beneficial to their safety, but that’s not the choice they made. He thinks he knows what’s best, but Peter Parker never knows what’s best.
A multiversal cataclysm occurred because Peter Parker jumped from A to Z, ignorant of the many letters in between. Even Doctor Strange was disgusted when he discovered that Parker sought magic before humbling himself before the college admissions board. The first “No” is never the last “No.” Plead your case, kid.
MJ later tells Parker that he should check in with her and Ned before committing to something that involves their future. They’re a team, a scooby gang. For a split second, Parker registers that with a smile. Oh, yeah. I have a girlfriend. We’re a unit; we should work together. But all that leaves his brain the moment he sees her unrecognition and the bandaid on her head. He freed her from danger; he couldn’t pull her back in. But she chose the danger, and he promised her the danger.
Peter Parker is a selfish, scared liar. And that’s who’s swinging through the skyscrapers when No Way Home ends. It’s not a brand new day for Spider-Man; it’s just another day.
We thought we were skipping the origin story with Tom Holland’s Spider-Man, but we only missed the radioactive spider bite. Uncle Ben doesn’t factor into his superhero formation. The collision between great power and great responsibility doesn’t spring from the same source of shame as it did for Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Men. But there is still a deep flaw cutting through the MCU Peter Parker, and he still struggles to understand duty.
The struggle and the failure are Spider-Man. He’s the most brutally human superhero, making the bad calls because that’s what we all do when we operate from the prison of our singular perspective. Left alone, Spider-Man will wallow. He may have a victory here and there, but Tom Holland’s Peter Parker can’t succeed without a supporting cast. His role in erasing them from his life will weigh on his shoulders until it nearly breaks him.
Spider–Man: No Way Home’s ending places Parker on a path that only looks new. The red and blue tights are rad, but underneath is still the same befuddled kid from Amazing Fantasy #15. What’s important is his desire to be better and to do better. He must constantly chase selflessness despite his selfish nature. He’s seen what happens when you don’t. And then he forgets, and he needs another reminder. And then he forgets and needs another reminder. And so on.
Spider–Man: No Way Home is now playing in theaters.