You know, one thing I always appreciated about Spider-Man is how universal and balanced his character is. He’s super but normal, friendly yet amazing. His main theme is always the same, in case you didn’t know the first time:
With great power comes great responsibility.
So why give us the same message every time? Is it a lack of creativity? I actually think it’s because the story needs to be told again and again. Repetition is how we educate the young. Repetition is how we persevere in the face of obstacles. Repetition is how we grow in our talents.
See, Spider-Man is our one super-hero who is continually growing from boyhood to manhood. He was created in a time when all boys in comics were “boy,” not “man.” Peter Parker is our metaphor for early manhood. New senses tingling, powerful changes, and next thing you know you’re swinging around town with…well, I won’t go into what the web represents.
And this, my friends, is why Spider-Man must continually be recast as well. Once our character (and actor) ages, he begins to lose some of that fresh magic of his own coming-of-age. His responsibilities have to come in at great leaps, from being powered to losing a loved one to fighting strong men, all while trying to learn how to cross life’s usual hurdles—girlfriends, graduation, jobs, paying rent.
Further proof of Spider-Man’s timelessly relevance to young masculinity is the rogues gallery of villains. Virtually all of Spidey’s enemies are also failed father-figures, mentors who provide a case-in-point for power handled irresponsibly. As a result, they bring out their own beastly side. See, while Spider-Man is so named for his fight to be a man controlling his animal prowess, his baddies are typically named not as men, but as creatures—Vulture, Scorpion, Lizard, Rhino, Goblin.
Try as he might, Norman Osbourne can’t contain his destructive side, as an industrialist or a father or a super-powered man. Like him, Dr. Octavius and Connors are so ambitious that they fail to control their own experiments. They tutor Peter in science, but can’t live by a proper ethic. In the latest saga, Adrian Toomes is a scheming father-to-the-girlfriend. Quentin Beck attempts to replace Tony Stark (and to an extent Thor and Dr. Strange) as a hero-figure, but only to manipulate and use him.
Even J. Jonah Jameson is a bad example, modeling how to mishandle information and “spin” it into a web of damaging conspiracy theories.
Which is why I just loved this last movie in a trilogy. Spider-Man has to face a cosmic-sized responsibility, a culmination of all his problems. His family, his friends, his neighborhood, and suddenly now the multiverse are affected by his choices, all caught up in a web of his influence. Peter just wants to be normal, but happenstance prevented that. It’s not his fault he was bit. Unlike his enemies, he wasn’t even trying to invent or accomplish anything when he took on destiny. And this is part of what attracts them to his web—he is a legitimate man-animal figure without trying, whereas they try and fail to be authentic men by crafting their own power, despite being older and more powerful than him. It says a lot about his character that, despite numerous evil men in his life, Peter carefully adheres to the wisdom of the few good role models, from his Uncle Ben to Tony Stark (one dead, the other immensely arrogant).
With great power, you are responsible for your family, your friends, your loves, your community, your career, your creations, your property, your narratives, your fate. Power does not give you an excuse to exploit others (Kingpin), to take power from others (Electro), haunt on the innocent (Goblin), steal (Vulture), let your devices control you (Doc Oc), or deceive others (Mysterio). But of course, choosing not to do evil also has its cost. You can be innocent and still suffer. You can also be good and be flawed. And so whenever Peter Parker faces a difficult obstacle, it is always primarily a test of his conscience. Will the spider in him help him prove a man? Or will the man give in to the spider? Every Venom story highlights this superbly.
But this “final” film topped all the others with its most poignant question of responsibility yet: How are we responsible for evil in the world? That is, how do we fix it? After all, this version of Parker didn’t invent the rogues in this movie. He just opened the door to bring them in. Should he just send them back to die? Or to do more damage? Is there another choice? What’s the cost?
Before doing any battling—and I just love this—the three Parkers cooperate on a science project that has nothing to do with superpowers (although their ability to synthesize all these solutions in a flash does border on superhuman). They don’t use violence as typical macho stereotypes. They collab as regular men with intellectual discipline to solve a problem, as grownups ought to do.
As a proper tale for our time, this story (and Spidey in general) provides a hopeful mix of conservative and liberal values. As an individual, you must be held responsible for your actions, and take on the consequences. But as a society, we are also responsible for treating those who messed up, whether or not we helped create them. Being hurt by society doesn’t give you a right to just take what you think is yours, but if you do, does it mean you should be permanently punished? Conservative blowhards like Alex Jones contribute to public suffering, but more sagelike conservatives like Jordan Peterson are more right than wrong about the responsibility of the person to be resilient, studious, careful, and self-controlled.
Peter finally gets the best mentors he can ever have: Other, older versions of himself who have been through it all. Which is kind of what he was been given in these flawed men who failed him. Despite their failures, he gives them each a second chance. He takes responsibility in a way that reverses the role of teacher and student. The men learn from a boy how to care for the world. The boy patches up the men.
Silly as it is, No Way Home is a love letter not just to the entire film franchise, but to how much we’ve fallen in love with Spider-Man over the years. Even memes and self-conscious commentary creep into Dr. Strange’s spell, which is necessary, because the movie is absurd and cluttered and wild.
The studios responsible for this franchise acquired a lot of power over time and, for the most part, they used it responsibly this time. What a web!