Ending Incarceration in Spider-Man: No Way Home
*** full spoilers ahead ***
Among the madness of corporate wranglings for the right to profit off Peter Parker, the creatives behind the new the Spider-Man movie have managed to deliver a blockbuster that coalesces two decades of Spidey-cinema into an emotionally satisfying package. By way of multiverse traversal, it brings in Peters and villains from both Sam Raimi's original Spider-Man trilogy and the following Marc Webb duology into the MCU to join Tom Holland's Peter Parker. It's an ambitious feat akin to what was done in the animated Into the Spider-verse, but on a grander scale.
Spider-Man: No Way Home thankfully goes beyond nostalgic cameos. It builds on the arc of the botched original trilogy by showcasing Tobey Maguire's Peter Parker as the wisest of the three. He's the one who stops MCU Peter from enacting lethal revenge on Green Goblin. Meanwhile, Andrew Garfield's Peter is the middle-brother full of self-deprecation, with the failure of saving Gwen Stacy all those years ago still weighing on him. Here he finds closure in saving MCU MJ from a deadly fall.
The blending of universes work to better define Tom Holland's iteration of Peter, a representation of a more empathetic generation and a sign of meaningful progress in what defines a superhero. He may be a tad naive but he has the biggest heart of the three Spider-Men. This is no more clearer than when he realizes the multiverse super-villains he's imprisoned could use his help. The jaded Doctor Strange is more concerned with fate (status quo) and wants to send them back to their worlds, effectively a death sentence. MCU's Peter does the right thing in disobeying Strange and frees the baddies to rehabilitate them instead.
This is what makes this movie one of the most intriguing Marvel movies to date. It demonstrates a case for an end to punitive measures against those who do us harm. What if superheros didn't simply meet every enemy with violence and instead endeavoured to help them become their best self? Villains are typically written as irredeemable egotistical maniacs. In No Way Home Norman Osborn seeks aid at the homeless shelter F.E.A.S.T., where Mary Parker works. Norman is battling with what essentially represents a mental illness. He needn't be punished for the deeds of Green Goblin; he needs the care to neuter the Goblin inside and bring forth a healthy Norman. His story brings to mind all the forgotten people society has left behind, often homeless on the streets. These people are without healthcare, going in and out of jail/prison in an endless cycle of state violence.
Aunt May is the central figure in Peter's life that asks him to consider the less fortunate, including his supposed villains. All this time the Home trilogy has been the MCU version of Spider-Man's origin story with Aunt May at the heart in the place of Uncle Ben. Before her death she imparts that well-known phrase: "With great power, comes great responsibility." Even after Peter's first attempt to cure Norman Osborn fails, she tells him that he did the right thing. With her love and tragic death Peter learns the meaning of loss and also the meaning of heroism. It's a progressive adaptation of the Spider-man origin I hope will prove vital in future Spidey films.
At this point in their lives, the older Spider-Men have already learned Aunt May's lesson. They're the ones who show up to lift MCU Peter out of his depression and vengeful rage. Together they plan to cure the baddies before sending them back home. As they're ready to head-out for the mission, MJ says, "We're going to kick some ass." The senior Spider (Tobey Maguire) corrects her: "Cure some ass." And they do, cure ass, in a thrilling and heart-warming climax. In the end with everyone sent back to their respective universes, Peter is left alone. His friends minds are wiped and he has a fresh start at being the anonymous friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, decked out in is low-tech spandex suit. It's a new beginning, but will he be less punitive to his enemies going forward? Or will the Sony/Marvel machine be too reluctant to change the formula?
The movie isn't without flaws. Its treatment of Jamie Foxx's Max Dillon/Electro rubbed me the wrong way. In the The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Max Dillon was a nerdy engineer who built the city's power grid. He had the cliche nerd aesthetic, but at least he had a personality worth watching. I get that his change to Electro is intended as a makeover, but in No Way Home they could've done so much more. As a science-minded guy, he could've been more interested in Peter's tech like Osborn was shown to be or given more nuance like Doc Oc was given. Instead he comes off as stereotypical hothead just interested in his own power. They gave him a line about wanting to see a black Spider-Man (an reference to Miles Morales), to which Garfield's Peter gives an awkward nod. It felt like a hollow acknowledgement at best, thanks to Electro's weak characterization. Let's hope he comes face-to-face with Morales in a future film.
The most glaring problem with No Way Home, a corporate product, is not surprising. The story is invested in rehabilitating sympathetic villains, but doesn't address the systems that lead to crime in the first place. It seems superheros are destined to fight or cure the bad guys, acting like a band-aid for a deeper wound. Shouldn't Spider-Man speak out on the political policies that divert resources away from homes and healthcare and into incarceration? Why not have Spider-Man march with union strikers and protect people from police brutality? Imagine superheros going after union-busting agencies and advocating for worker-owned businesses. Imagine The Avengers leading a revolution to take back the means of production...
It'll never happen under capitalism, I know. I'm not expecting a Marxist Cinematic Universe, but it's not unreasonable to ask that they make more concrete attempts at progressive themes. For example, the MCU can learn from a movie like Sorry to Bother You. It's an explicitly pro-union story that also features a corporation that turns workers into horse hybrids. Or perhaps an MCU version of Squid Game would tickle an executive's fancy. In addition to it's obvious capitalist critique, that show also has a protagonist who organized with co-workers following a mass lay-off, defending themselves from cop violence.
Marvel movies are in the best position to deliver progressive messages. No Way Home set impressive box office records this past weekend, despite opening in a pandemic. Clearly, these movies continue to be at the forefront. With such a large audience at their disposal, they hold an enormous amount of cultural power and thus enormous responsibility. The studios behind these movies need only follow the code of their most financially successful heros.
To learn more about the themes No Way Home only touched on, check out the playlist about police and prison abolition embedded below. The BBC Ideas video is a quick primer focused on UK statistics. The Jacobin video does a bit of a disservice to the "Defund the Police" movement. People who use it typically advocate for the relocation of funds to alternative services, not to defund government programs altogether. Still the conversation is worth a watch. Lastly, I included a recent Angela Davis interview. She has been talking about prison abolition for decades.