WARNING: This article contains spoilers for Spider-Man: No Way Home.
As they await an impending attack from every supervillain in the Spiderverse, Tom Holland and Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Men are crouching on some scaffolding surrounding the Statue of Liberty, mesmerized by Tobey Maguire’s version of them and his ability to shoot webs directly from his wrists without the chemically engineered web-shooters that Holland and Garfield had to rely on. “Is it just your wrists?” they ask Maguire’s Peter Parker, of his natural web-shooting powers. “Or, you know…?”
It’s beats like this, teeming with comedy, nostalgic fan-service, and child-like wonder, that ground Marvel’s Spider-Man: No Way Home in much-needed lightness and relief between emotional devastation and edge-of-your-seat action sequences. The Jon Watts-directed, crown jewel of the Spiderverse has been widely compared to Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame in its ambition and—for lack of better words—epicness. But No Way Home’s greatness expands beyond its vast world-building and high-flying fight scenes and actually lies in the new ground the movie breaks for the superhero genre at a time of growing wariness that it’s all just an extension of copaganda. (The Captain America trilogy’s close marriage to the US military, Batman’s literal partnership with the Gotham PD, and Superman’s origins in war-time propaganda, are just a few shining examples of this.)
The conclusion to Holland’s Homecoming trilogy presents a new type of hero movie altogether, in which villains aren’t inherently villains, and superheroes like Holland and the Spider-Men who later back him up aren’t simply law-abiding, law-enforcing demigods. It’s not exactly new for superhero movies to portray sympathetic villains or off-beat heroes, but few movies seem as intentional as No Way Home in presenting some model of restorative justice and compassion as the superior alternatives to the harsh law-and-disorder regimens of nearly every other hero movie.
No Way Home begins simply enough, with Holland’s Peter Parker experiencing the fallout of Far From Home supervillain Mysterio exposing his identity to the world and accusing Peter of killing him. As public scrutiny of Peter intensifies, his girlfriend MJ (Zendaya) and best friend Ned (Jake Batalon) face a number of repercussions for their close relationships to him, including being rejected by MIT without fair consideration. Devastated by the trouble his identity has created for his friends, Peter seeks the help of Benedict Cumberbatch’s characteristically grumpy Dr. Strange to attempt a spell that will make everyone forget Spider-Man’s true identity, with some… modifications.
These modifications, of course, make the spell go sideways, opening up the vast, untamed multiverse and sending every major Spiderverse villain from Maguire and Garfrield’s universes crashing into the universe of Holland’s Peter and Dr. Strange. The resolution seems simple enough: Round up each of these villains, who range from the tentacle-clad Doc Ock (Alfred Molina), to the power-thirsty Electro (Jamie Foxx), and this movie’s Big Bad, the Green Goblin (William Dafoe), and send them back to their respective universes.
But inspired by his Aunt May’s (Marisa Tomei) insistence on compassion, when Peter learns he’d be sending them back to their deaths, he changes his mind, subdues Strange, and seeks to “cure” and save the cast of doomed Spiderverse villains—all mostly villainized by horrible lab accidents—from their fates. Instead, they escape Peter in a devastating rampage led by the Goblin that winds up killing May.
What follows is perhaps the lowest moment of this Peter Parker’s entire arc, beyond even holding his mentor Iron Man as he died in Endgame. Only another Peter Parker could possibly understand the sort of loss that this Peter Parker is grappling with, and fortunately, Ned and MJ inadvertently channel Dr. Strange’s magic to conjure Garfield and Maguire’s Peters. In their respective sagas, both lost their paternal figure, Uncle Ben, while Garfield’s Peter has never forgiven himself for being unable to save his girlfriend Gwen from falling to her death.
Ultimately, the three come together—the Avengers of the Spiderverse—to craft individual cures that will neutralize Goblin, Electro, Sandman (Thomas Haden Church), Ock, and the Lizard (Rhys Ifans), and restore them to their innocent, human forms, luring them to the Statue of Liberty for arguably the greatest showdown of both the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the greater Spiderverse. It’s amid the ensuing chaos that, in one of the most satisfying and tear-jerking moments in pop-culture history, Garfield’s Spider-Man is able to catch Zendaya’s MJ in his arms as she falls from the Statue, saving her life and redeeming himself from the loss of Gwen, who he explained to Holland’s Peter was “my MJ.”
Throughout No Way Home, Holland’s Parker faces an onslaught of loss, even succumbing to new levels of rage and violence, but ultimately manages to find peace—not through vengeance and exacting punishment on those who have hurt his loved ones, but through honoring his late aunt’s values, and following the guidance of the older, wiser, brother-like figures he finds in Maguire and Garfield’s Spider-Men.
It’s worth noting that a central tenet of abolition—in addition to funding community resources and not criminalizing poverty—is that no human is irredeemable, and we’re all fundamentally worthy of dignity, compassion and second chances. Rather than send literal supervillains to their inevitable deaths in their respective universes, and even after losing his beloved Aunt May, Holland’s Peter Parker puts it all on the line, just to try to save a few condemned souls. In a superhero genre that positions most of its protagonists as proxy-cops, No Way Home’s focus on the humanity of even supervillains is arguably revolutionary, and thoughtfully timed for the current cultural and political climate.
No Way Home is at its most heartwarming when Maguire and Garfield are commiserating with Holland over the death of his aunt. As friendly neighborhood Spider-Men, they’ve suffered incalculable losses that have fundamentally changed them as human beings. But drawing on their own experiences, the older Spider-Men are able to teach Holland’s that punishing those who have hurt you only reproduces the violence you’ve endured and deepens rather than lessens cycles of pain, contrary to a hero’s fundamental mission.
It’s impossible to say what more fans and critics could have asked for that No Way Home doesn’t deliver. Zendaya, Batalon and Holland solidify their trio as the unsung, most underutilized friendship in the MCU, with their clever charm and effortless chemistry. Maguire and Garfield emerge as earnest, perfectly complementary mentors and teammates to Holland, deepening their own respective stories and characters, in the process. The Spiderverse villains are at their most devious and sinister, yet, with a particularly haunting performance from Dafoe’s Goblin, and Foxx charming audiences as the scene-stealing Electro. And it doesn’t hurt that No Way Home’s visuals are top-tier, sending viewers spiraling through Strange’s infinite mirror realm, flying through New York City’s concrete jungle, and crash-landing through energetic and dynamic fight scenes.
When all of its pieces come together, No Way Home is an emotive, modern story of what it really means to be a hero. Heroes aren’t cops, or gods rendering judgment; they’re ordinary people who will push themselves to the brink if it means helping even one person. Anyone can be a hero, even a plucky nerd from Queens, if they’re willing to make a sacrifice and to recognize the universal dignity of human beings. No Way Home is deeper, more beautiful, even, than the love letter to fans it’s being lauded as—it’s a love letter to everyone who wants to see this world outgrow its punitive limitations, and honor every person’s worthiness of a second chance.