SPOILERS! This column contains discussion of the entire plot of Spider-Man: No Way Home.
When I went to go watch Spider-Man: No Way Home at my local theater I was expecting the usual elite popcorn entertainment that comes from comic book movies. A chance to escape the sometimes crushing burdens of the real world into the action-packed, joyful fictional world of the MCU. No Way Home certainly delivers on that front. The movie is a blast from the very first moments till the very end credits. To quote my good friend, and fellow contributor to The Invention of Dreams, Andrew Claudio “this movie fucks.” More importantly, it was also an unexpected but welcome tribute – from start to finish – of the core beliefs held by every career public defender.
Talk to anyone (ideally after a few drinks) who’s dedicated their life to defending the rights of the indigent and several key themes come up over and over again. 1. Know Your Rights. 2. Don’t Talk to the Police. 3. Everyone Deserves a Second Chance.
The first act of No Way Home finds Peter Parker (Tom Holland, The Impossible, Cherry), his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalan, Let It Snow), and his girlfriend MJ (Zendaya, Dune, The Greatest Showman) under federal investigation for vigilantism after Peter’s secret identity as Spider-Man, and apparent murderer of Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal, Zodiac, Brokeback Mountain), is revealed to the entire world. Life as they know it is over for all of them. When the feds come knocking on Peter’s door demanding answers and Aunt May, played by the truly ageless beauty Marisa Tomei (My Cousin Vinny, The King of Staten Island), asks for a warrant, my heart sang with joy! As their home is ransacked by jack-booted government thugs, and everyone is dragged off for questioning by federal agents, Aunt May warns the kids not to say anything without a lawyer. Another correct legal take from the actress who won her Oscar for her role in arguably the greatest courtroom movie of all time.
Unfortunately, not all of the kids listen to Aunt May. My head was buried in my hands watching Ned stupidly confess in detail to being Peter’s accomplice to vigilantism. But here again is the beauty of No Way Home doing a fantastic job of showing, rather than telling the audience, exactly why a person accused of a crime should never say anything to law enforcement without a lawyer present. But it’s acts 2 and 3 where this movie truly shines as a tribute to the public defender worldview because the core message of this movie is that even literal supervillains are redeemable and worthy of a second chance.
The central conflict of the movie starts when Peter Parker goes to Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, The Power of the Dog, BBC’s Sherlock) for help with a spell that can solve all of his and his friends’ problems. He and all of his friends have been rejected from MIT, and every other university they apply to, because of the controversy surrounding Mysterio’s revelation to the public that Peter is Spider-Man, and his friends have been aiding a potentially murderous vigilante. So Peter asks Strange to cast a spell that will cause everyone to forget that he’s Spider-Man, but then asks Strange to make changes to the spell on the fly, while it’s being cast, to allow Ned, MJ, and May to still remember that he’s Spider-Man. These changes cause the spell to become unstable and open a rift in the multiverse that causes everyone who has ever known “Peter Parker” is Spider-Man, including classic Spidey villains from other parallel movie universes, to come into the world of the MCU.
The villains in question include: Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe, Nightmare Alley, The Last Temptation of Christ), Dr. Octopus (Alfred Molina, Love Is Strange, Promising Young Woman), Electro (Jamie Foxx, Ray, Miami Vice), Sandman (Thomas Haden Church, Sideways, Easy A), and The Lizard (Rhys Ifans, The King’s Man, The Replacements). The Spider-Man universe (until Mysterio), has always been known for portraying complicated villains, with well-intentioned motivations, who become supervillains through cruel circumstances outside of their control. There’s a realness to them. These characters aren’t inherently evil, just like the people who end up in the criminal justice system aren’t inherently evil. And when we watch these characters die in their own universes it’s a tragic waste of potential.
At its core, No Way Home is about giving these characters their second chances. The second chances that everyone who ends up on the wrong path deserves. The villains from other worlds are captured quickly and the central conflict could have been over very early in the movie if Peter and his friends had just listened to Dr. Strange and zapped them all back to their own universes to face certain doom. It would have been easy and painless for everyone, everyone except these characters. Just like we as a society make that easy choice every day. We arrest, cage, and in some cases, execute, troubled people who make life more difficult for the rest of society, because genuine rehabilitation is much harder, and so much human potential is wasted along the way. But the moral compass of the movie, Aunt May doesn’t allow this to happen, because it’s not what heroes do.
Aunt May insists to Peter that they have to try first to save these characters, so that’s what Peter and his friends try to do. And along the way May pays the ultimate price because the first attempt to cure Green Goblin doesn’t work. There’s a lesson there too; reimagining a better world with a more enlightened approach to criminal justice will come with tragic costs that can seem unbearable when things don’t always go according to plan, but the costs are still worth paying, because the alternative is always worse. And in the end, all of the villains from these other universes are cured and not only are they saved, but so are their potential future victims. Just like so much wasted human potential and needless future suffering could be avoided if we as a society took the time to cure our most seemingly irredeemable villains. And it’s this ideal, more than any other, that career public defenders fight for every day.
Spider-Man: No Way Home is in theaters now.
More MCU and Spider-Man from The Invention of Dreams: