Editor’s note:This post contains spoilers for Spider-Man: No Way Home.
There’s a line in Spider-Man: No Way Home that perfectly captures the web-slinger's lasting appeal, while also underscoring the inherent tragedy of the character.
About midway through the film, Willem Dafoe’s Norman Osborn/Green Goblin sneers at Tom Holland’s Peter Parker, “Peter . . . you're struggling to have everything you want while the world tries to make you choose.” Indeed, Spider-Man has always been defined by the difficulty and dichotomy of his choices: Be in or of the superhero world? Have a stable relationship or a secret identity? Keep his family safe or protect the city?
As much as Spider-Man may have wanted it all, there was always a tension between the responsibilities of his vocation and the desires of his own heart. Yet each time he put on the mask to fight crime, it represented a commitment to die to self for the good of the world. While Spider-Man: No Way Home boasts multiversal and cross-franchise spectacle galore, it is first and foremost a paragon of this theme of sacrifice. The ending of the film sees the city saved and the neighborhood restored, but at the cost of Parker’s own community, belonging, and loved ones. In its sadness and sense of hope, the movie beautifully parallels the joyful sacrifice Christ made in his own death, as well as the power and hope of his resurrection.
No Way Home picks up right where Spider-Man: Far From Home left off: with Spider-Man’s identity as Peter Parker being revealed to the watching world. Understandably for a character whose main concern has been to keep his personal and “professional” life separate, this spells calamity. Holland has always done a good job of making Parker's personal concerns feel just as big as the world’s, let alone the neighborhood (read: your prom date’s dad is actually a supervillain). The revelation of his true identity underscores that tension. In the wake of the unveiling, Peter commissions Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to cast a spell to make the world forget that Peter Parker is Spider-Man. The spell goes awry due to Parker’s interruptions, causing villains from across the multiverse to come crawling into the MCU.
Each time Peter put on the mask, it represented a commitment to die to self for the good of the world.
In the film’s climactic sequence, these villains have all been defeated (some even reformed), but there remains the problem of the cracking multiverse. Due to the botched spell, even more villains threaten to invade Peter’s world. Realizing that this is because they know that Peter Parker is Spider-Man, Parker asks Doctor Strange to cast a spell that will make the whole world—including those closest to him—forget who Peter Parker is. As Strange casts the spell, Peter tearfully says goodbye to his girlfriend MJ (Zendaya) and best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), knowing that, to them, he won’t even be a memory. The spell is cast, the sun rises, and multiversal allies and villains are sent back to their universes. While there’s victory, the day extracts a heavy toll, as Spider-Man is reborn into anonymity.
Perhaps what remains most tender in this sequence is Peter’s own attitude towards his sacrifice. While he laments that saving the world has to come at the cost of his belonging, his greater love for all eclipses his own wants. Some time later, after the spell has been cast, Peter goes to visit MJ at a cafe, with the intention of reminding her who he is. As she greets him, Peter notices the healing wound on her head, which was sustained during the film’s climax. “It doesn’t hurt anymore,” she tells him, unaware that he knows exactly how she was hurt. Peter then painfully accepts that perhaps those he most loves are able to live their best lives with his absence. He smiles as he leaves the cafe, not regretful of his sacrifice and grateful MJ and Ned remain safe.
Even while acknowledging the limitations of Christ figures, it is hard not see the parallels here to Jesus' sacrifice and resurrection. Despite knowing not only the physical pain he would have to endure, but also the spiritual agony of being separated from the Trinity, Christ took on flesh to redeem the world; “for the joy set before him, he endured the cross.” He died a death he did not deserve for those most undeserving, yet he did it out of love and devotion, knowing full well that he might be forgotten and rejected by those whom he most deeply loves. He rose anew on the third day, yet even then his friends failed to recognize him.
Spider-Man: No Way Home powerfully paints a picture of a character who remains committed to saving the world, even if that world might reject his saving. You can’t get a better gospel parable than that.