Most superheroes abide by a universal code: Don’t kill. The possibility of ridding the world of their dangerous enemies for good is something all heroes wrestle with to varying degrees. It’s a solution with debatable net goods, but at what personal cost?
The question looms large over the genre. It defines the essence of heroes like Wonder Woman and Batman and makes anti-establishment figures like the Punisher and Red Hood so different from the pack. For Spider-Man, Marvel’s web-slinger has long erred towards his better angels. You can bet he won’t ever kill his enemies, at least on purpose.
But the Spider-Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, played by Tom Holland, isn’t quite the Spider-Man comic book readers know. With regular, gleeful attachment to older bearded men as surrogate father figures, the MCU’s Spider-Man has never figured himself out. He doesn’t even have a real Uncle Ben, a mentor-like figure who embodies Spider-Man’s fundamental understanding of loss, responsibility, and, yes, his powers.
Even after two movies and appearances in Avengers crossovers, Spider-Man’s presence in the MCU is defined only by other MCU movies. His first appearance, in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, hinged on a conflict involving many heroes, and his own “solo” film, Spider-Man: Homecoming in 2017, doesn’t happen without the Iron Man trilogy and 2012’s The Avengers in place.
Spider-Man in the MCU hasn’t killed anyone before. At least anyone that we would care enough as a human being. (More on that in a bit.) But this dilemma hasn’t bothered Tom Holland’s Spider-Man at all either. Not when Peter’s most profound emotional attachment was to none other than Tony Stark, who inherited and subsequently furthered his fortune by manufacturing bombs for the United States military.
Until his traumatic capture by terrorists, Stark had no problem with it. “That’s how dad did it. That’s how America does it. It’s worked out pretty well so far,” Stark once quipped before leveling a mountain behind him.
The catharsis of Peter Parker’s arc in Spider-Man: Far From Home in 2019 was capped off with Peter building a new costume inside Tony’s billion-dollar plane, all to the rollicking riffs of AC/DC’s “Back in Black” — a direct nod to when Tony was rolling around in humvees in the Middle East. Though one could argue Stark changed by the time he took in Peter Parker as his ward, he’s still the guy who installed an “Instant Kill” feature on the boy’s costume. A feature Peter once clumsily turned on and later used with purpose in Avengers: Endgame.
“But those were alien monsters,” you say. He still has the feature in his suit, I say.
The shaky foundations in which Marvel Studios built its Spider-Man came out of circumstances too boring to recount here. But the result is that Holland’s Spider-Man is little more than a young adult vehicle in a primarily adult MCU. Unlike the comics, he’s not the struggling everyman who can barely pay rent and keep a healthy relationship. He’s a kid with the coolest internship whose appeal is that he’s just so lucky to be there.
It’s baffling how Peter gets so wide-eyed around Tony. Historically, the two are colleagues at best in the comics, with Stark only looking after Peter when it benefitted his own goals (as in the comic book Civil War). In the MCU, he’s a fanboy who is all too eager to make sure his heroes actually like him. This is why it’s so frustrating that this Spider-Man is at the center of a movie like Spider-Man: No Way Home, a confounding production of immense scale even in a zeitgeist shaped by dimension-destroying spectacles.
For those too busy to follow every leak on Reddit, Spider-Man: No Way Home hinges on the premise of Spider-Man teaming up with other Spider-Men from different realities. Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield, two actors who’ve previously played Spider-Man at different times, are all but guaranteed to show up to aid Tom Holland’s character in a splashy battle that feels ripped directly from comic book pages. Their physical absence in the trailer has only intensified their inevitable return, made evident when you pay closer attention.
Look, this movie sounds fun. It probably will be. Did you see Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse in 2018? That was great. But this movie, desperate to dive deeper and be more than a Saturday morning crossover of the Fox Kids era, takes great pains to ensure Peter Parker finally has flaws to overcome and something (or someone) to lose.
As the incomprehensible new trailer suggests, Peter is unwilling to let visiting villains from other realities — who have no actual connection to this Peter Parker whatsoever — meet their demise in their respective worlds. As Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange explains, “They all die fighting Spider-Man. It’s their fate.” Peter takes issue with this and kicks off even more problems that, I guess, having more Spider-Men is going to fix.
In fairness, No Way Home does understand a few things about its title character. As Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin says in an ominous voice-over, “You’re struggling to have everything you want while the world tries to make you choose.” The MCU gets that Peter is someone who tries to have a happy ending for all involved, even the bad guys. After Mysterio’s cheap tricks at the end of Far From Home, Peter seems keen to make sure no one dies on his watch again. It’s a great responsibility. Does Peter have the great power to see it through? That’s just juicy enough to warrant a ticket sale.
But that needs to make sense. The MCU still has a Spider-Man so far removed from the character’s fundamentals that a potential pivot feels unearned and even out of place. The imminent presence of more authentic Spider-Men of years past — namely Maguire’s, as even Garfield’s portrayal had a host of problems that similarly misunderstood the character — will only show in contrast how colorless this era’s Spider-Man has been.
Spider-Man: No Way Home opens in theaters on December 17.