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Peter Parker, unmasked in his black and red Spider-Man costume, crouches as he prepares to spring into action in Spider-Man: No Way Home Photo: Matt Kennedy/Sony Pictures

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Spider-Man: No Way Home asks what it means to be Peter Parker

In this one, we spoil everything

More than anything, Peter Parker wants a dad. No matter who’s telling the Spider-Man story, it’s so defined by the loss of Uncle Ben — the original sin Peter never gets over — that it’s easy to breeze past the loss Peter can’t blame himself for: that of his parents, who are already missing long before the story usually starts. The further loss of his Uncle Ben makes Peter acutely long for a father figure, so much so that the most famous members of his rogues’ gallery are all failed surrogate fathers. Mentors like Norman Osborn and Otto Octavius in Sam Raimi’s films; teachers like Curt Connors in The Amazing Spider-Man; potential role models turned sour by some force or another, like Adrian Toomes in Spider-Man: Homecoming or Mysterio in Spider-Man: Far From Home.

The latest story spun from this web, Spider-Man: No Way Home, doesn’t initially seem concerned with any of that history. The film appears to be an excuse for a multiversal mashup, one that pits the current Marvel Cinematic Universe version of Spider-Man against villains from the previous Spider-Man movies. At first, it appears to be an exciting but fan-servicey slugfest that doesn’t front-load the emotional heft that Spider-Man stories are known for. Then, midway through, No Way Home becomes extremely invested in Peter Parker and what he’s lost.

[Ed. note: Major spoilers for Spider-Man: No Way Home follow.]

One of the smaller things that sets the MCU version of Peter apart is that we never see any of these initial losses. Like the radioactive spider that bit him to give him his powers, it’s an element of the story we’ve already seen repeatedly and don’t need to revisit. Instead, Tom Holland’s version of Peter Parker gets a new loss to add to the pile: his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), killed by the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe). It’s this final wound that breaks Peter, already brought low by the death of his idol, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), in Avengers: Endgame, and by the betrayal of his short-term friend Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) framing him for a terrorist attack at the end of Spider-Man: Far From Home.

Shattered, he retreats from his friends, and No Way Home’s real meta magic begins, as Peter Parker at his lowest is lifted up by the two previous on-screen Peters, played by their original actors, Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield.

Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man Image: Sony Pictures

What’s surprising about No Way Home isn’t that Maguire and Garfield reprise their roles, but that they’re actual characters in the film, present for much of its second half. They don’t just support the current Peter’s story; they get bittersweet grace notes of their own. Maguire’s Peter, who spent three films agonizing over the self-sacrifice that being Spider-Man demanded of him, gets to show two younger men that the pain can lead to something beautiful, too. Garfield’s Peter, whose film series was cut short and whose story never got to end, has farther to go: We learn that in the space between his last Spider-outing, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and No Way Home, he gave in to rage, and has effectively given up on being Peter Parker.

These aren’t just lessons to impart to the current Peter; they’re helping hands extended three ways, linking all three versions of the character. One of the most affecting moments in No Way Home occurs when Holland isn’t even present, as Maguire, the best-adjusted Peter Parker, tells Garfield’s Peter that he’s great, and tries to get him to say it too. “No, you are amazing — I need to hear you say that,” he says. Garfield’s Peter never does, but in a flash of vulnerability, we can see that he desperately wants to.

This is the one thing that complicates a completely cynical reading of No Way Home. The film’s script doesn’t just use the other Peters for a cute cameo; it attempts to wrestle with the slightly different shades they bring to the current Peter Parker’s pain, and how their meeting each other might help them all grow. Because they all still have room to grow, and they’re all still so lonely.

Andrew Garfield in The Amazing Spider-Man Photo: Sony Pictures

What sets the latest version of the character apart is that for a while, he wasn’t. He was recruited by an Avenger, and assigned a perpetually annoyed but ultimately supportive minder. He got to be part of a team, and he got to share his journey with two of his closest friends. He enjoyed the perks of having a wealthy benefactor, letting his keen young mind stretch in ways it never could in Midtown High. And he got an Aunt May who knew he was Spider-Man and supported him in his hero work. Yet as No Way Home’s tragic arc reaches its climax, Peter learns that none of this will help him in his private grief, nor will it help anyone understand him better.

But as the multiverse brings fresh tragedy to Peter, it also does him a kindness: For a little while, working alongside two other versions of himself lets him feel understood. For a little while, it gives him brothers.

With this moment of catharsis, No Way Home arrives at the end of a convoluted road that began with Peter Parker’s arrival in the middle of Captain America: Civil War, before he got a fancy suit or fought his first alien. Past its cumbersome jokes and sometimes confounding plotting, No Way Home director Jon Watts and screenwriters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers ultimately choose to center the beating heart of the kid behind the mask, who is role-playing at being a man. This decidedly isn’t a story about Spider-Man; it’s a story about Peter Parker. And so, once again, Peter must learn a lesson about power and responsibility — that one way to assure that bad things happen is to know you can do something to help people, and choose not to.

Spider-Man: Homecoming - a subway train goes by behind Spider-Man Photo: Chuck Zlotnick/Sony Pictures

Spider-Man: No Way Home is a funeral of sorts. Even as it’s bringing in Doctor Strange, magic, and multiversal visitors from other Spider-Man movies, it’s also stripping away all the accoutrements Spider-Man accumulated in previous MCU installments. In his quest to avert multiversal disaster, Spider-Man loses all his fancy gadgets, powerful friends, and support systems. When he asks Doctor Strange to wipe memory of him from the world, he’s losing the Avengers who know and respect him, the friends who remember his name, and any sense of found family to fall back on. The movie ends with a blank slate: Peter Parker in a homemade costume, holding a police scanner app, off to do what good he can, just because he can.

In this, No Way Home can be read as a surprising cautionary tale on the dangers of cinematic universes. The continuity, the crossovers, the cool gizmos that come with superhero cross-pollination — none of that will help Peter get back up again after he falls. And also, none of that makes him who he is. And perhaps he can’t be the best version of himself until he chooses to be free of it.

Peter Parker will never get that dad, just like he’ll never get to see a world where doing the right thing doesn’t come with a painful cost. But he can choose to get up every day and do it anyway, to believe he’s making a difference. And more importantly, because he believes that someone out there will see him, and be moved to do the same.

Spider-Man: No Way Home is playing in theaters now.