“Anyone can wear the mask,” as Miles Morales puts it in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. And there are so many versions of Spider-Man, all a little bit different from each other, that there have now been two different movies about their multiplicity: Peter Parker’s story is as universally familiar as any in pop culture, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s version of it has reached the end of its first major arc with Spider-Man: No Way Home.
[Ed. Note: This essay contains major spoilers for Spider-Man: No Way Home.]
But the version of Peter we’ve been watching Tom Holland play for the past six years is a curious one. It plays some tricks with the fact that we think we know his backstory already, and ends up in a place we’ve never seen Peter Parker’s story go before — a Spider-Man with no supporting cast left, no primal failure to motivate him, and no real home at all.
Fresh-faced neighborhood Spider-Man?
The MCU’s Spidey arc begins with a flash of brilliance: It takes his background as given. We’ve seen the earlier movies, or read the comics, or watched the TV shows. We know (or think we know) who Peter Parker is, what his special abilities are, how he got them, who raised him, what his late uncle told him about the relationship between power and responsibility, and the painful way that message got driven home to him. Why waste time repeating familiar details?
2016’s Captain America: Civil War is a somber, heavy movie as it is, and it doesn’t have room for the bitterness and death that are central to Peter’s backstory. So when the MCU’s Spider-Man debuts midway through it, he’s a beam of sunshine. His action scene at the Leipzig-Halle Airport is pure delight; he bounds around the screen, hero-worshiping Captain America and trying to ingratiate himself with Bucky Barnes and Sam Wilson even as he’s fighting them. And he’s very obviously a kid. Holland’s delivery of “Hey, everyone!” (his only line that made the Civil War trailer, or needed to) is in the voice of someone who’s grown up watching YouTube videos.
All we’re told about Spider-Man in Civil War is that he got his powers about six months earlier, and he’s been performing heroic feats in a costume. (What’s his motivation to do that? Superheroes are cool, basically.) We see Marisa Tomei as a considerably younger Aunt May than most versions of Spidey’s story have featured, but there’s no mention of a radioactive spider, or of Uncle Ben. As close as Holland’s Peter Parker comes to recapping the familiar origin is dropping some vague hints: “When you can do the things that I can, but you don’t ... and then the bad things happen ... they happen because of you.”
Still, we don’t get a sense of what bad things he’s talking about, either there or in his next appearance, Spider-Man: Homecoming. (The title has a double meaning: It signifies both that this Spider-Man is specifically a high-schooler, and that Marvel had cut a deal with Sony to get their hands back on the character whose film rights they’d sold for chump change in 1998.)
‘Mister Stark, I don’t feel so good’
Most of Homecoming is concerned with setting Peter up not as the lonely outcast that Spider-Man has often been, but as a smart, likeable, nerdy kid from Queens, with a new best friend (Ned Leeds) and a serious case of hero-worship directed at “Mister Stark.”
Spider-Man’s early comics often read like his search for a new father, with a string of villains who could potentially be (terrible) role models for him: arrogant scientist Doctor Octopus, psychopathic industrialist the Green Goblin, bloodthirsty showman Kraven the Hunter. Homecoming feints at that briefly — the Vulture turns out to be the father of Peter’s homecoming date — but his actual dubious father figure in these films is another superhero. Tony Stark, Iron Man, repeatedly drafts the starstruck teen into dangerous conflicts, and Avengers: Infinity War doubles down on that theme: Peter stows away on a spaceship out of loyalty to Tony, and he ends up dying in Tony’s arms.
When Peter returns to life in Avengers: Endgame, five years (of in-story time) later, the first thing Tony does is hug him (“Oh! That’s nice”). Peter returns the embrace as Tony is dying, shortly thereafter. The next time we see Peter, in Spider-Man: Far from Home, he’s being set up as Iron Man’s rightful heir, by way of the high-tech E.D.I.T.H. glasses that are meant “for the next Tony Stark.” But Peter’s manifestly not ready for that yet; he’s still working up the nerve to tell a girl that he likes her.
Again, Far from Home plays with what we already know about Spider-Man: The running gag about his precognitive sense of danger being his “Peter-tingle” is mostly funny because it’s a substitute for the far less smutty-sounding “Spider-Sense.” And the hand-me-down suitcase Peter takes to Europe has the monogram BFP, but Uncle Ben still isn’t mentioned by name.
The first explicit reference to an Uncle Ben in an official MCU story is in, of all things, the zombie-apocalypse episode of the animated What If...? show — in which he’s mentioned by an alternate-universe Spider-Man. It’s entirely possible, in fact, that there is no Ben Parker in the world of Tom Holland’s Spidey. (Tobey Maguire’s version mentions his Uncle Ben in Spider-Man: No Way Home, but it seems like that’s a surprise to Holland’s version.)
No home left
There are no father figures for Holland’s Spider-Man in No Way Home. Tony Stark’s E.D.I.T.H. glasses are gone, and even Tony’s former assistant Happy Hogan is getting dumped by Aunt May at the beginning of the movie. Peter finally suffers the devastating loss we’ve been led to assume happened much earlier, and it’s not his uncle but his aunt, who even gets to deliver the line whose inevitability has been deferred for five and a half movies: “With great power there must also come great responsibility.” (That phrase appears in a narrative caption at the end of the first Spider-Man story, from 1962’s Amazing Fantasy #15; it’s specifically associated with Uncle Ben in the popular imagination mostly because Cliff Robertson’s Ben Parker said it in the 2002 Spider-Man movie.)
What Aunt May’s “great power” moment suggests is that this is the conclusion of the MCU Spider-Man’s origin story, the moment when Peter Parker realizes that the “bad thing” has happened because of his failure to live up to — something or other. As the Spider-Man story is usually told, Ben’s death is (in some way) Peter’s fault, and it leaves Peter with greater responsibility now that he has to take care of May. But No Way Home muddles that idea. May supports Peter in the course of action that leads to Norman Osborn killing her (“You did the right thing,” she tells him as she’s dying). More than that, she’s the one who talked him into it in the first place (“This is what we do — we help people”). Her death is a callback to the tragedy of Spider-Man’s familiar origin, without its hubristic sting.
By the end of the movie, Peter is broke and lonely, forgotten even by his closest friends MJ and Ned (not that we even got to see them as a functional trio for very long). He’s swinging around the city in a cloth suit that he’s made himself, just as he had apparently been doing before Tony Stark showed up on his aunt’s sofa in Civil War. For the first time, he’s entirely on his own, and the six-movie plot thread of how this earnest kid is going to grow up seems to have reached its end. (Fair enough: Holland, 25 years old by the time No Way Home opened, and he can’t really pass for a kid anymore.) Holland’s Peter Parker has long since accomplished what Civil War and Homecoming established was his greatest dream — being an Avenger — and even the Avengers are a thing of the past.
But a Spider-Man who’s alone in the world is an entirely new take on the character, and not a promising one. His story has never been about a quest for independence — it’s about his struggle to figure out where he fits in. No Way Home leaves Holland’s Spider-Man with nothing to expiate and no one to protect; if he has no personal attachments left, he has no particular reason to preserve his double identity anyway. The interconnected web of Peter Parker’s family and friends and associates is his home: the structure that gives his story power and meaning. Without it, he’s just another lost young man in a suit, crawling up the walls.