‘Spider-Man: No Way Home’ Rejects Rugged Individualism in the Face of Mass Catastrophe 

There’s a running joke that we will never run out of superhero sequels; I, myself an Xennial elder, have lived through nine Spider-Man movie releases thus far. I’ve watched almost all nine in theaters, not even counting Spider-Man’s appearances in the Avengers films and am happily surprised to find Spider-Man treading new ground. 

I credit Spidey’s enduring appeal to the fact that he’s always a teen — someone who is mutable, in the process of becoming. Someone who is allowed to ask questions, be uncertain, and ask for help. He hasn’t calcified into what a lot of the older, toxic masculinity, standard bearing superheroes personify.

The sheer physicality of Spider-Man’s limberness, compared to the slower musclebound heroes of yore, also winds up signaling his emotional and mental agility. Not for nothing is Tom Holland’s most famous work the apotheosis of joy and acrobatics, but also an outright subversion of gender norms.

Holland’s career had an nontraditional start playing a lead ballet dancer in Billy Elliot in the West End which is also uncommon for most superhero actors who are hired for chiseled jawlines and muscles as a representation of hyper-masculinity.

*Major Spoilers for Spider-Man: No Way Home*

What’s different about watching Spider-Man: No Way Home, compared to the last eight movies, in year of our lord 2022, is that we ourselves are living through an unprecedented moment of discontinuity as pointed out by New York Times magazine, “Discontinuity is a moment where the experience and expertise you’ve built up over time cease to work…There’s real grief and loss. There’s the shock that comes with recognizing that you are unprepared for what has already happened.” With the twin disasters of COVID and climate crisis, none of us were ready, and none of us can solve it alone.

As in real life, after the first major discontinuity event happens in the Avengers’ world, the earth’s population spends their time bracing themselves in its physical and emotional wake. Disney+’s Hawkeye series spends the first episode imagining what it is like to be a layperson, a lay kid, really, experiencing discontinuity via the first massive alien invasion of New York City — dealing with the emotional repercussions, and the challenges of acquiring skills for the new version of the world you now live in. 

Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) looks on at Spider-Man in Columbia Pictures’ SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME.

Love to find out that the last decade of superhero movies have let us rehearse not only living with the consequences of a global disaster event, but also how to wrap our minds around what it means to live the rest of our lives in a state of continuous and mounting disaster. And how the sheer scale of it trounces any notions of rugged individualism. 

In stark contrast to the scenes of the lonely superhero crying in the rain who has no choice but to figure out a way on his own to destroy the destroyer in climax of many of the older films, Spider-Man: No Way Home rejects the entire premise of going it alone, and the implications of agreeing to a worldview that leaves survivors in as questionable of a moral state as the original villains. “I’ve been in a team before,” says Tom Holland’s Spider-Man (Peter 1?), to the other Peter Parkers 2 & 3. 

No Way Home’s New York City is as inequitable as our real life one. Aunt May volunteers at a homeless shelter, and Norman Osborn/Green Goblin’s schizophrenia would not be uncommon among the visitors in need in our world. May’s work implies that she believes people in need require a concerted effort long-term solution beyond piecemeal individual acts. Her influence on Peter’s life shines through when Peter’s stays with his conviction to cure the multiverse supervillains which comes as a surprise to the older, more callous, Doctor Strange. But notice that in No Way Home, when his convictions waver, he’s supported by his closest friends who proactively assist him. 

Tom Holland, Zendaya and Jacob Batalon in Columbia Pictures’ SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME.

The societal shift Spider-Man: No Way Home telegraphs is that it’s not enough to be a solitary hero fighting an uphill battle on your own, even powered by super strength. It’s not an individual’s burden to mount systemic change. While the multiverse was played for laughs and psychedelic action scenes, it showed what it’s like to be situated in a community of “elders” with the new generation being shepherded, supported, and cautioned away from decisions that would abet the destruction of their own souls.

Among the things Spider-Man, the main protagonist, is no longer expected to bear alone, is the weight of grief. In previous movie, comic, and video game narratives, “fridging” was an easy method to harden sorrow into primal rage that drives the (almost always male) hero to acts of justifiable violence. Instead, No Way Home diverges from toxic masculinity and reveals that grief is meant to be borne together.

When Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Man manages to save Zendaya’s MJ, it showed, for one of the first times onscreen in a superhero movie, that there exists a path of grief that can lead to healing — that healing and surrounding each other with love is the best outcome of grief. This is essential deprogramming that “heroes” don’t have to spend years seeped in sorrow with no end in sight. Heroes can admit they need help and an abundance of hugs.  

MJ (Zendaya) and Spider-Man jump off the bridge in Columbia Pictures’ SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME.

I noticed as many Twitter denizens tweeted about sobbing watching the film, that it showed that No Way Home had gathered us all up in a moment of collective catharsis; it gave us a space for grieving for what’s been lost/who we’ve lost, an outline for emotional renewal, and it served as a reminder of how much we’re going to need each other to continue to face these ongoing crises.