Are the Spider-Men OK?


People obsessing over an upcoming Marvel movie isn’t particularly novel — by the time you finish reading this, there will likely be a dozen new YouTube uploads analyzing the brand of coffee that appears in a trailer for a single frame — but the hype over Spider-Man: No Way Home seems a bit more … intense. Particularly in how Spider-Men are talking about it.

Earlier this week, star Tom Holland gave an interview with Total Film that emphasized that the new film was going to be surprisingly dark.

“What people will be really surprised about is that it’s not fun, this film,” Holland said. “It’s dark and it’s sad, and it’s going to be really affecting.”

This is a curious way to sell a Spider-Man film, especially since Holland’s version of the character has expressly been a dose of much-needed levity in the middle of a Marvel Cinematic Universe, that, despite constant wisecracks, is often deadly serious. But there’s a certain amount of sense to it: No Way Home is being positioned as the end of a trilogy, and regardless of what the plans for Spidey are after it, endings are a little bit sad.

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Meanwhile, a Gizmodo blog post went viral for surfacing a quote from former Spider-Man Andrew Garfield: “Money Is the Thing That Has Corrupted All of Us and Led to the Terrible Ecological Collapse That We Are All About to Die Under,” read the headline. It was an excerpt from a profile in The Guardian, in which Garfield mostly talks about his career in the abstract — he’s currently starring in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Jonathan Larson musical Tick, Tick… Boom! on Netflix — but he does note that his experience as Spider-Man broke him a little. (He also says that he’s kidding about the ecological collapse thing, kind of.)

The third cinematic Spider-Man, Tobey Maguire, isn’t really giving interviews these days, but there are a lot of people on the internet who are working very hard to convince you that he is.

This is all rather extreme, but No Way Home invites all this fuss because of the latest MCU gimmick: The multiverse, a familiar science-fiction trope that asserts the existence of endless parallel realities, each one different in ways large and small. In practice, expanding into a multiverse lets Marvel Studios potentially tell stand-alone stories removed from its decade-long ongoing narrative, waving away implications one movie or show might have on another by establishing that it happens in an alternate universe. This hasn’t happened yet, but it could — and since the 2018 animated film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse also featured an array of Spider-People from different universes (not to mention the No Way Home trailer including a villain from Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films), fans feel like anything is possible.

Peni (Kimiko Glen), Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), Peter Parker (Jake Johnson), Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage) all turn in shock. Photo: Sony Pictures Animation

The current state of Spider-Man is, frankly, beyond weird, a funhouse-mirror distortion of the character everyone is constantly giving lip service to, but in reality, is nothing of the sort. Over the course of two MCU movies, Peter Parker went from average kid who idolized superheroes to guy with multiple million-dollar AI killsuits and the keys to a high-tech superweapon. Throughout this trilogy, Parker has swiftly transformed from an avatar of aspirational fandom (perhaps you are down on your luck, but if you are responsible and never ever give up, you can be extraordinary) — to fandom as a corporate exercise (come see all your toys in one movie!).

In all of this, Andrew Garfield has perhaps become the most valuable voice in the whole scenario, repeatedly articulating the conflict between what a character means to adoring fans (which he memorably displayed at a convention not long after he was cast in 2011) and what they mean to the corporations that own them — and how that ultimately suffocates art and meaning.

Because unlike what the No Way Home hype would have you believe, anything isn’t possible. Big franchise movies are governed by contracts and lawyers and corporate executives with brands to protect, in addition to the actual human beings who are not just corporate puppets willing to put on a suit (or have their face digitally edited into one) at the drop of a hat. Whatever happens in No Way Home, even if it’s great — and it might very well be — will be the result of careful negotiation between dozens of interested parties, each more tied to each other than usual, thanks to the uniquely interconnected nature of the cinematic universe. And as those interested parties expand in power and profitability, the more risk-averse — and therefore, less human — they are prone to become.

The multiverse, in other words, isn’t as big as you might think. But it may be big enough for Peter Parker to get lost.