Morality and Power in Spider-Man: No Way Home

By George Tsakiridis

WARNING: SPOILERS (but come on, it’s been 2 months!)

“Three is a magic number.” The catchy tune by De La Soul that plays during the animated credits of Spider-Man: No Way Home rings in the ears of all attendees and represents the best-worst kept secret of the past year – there are THREE Spider-Men in the film. We all knew it was coming, but needed confirmation, and it came through in a big way. Coincidentally, three is also the number of times I’ve seen the film in the theater, and as a warning, I’m going off of memory here since the film is not yet on DVD, so do excuse any minor errors.

In Spider-Man: No Way Home, we can go a lot of directions with the theological discussion. We could have fun with the idea of three Spider-Men and the concept of the Trinity. We could talk about resurrection and multiverses, and even some various religion and science topics, but most of these range from trite to novel and don’t really capture the core message of the film. The heart of No Way Home is in its moral challenge. It is in its look at Spider-Man’s morality in juxtaposition with his foes. Since the Green Goblin is at the center of this issue, allow me to focus there.

The film explores multiple Spider-Men and multiple villains in the world of Tom Holland’s portrayal of our hero. It blends comedy, action, and drama in a perfect way, and is now one of the top grossing films of all time. So, baseline, the film was well received by fans. One of the more (potentially) controversial decisions in the film was to kill off Aunt May and have her take the role traditionally held by Ben Parker. Since this is directly tied to Spider-Man/Green Goblin’s conflict, let’s start there. Green Goblin, during the sequence in which Aunt May dies, tells Peter, “Morality is your weakness.” He sees his killing of Aunt May as a gift to Spider-Man to free him from his moral center. This ultimately highlights the difference between the two. Both have great power, but only one has a virtuous foundation.

The film is set up to reboot the series, and this scene highlights the main theological and moral issues at stake. May has convinced Peter to try to save the many villains who have entered their universe: Green Goblin, Doc Ock, Electro, Sandman, and Lizard. Peter reluctantly agrees and sets out to cure them of their ills. Ultimately, this results in Norman Osborne’s reversion to Green Goblin and the death of May. But in this crucial moment, as she dies, she states, “With great power there must also come, great responsibility.” Not only is she taking on Ben Parker’s role, but she is also quoting the original phrase from Amazing Fantasy #15. This highlights the fact that this film is fully rebooting the origin story, re-centering Peter in his moral grounding. In opposition to the Goblin, who begins this sequence by stating, “God’s don’t have to choose; we take,” Peter, through May, is reminded that virtue comes with Power. Both figures hold great power, but one uses it for a greater moral mission, while the other uses it for his own desires. We see this same message in Christianity and many other religious traditions – Virtue must be chosen and implemented in one’s life. Or, in Greek philosophical terms, our inner intellect must overcome our passions. It is a hard road, which Peter finds out in this life-changing moment.

Ultimately, from this point on in the film, things accelerate, and from an entertainment standpoint, I could watch the rest of it over and over. We see Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire appear to help Tom Holland find his way through his grief, and ultimately save Norman Osborne, despite a brief scare when Tobey states, “It’s okay. I’ve been stabbed before.”

One thing I found interesting is that after the film, which I saw most recently with my daughter, she questioned why the villains losing their power would change them. Why would they cease to be evil just because they lost their power? This is a great question. In a case like Norman Osborne we might say that the goblin serum made him crazy, or Doc Ock who was affected by the control chip frying out. But what about the other villains? Electro especially comes to mind. Does vice and evil behavior come from power? Or is it just exacerbated by it? I’m not going to answer this today, but I think it’s a great theological question for viewers of this film, as well as those viewing other superhero movies. We are forced to struggle with why some choose evil behavior and others choose good. We look at how power affects our human nature, and the decisions and consequences that flow from this.

Ultimately, we find out that Spider-Man (Peter 1 – IYKYK), must sacrifice everything to uphold his virtue – his aunt, his girlfriend, his best friend, everyone who knows him, and probably a lot more. The conflict between good and evil, or of virtue and vice, is all-consuming. It is not a battle fought with half-measures. At any point, Peter could have cut his losses, but this would ultimately result in destruction for both him and everyone in his world.

This film is sure to be a classic in many ways, pulling together moral themes with blockbuster action and an elite cast. I look forward to writing a more theologically rich piece in the future – once I have the DVD at my disposal, as well as the right outlet. However, for now we have a lot to meditate on theologically, and you don’t have to be a “cool youth pastor” to access this wisdom. In fact, it might help if you aren’t one.

Dr. George Tsakiridis is a Senior Lecturer of Philosophy and Religion at South Dakota State University. He is the editor of Theology and Spider-Man and is currently writing Theology and the Americans and co-editing Theology and Breaking Bad for the Theology, Religion, and Pop Culture Book Series. George is also the co-host of the podcast Cheers Weekly, an episode-by-episode podcast on the TV show Cheers. Dr. Tsakiridis is also an actor, filmmaker, and a contributor to Pop Culture and Theology (you know, the site you are currently on!). Check out his previous article on Fleabag! You can follow him on Twitter @dramaticlicence

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