Spider-Man Broke Us
Only the emotionally strong survive watching Marvel movies
Spoilers ahead, so many spoilers, every manner of spoiler, seriously don’t read this if you’re going to see Spider-Man: No Way Home because really it is fun? or something? to see its reveals in real time, and I am about spoil it all, and for what? Just to talk about my feelings? Do not read this, innocent Spider-friends! Turn back! Bookmark this maybe! See you after you see the movie! K bye!
Motherhood really does change you. (See? It’s one of these essays.) For example, I see a lot of Marvel movies now. I often have a hard time absorbing them and have to text my friend Rich who helps me synthesize the experience — I can’t keep the storylines straight and also never feel clear about how each movie was meant to make me feel — but he hasn’t seen Spider-Man: No Way Home yet, leaving me as alone as Peter Parker at the end of Spider-Man: No Way Home. I told you there would be spoilers.
My ten-year-old son and I love going to see movies in the theater but obviously hadn’t been for a long time. We’ve seen all the Tom Holland-era Spider-Men together, and we were excited to see this one. We bought tickets the second they went on sale, assiduously avoided spoilers like the pure-of-heart moviegoers we are.
We went on opening weekend, dragging his older sister along even though she doesn’t like superhero movies and generally finds movie theaters to be cesspools of sensory overload. Since they’ve gotten vaccinated, we’ve inched back to doing some things that you can do in masks during a pandemic, but it still feels fraught. I always expect doing actual things to be a little more great than they are, maybe.
The movie occurred at the high pitch that these things usually do — noise and spectacle and emotionally manipulative situations thrown around like Spider-Man’s webs. We laughed, we cried, we wondered how long a movie could be.
We came out of it weirdly unhinged.
It took us a while to unpack why. It’s embarrassing to have had an Emotional Experience with a movie that you can buy toys of, but there we were, leaving the theatre in a weird cloud of melancholy. The kids bickered on the way home, revving up one of those impossible sibling arguments that can sustain itself ceaselessly. There was stomping and tweeny growling.
I’m sorry to report that I finally said, in a very Exasperated Mom way, “Wow you guys, you’re really making this fun! [ed note: that part was sarcastic, you see] Nothing is good enough for you, is it?” Woof. Nothing like a maternal guilt trip to cap an emotionally complex movie experience. Once home, we all went to separate rooms and didn’t speak for about an hour.
I think some of it had to do with this particular moment of the pandemic — the holiday-season omicron surge is, as the epidemiologists put it, a real boner-killer. The movie served high-highs — moments of reveal when the audience literally cheered — and low-lows — plot twists where we all openly wept.
There’s been a lot of quiet handling of emotions in our lives, hence the classic pain/pleasure of catharsis. As the ancient Greek playwrights and YA authors who give their characters cancer know, sometimes you just gotta cry your eyes out.
Okay are you ready for the real spoilers? Because I still feel nervous. But here goes: The whole premise, really (as usual, I guess), is that Peter Parker, hapless teen, kinda fucks up. He wants his life to go back the way it was before everyone knew he was Spider-Man, because now people are mad at him, and are in his face, and he and his friends couldn’t get into MIT. (Hmmm, they’re geniuses, and they could all get amazing full-rides at great state schools, but sure, let’s buy into the idea that their lives will be ruined if they don’t become those weird adults who always say “Well when I was at MIT…” instead of “When I was in college,” like normal people who went to normal schools say. Anyway.)
In the world of the movie his life has been very unpleasant in this exposed-as-Spider-Man manner for a couple of days? But he’s a teenager, and, like all of us at age 17 and/or circa March 28th 2020, feels that he’s really gone through enough already. It’s hard to have perspective when you’re a kid.
This particular Brooklyn-in-late-stage-2021 movie audience understands what it feels like to want things to just “go back to normal.” Wanting just to have “a normal life” is a superhero movie trope that we all feel in our pandemic-weary bones. So we don’t not understand why he goes to Dr Strange and asks him to cast a spell that like, might break the universe, OR that might make people forget he’s Spider-Man and make his life be normal again.
Unfortch it does break the universe. So all these classic villains from other Spider-Man movies — I mean universes — appear. And then do you know who else appears? It’s very exciting, especially if you are 42 or so. The old Spider-Men! Like I mean Tobey Maguire, the real actual Spider-Man! And Andrew Garfield who apparently was in Spider-Man movies when I had little toddlers and was not seeing any movies! So, that’s neat! And when they appeared, I tell you our fellow movie-goers exploded into laughter and cheers. When was the last time you were suddenly happy about something in the company of others?
It made me think about how we are all tired and sad and want to see old friends. And how we are also desperate to believe in re-dos, and second chances, and fresh starts. The idea that — and here I do realize that I’m sloppily muddling up the actors and the Peter Parkers — you can have another chance, even if your first go failed, is intoxicating. When Spider-Man #3 gets to save the girl, which he failed to do in his own storyline! Yay buddy, congrats! Manly stuff I guess!
Then there is the equally intoxicating idea that villains can be cured. The Spider-Boys all team up in what I thought was a pleasantly homoerotic way (my kids think I’m projecting) and work together to make serums to cure the villains. It’s really cute. It’s also a subtly devastating subtweet of every superhero ever, who, when fighting a bad guy who is inevitably a Great Scientist Who Fell in A Vat of Something (they nod to this in the movie, it’s funny), ignores the fact that you could apparently undo the Vat Stuff with the chemicals found in a high school science lab and rehabilitate them rather than murder them.
How much do I love, in these polarized times, the idea that villains don’t have to stay bad! That it’s just a matter of wrong chemicals in their bodies making them be evil, and that if you do the right thing, you can fix them! I mean, I do think it brings up some complicated ethical questions: For one thing, none of these men wants to be fixed. But the Spider-Men, like acrobatic missionaries, are sure that they know better. Have you heard the good news, Doc Ock? You too can be saved!
So the bad guys are saved against their wills and shipped back to their universes, blithely ignoring the Prime Directive, but fine. Trouble is, there are real life consequences on the ground. Here’s the worst one, are you ready? Aunt May dies! Hot Aunt May! This, honestly, destroyed us. My children were both actually furious. It’s Christmas time, Marvel, you really gotta kill Aunt May?
The real kicker is that none of it actually had to happen, because in the end, Dr Strange has to do his spell thingy over anyway and everyone forgets all about Peter Parker, including his best friend and his girlfriend. And so after the triumphant battle, Peter is alone in a Dickensian rooming house with his GED study manual and no aunt and no friends, the end. Are we supposed to be… happy? Devastated? Hapvestated? Rich will you please see the movie and explain it to me?
Maybe the most harrowing scene in this whole thing is towards the end when Peter tries to visit his girlfriend at the donut shop where she works (shout out Brooklyn’s famous Peter Pan Donut Shop! And Peter Pan, the boy who won’t grow up? Gotcha!) and she doesn’t remember him. He watches her and his best friend Ned bro out — why would they be friends if he didn’t exist? I don’t know! — and he is alone and sad and leaves.
The idea that doing the right thing means becoming a ghost in your own life hits different right now. For me, it felt like an actual punch to the guts — I got divorced two Christmases ago, basically, so this time of year is hard as is. And my ex stayed in our family home, so yeah, I sometimes feel like I’m a ghost, maybe, a little.
And for kids at this pandemic stage, to be reminded that you can maybe disappear from your life — and that all your friends can maybe forget you exist! — well, it stings. On the Friday before our Spider-weekend my daughter’s teachers told the students to take their textbooks from their lockers home, just in case. It was an ominous echo of that Friday the 13th (really) when they came home from school one day and… never… went… back. My kids are, I feel, just now starting to recover from that year-plus of virtual school and diminished social interactions. The idea that this could restart all over again, well. No thank you please, can we please blip to the other side?
The kids grumpily scrolled on their phones on the train ride home. I sadly thought about how maybe they hadn’t enjoyed the movie because it was too long for them to focus because TikTok ruined their brains. When we got home I took their devices out of their rooms, just to make them even more furious with me.
Eventually the kids apologized for wilding out and I apologized for implying that they ruined everything and we processed and felt a little better. They were so bored without their electronics that my son sweetly helped my daughter rearrange her room. Then we were ready to actually discuss what about the movie had unhinged us so completely.
My kids had some good theories. My daughter pointed out that you go into a movie like that expecting shiny CGI and witty jokes, not to be emotionally gutted — I maintain that the wild tone shifts really are a narrative issue with these things.
But my son was the one who really crystallized it for me. We’d recently rewatched all the Spider-Man movies in this series, and he pointed out that we’d seen Peter Parker start as a lonely kid with a homemade suit. We’d seen him develop his skills, team up with a mentor in Tony Stark, get new awesome suits from Stark Industries with incredible tech of all kinds, become an Avenger!, get the girl!, fight bad guys in SPACE!, become WORLD FAMOUS (infamous too, but still), and then… at the end of this movie… he’s anonymous and alone and in, as my son put it, “the shittiest suit he’s ever had.” Not only has no progress been made, but he’s worse off than when he started, because now he doesn’t even have his best friend, his school, or his Aunt May.
No. Progress. Has. Been. Made.
It’s a hard, hard message to receive when one is about to enter one’s third year of a pandemic. When one is a child and a big percentage of your life has now been in this weird very-inside, travel-less, sometimes-school-less, masked existence. When one is a parent and worries that your kids are lonely and stunted like little hothouse flowers.
One of the scariest things about being parent is knowing that you can’t protect your child from the world. That something could happen to you and your kid would be alone out there. You try to show them how to live, and you hope that they have a strong internal compass despite the fact that you let them watch Marvel movies and too much TikTok, that they would know where to find help if they needed it.
One hopes, I guess, that they would have part of themselves who appears, like, yep, the alternate Spider-Men. There’s a hilarious and sweet scene in the movie where the Spider-Man selves are all complimenting and affirming each other. We should be so lucky — in our most existentially lonely moments — as to get a visit now and then from an alternate-reality version of ourselves who is able to say “Hey, I see you. You’re doing great. I love you.”