The Ethics of Spider-Man, and Why This Was The Greatest Marvel Film Yet

Spoiler Alert: We’re about a month past this movie coming out, so if you haven’t watched the film yet and don’t want aspects of it revealed, I suggest you save this post for later until you’ve seen the movie.

Marvel films are sometimes shortchanged as being flat and flashy, as being a parody of modern cinema caricatured as campy dialog and attractive visuals. Some of this criticism is fair, though I say this as someone who still faithfully consumes most of Marvel’s media and is able to see the good that these films offer (or at least try to offer).

While some of their more recent works might not lean all that heavily on particularly deep themes or impacting character arcs & flaws, I would argue that Spiderman No Way Home is Marvel’s shining achievement in these dimensions. Spiderman NWH gives us a refreshing view of humanity’s capacity for redemption while also providing us a look into the hero’s—and thereby an opportunity for our own self-reflection—sense of personal responsibility and need to have self-examination and discourse with our psyche.


Let’s begin with the pinnacle theme of this movie: all of humanity—particularly that of villainy—can be redeemed. This is an explicit aim of the film, not an afterthought sentiment or a coincidental result of the plot. Peter Parker argues for the redemption of his arch nemesis’.

In the film, Peter Parker’s famous villains from alternate realities spill into his. Though the 3rd rendition of Peter Parker hasn’t encountered yet Green Goblin, Dr. Octavius, and the rest, he’s tasked with capturing them in order to send them back into their respective timelines and universes. But there’s a problem that emerges as Peter catches them all. He realizes those who have come over have one thing in common: they’re “destined” to die.

Dr. Strange pragmatically sees the integrity of each universe as more important than a possibility that the villains can be redeemed. Peter Parker argues that each one need only be “fixed”, and thereby employs his intelligence and creativity to look into ways of “curing” each villain.

As I watched this plot unfold, I almost couldn’t believe the angle. How could Green Goblin’s psychosis be cured with only a serum? How could Electro be set right merely by rescinding his power? There’s a suspension of disbelief that takes place here but for the sake of the poignant message. It matters little about the techno babble and capacities of science in this universe, because the aim and endeavor is rallied behind by the audience. In the end we love these villains and want to see Peter Parker succeed in saving them.

Through this film, we see how villains are created from a fallen existence and circumstance, but all can be saved. This doesn’t necessarily mean that it takes a scientific flick of a switch to cure the monsters that you and I encounter daily (such is true only in the Marvel universe). For you and I, it takes a metaphorical Spiderman to see not a villain that deserves death but rather a human aching to have their future rewritten through a helping hand.

There’s another important message embedded here: a fallen and selfish determination ultimately leads to our death…and not just any death, but a tragic and vilifying one! Still, this dispels a kind of predetermined point of view of humanity, undermines a notion that any of us have destiny. Peter Parker becomes a kind of Christ like figure that in the end sacrifices himself (really his identity) in order to save these sinful abominations from a kind of Hades or perdition.

While our circumstances can sometimes seem out of our control, the use of our will gives hope that our futures can change courses. This not only means the use of our will to change our own course, but the course of those around us, be it friends, family, or foes.

Such is a refreshing theme in a world that often operates with a black and white perspective, that is so quick to sully and damn a public figure.

Responsibility & Butterfly Effect

This film also has a subtle point on the topic of personal responsibility and the ripple effect of our mistakes on the very fabric of existence. While this theme is subtle and yet seen in movies like Avengers: Age of Ultron wherein Tony Stark’s own fear and desire for control effects the world through the broken creation of Ultron, that image seems to address more the dangers of totalitarianism and broken orderliness rather than how our actions effect the very Cosmos.

Peter Parker’s selfish desire to have his blown secret rescinded invites dark magic to be put into play. Dr. Strange at first writes off any danger that this forgetting spell has, though Wong reminds him the nature that this magic has. What begins as a simple fix becomes complicated as Peter Parker mid-spell begins asking for taller orders, for not merely the world to forget who he is, but for his girlfriend, his friends, his aunt, and other connections to continue to know him and his secret.

He wants to eat his cake and have it too, and there’s a price to be paid for this and for even embarking on this desire.

The spell goes awry, and it doesn’t merely hurt Peter, or his circle, or his nation, or even just his planet or universe. It effects multiple universes to a point where things are about to converge and get so messy and broken. This is the butterfly effect told in the Marvel mythos, of how a small whim or action may seem like a butterfly flapping its wings can stir the inception of a hurricane.

Such are our actions, our wills, or as some of us might say our “sins”. Selfish action is the “missing of the mark” (the original definition of sin) and though our selfish or secret actions, words, whims may seem innocuous do in reality effect and rip apart the world around us.

Again, this is not the central theme of the movie or even that overt of a message, but I appreciate this movie and it’s “web of interconnectedness” imagery to sell this point.

Payoff With Character Development & Self Talk

Perhaps the most fun part of this movie is its use of memes, easter eggs, and especially cameos.

Most of us began with Spiderman through Toby Maguire’s rendition of it. It was exciting, it was well cast, and it felt like the first great comic book movie (barring Tim Burton’s Batman perhaps). Then some of us continued on with Andrew Garfield’s rendition, and although his two movies were met with a bit more skepticism, we could at least appreciate his fun take on the character of Peter Parker and what these movies were trying to accomplish.

Love or hate these Spidermans, I think we all experienced a catharsis when the two other Spidermans came through into this movie. There was a kind of rally as they phased through unlike the “Avengers Assemble” moment in Endgame. These two Spidermen weren’t merely heroes showing up for a fight. They were an embodiment of Spiderman’s conscience and psyche, words of wisdom, edifying counsel and encouragement, a representation of a kind of “telos” to who this very young Spiderman could become and even become better than.

As silly as the Spiderman self-talk circle was, it was I think representative of what we all wish for. As a child, I had a fantasy that my future self could come back in time and give me wise consul, share with me what I should pursue, what I should avoid, and reassure me of something great that I could aspire towards. Sometimes this is also seen as a plea for ourselves to get in touch with our “inner child” to reconnect with our dreamer self, our innocence that has hope and an infinite amount of potentiality. Toby Maguire and Andrew Garfield symbolically represent both respectively, of a seasoned Spiderman giving wise counsel and an innocent (yet still mature) young Spiderman representative of his potentiality.

The last thing I’ll say about the richness of this cameo—more towards my audience of writers—is the payoff that years of world building has, and how we can aspire to invite others into our story so well that they’ll rejoice seeing old characters shine through. This movie was a 20+ year movie in the making, whether it knew it or not, not attempting to simply “try something new” but to borrow and honor the ruins and old structures that the audience still loves and respects.

In Conclusion

We need more stories that say something powerful and important, that contain themes that are going to feed humanity rather than tropy themes that are sprinkled in as an after thought. Good literature doesn’t need to just be edgy, because this film shows us how powerful referencing and allusion is to our audience. We can borrow from not only old stories that we know and love, but the themes that those stories were trying to instill in us.

My hope is that through this film we see the importance of redemption in literature and in our daily lives, that we examine the butterfly effect of our selfish endeavors, and recognize the multiple potentials of the self and how they manifest in our soul.

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