Audience Expectations, Longing for Redemption, and Spider-Man: No Way Home

Careful! A web of major spiders–er, spoilers for Spider-Man: No Way Home lies ahead! 

Despite my neutral feelings about Spider-Man, Spider-Man: No Way Home managed to land in my Top 5 Favorite MCU Movies, sitting just behind Avengers: Infinity War & Endgame, Thor: Ragnarok, and Thor. Putting aside my nostalgic bias for Thor (the superhero who first got me into Marvel in the first place), Spider-Man: No Way Home is the third best MCU movie, in my opinion. To put it simply, I really loved it. 

I’m certainly not alone in my appreciation of this film. I mean, even my Mom liked it, and it’s rare for a sci-fi / superhero movie to please her since it’s not her genre of choice. No Way Home’s success is even more impressive to me because of the sheer amount of hype and sky-high expectations audiences had for the film. It could’ve easily flopped. In fact, if Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield hadn’t reprised their roles as Spider-Man (Spider-Men?), it probably would’ve failed.

After all, one of the main reasons why this movie succeeded was because it met audience expectations—and exceeded them. Knowing that classic villains from the first two iterations of Spider-Man movies would make a return naturally created the expectation that the previous Spider-Men would also come back to the big screen. (I don’t know who Marvel & Sony were fooling by pretending otherwise.) Not only was that expectation met, but the way Andrew and Tobey’s return was utilized in the film was extremely meaningful (for both us, the watchers, and Tom-Spidey) and made narrative sense. I don’t think it would’ve worked as well if Andrew-Spidey and Tobey-Spidey came swinging in during the battles with Doc Ock or Electro early on; they needed to come in Tom-Spidey’s dark moment. The storytelling of it was brilliant.

No Way Home includes self-referential humor on superhero tropes and the similarities or differences between backstories. The movie didn’t take itself too seriously, somehow acknowledging the ridiculousness of superhero tropes through its comedy without shattering the believability of the story. (Believable for the MCU, that is.) Speaking of comedy, the movie’s meme references were also on point. The use of humor in this film illustrates for me that the creative team behind this movie knows its audience well and loves to give them Easter Eggs and moments that they will appreciate. In other words, the creative team knows how to leverage expectations to their advantage to make a movie that satisfies fans of both Spider-Man and the MCU.

But they took it a step further and still managed to exceed our expectations (or at least mine). The strongest example of this was the ending of the movie. Peter pays dearly for his actions and mistakes. He takes responsibility and makes a hard choice, even though it costs him everything. I’ll admit, as Dr. Strange cast the spell that would erase Peter Parker from every memory, I thought to myself “Surely, surely Strange will make loophole that will allow MJ and Ned to remember him.” Then I thought, “Oh, when Tom-Peter tells MJ that he loves her, she’ll remember! That’ll be the moment.” BUT IT DIDN’T HAPPEN. And it worked. It works so well, even though it’s heart-wrenching. As a storyteller, I appreciated that the stakes and cost of the movie and Tom-Spidey’s mistakes were real and not resolved with a slapped-on Happily Ever After. The ending made the movie all the more surprising and satisfying, just when I thought it couldn’t get any better.

Also, have I mentioned Andrew-Spidey’s redemption moment, catching and saving MJ during the final battle? Another expected moment that fans hoped to see once the trailer dropped, met in what might be the most touching moment of the movie. And a moment that provides a perfect segue into the second aspect of what made this movie so good: the overwhelming theme of redemption.

We as a people, it seems, long to see redemption arcs in our fiction, to see characters healed, to see restoration. No Way Home is a story of redemption for both villains and heroes. It’s most obvious through the Spider-Men’s efforts to heal the villains before sending them back. But I think it’s even more poignant through how Tobey and Andrew’s Peter Parkers enter the story.

The whole purpose of Tobey-Spidey and Andrew-Spidey entering the story is to provide Tom-Spidey with guidance and comfort in his darkest hour. Through their advice to Tom-Spidey, they are searching for redemption of their own past stories. They don’t want Tom-Spidey to make the same mistakes they regret. In turn, their own suffering allows them to speak into Tom-Spidey’s mourning. There’s redemption in that, too. After all, in our own lives, sharing our experiences of suffering with others going through similar trials can help us make sense of our own pain, and helping others facing the same hardships can provide a reason behind our own hurt. To tie it into the Christian life, as my dad remarked, the scene on the school rooftop between the Spider-Men, where Tobey-Peter and Andrew-Peter entered into Tom-Peter’s darkest hour, is a reflection of what Christian community should look like: meeting others in their suffering to bring comfort and Light. While I believe Jesus ultimately redeems all of our suffering—as we Christians suffer for His sake—I also see how God works to redeem our suffering through how we’re able to meet others in similar crises and struggles. This movie illustrates that deeper truth, and, though not necessarily intentional of the filmmakers, I think it’s pretty cool.

There’s something about the story of redemption that I think resonates in all of our souls. The best parts of No Way Home, in my opinion, is when each Spider-Man gets their own moment of redemption. I cheered and cried a little when Andrew-Spidey saves MJ. I was moved when Tobey-Spidey stands between Tom-Spidey and the Green Goblin. I’m touched in the end when Tom-Spidey makes amends with Dr. Strange and makes the hard choice to undo the mess he’s helped create.  Each of these Spider-Men can’t change their past or fix their mistakes, but they each get a redemptive moment of their own to help them move forward in healing. There’s a power to that story that we’re all drawn to. I’d argue that second to sacrificial love (which this movie also has), the theme of redemption tells the best story. We love to see redemption arcs in our fiction, because we long for it in our own lives.

I’m writing my thoughts on No Way Home after seeing it twice now, and I already want to go see it a third time. It’s given me a lot to chew on as a writer, considering how audience expectations may one day factor into my own work, and I absolutely love the deeper truths reflected in this movie’s themes. And you know what? I think I might take back what I said at the start—this might truly be the No. 1 Greatest Marvel Movie of all time.