Spiderman: No Way Home – Male Vulnerability and Female Bravery

Image of Spiderman's mask in his hand, dangling beside his costumed leg, with the sun beaming at him.
Photo by Joey Nicotra on Unsplash

Author’s note: This article contains spoilers of the Spiderman franchise, including the latest film Spiderman: No Way Home.

The last cinematic experience I had that is comparable to Spiderman: No Way Home was another Marvel film: Captain Marvel. When I was a young girl, I found myself obsessed with superheroes and villains. Unconsciously, I repelled the heroines of that time, as they donned skimpy uniforms and seemed less extraordinary. A shame, I know, but women have forever been portrayed as such. That is, until Captain Marvel was released. For the first time, I was watching a heroine fulfill her destiny completely untethered to a romantic entanglement with a man. In fact, the closest relationship was the indestructible, platonic friendship between Captain Marvel and her co-pilot, Marie Rambeau. I cried in the theatre, not because the movie was sad or even profoundly moving, but because for the first time in my life, a female hero was portrayed in a human way, sans the male-gaze! It was extraordinary, cathartic, and inspired articles like Why Representation is Important in the Media.

Marvel is a beast in the industry, and with each new release, the growing popularity is understandable. Spiderman: No Way Home left an imprint on me, in a similar way to Captain Marvel. Leaving the theatre, I felt lighter, despite the emotional ending. For the first time in a while, I was hopeful that our world is propelling, although slowly, in a positive direction. Spiderman: No Way Home, at the very least, is a revolutionary film on male vulnerability and female bravery, and here is why…

Heroes Cry and Women are Brave

I often forget that “boys don’t cry” is a common, if not standard, expression we use on our young boys and men. Because I am entrenched in the world of sexual liberation and alternative living, I forget that my reality differs greatly than the rest of the world. For example, that time I wore a “Gender is Dead” sweater to a family dinner, thinking nothing of it, only for it to spark a debate between in-laws. Something that seems so rational or normal to me, remains unconventional. So, when I watched Spiderman: No Way Home, I was flabbergasted by the number of male tears I saw onscreen.

The impression this film could have on young boys, by normalising their tears and vulnerability, is colossal! The first time we see Happy – a grown man who has worked alongside Iron Man for years – is crying on Aunt May’s doorstep because of their breakup. The first time we hear the Norman Osborn speak, he is confiding emotionally in Aunt May, asking for help! Both Spiderman (Holland) and Spiderman (Garfield) shed tears throughout the film, as a response to their sadness, anger, and grief.

Again, this is just another fragment of the masterpiece, where masculinity is not defined by lack of emotion, but by its humanness. In our society, young boys and men are afflicted with alexithymia – a condition whereby you can’t identify or describe your own emotions or feelings – which is linked to depression and suicide. Spiderman: No Way Home reminds people that crying is simply a reaction, something that is inevitable and universal. Even superheroes do it!

On the same token, women are capable of the bravery displayed by traditional male characters! Aunt May and MJ are two of the most courageous characters within the movie because their loyalty to Spiderman and his pursuits are unrelenting; even without superpowers, they face dangers alongside him.

What I love about Zendaya’s MJ is she is her own person, who doesn’t feel the need to smile and, although she is undoubtedly beautiful, her loyalty, courage and assertiveness are what make her her. Her intelligence is striking, she challenges Peter Parker, and at no point does she require saving! She is capable of consoling Spiderman during his time of loss, and he falls into her, allowing her to receive his vulnerability with ease.

What struck me about this element of the movie is that is felt like a shift in gender roles, when in fact, it’s just showcasing the pendulum of human expression and capabilities. We can be simultaneously courageous and sad, fearful and trusting, angry and empathetic, regardless of gender identity or biological sex. Gender, nor sex, are determinants of a specific set of emotions or abilities. Spiderman: No Way Home exemplified this flawlessly.

Pro-Anger but Anti-Revenge

As I watched Spiderman: No Way Home, specifically after the death of Aunt May, I recalled a quote from my teenage years:

“Don’t teach your children not to be angry. Teach them how to be angry.”

When I came across this, even as a young person, I understood its importance. The miraculous and iconic moment in Spiderman: No Way Home when Andrew Garfield and Toby McGuire appear, I understood they would play a greater role than simply allies for the curing of evil.

Andrew Garfield’s Spiderman (aka Spiderman 3) was grief and guilt-stricken from his failed attempt at saving his beloved girlfriend, Gwen Stacy. Toby McGuire’s Spiderman (aka Spiderman 2) appeared more as a guide or wiseman who would lead Tom Holland (aka Spiderman 1) away from similar fates.

Grief, guilt, and anger over the loss of a loved one has been a major driving force in most superhero plotlines. What was amazing about Spiderman: No Way Home is it challenged this tradition by remaining pro-anger, guilt, and grief, but taking an anti-revenge stance.

After Aunt May’s death, Spiderman 1 (Holland) was riddled with all these emotions, craving revenge for her murder by the Green Goblin. He had lost his last parental authority – his caretaker, his guide – and the devastation was grave. Marvel epically brought in the only two characters that knew exactly what such a loss felt like. What was painstakingly brilliant about this is Spidermen 2 (McGuire) gave Spiderman 1 (Holland) the space to feel everything while confronting his plan for revenge. Spiderman 2 (McGuire) shared his own failed revenge story – how it doesn’t actually mend the hurt, in fact, it makes it worse.

This lesson was showcased with finality when Spiderman 1 (Holland) picked up the Green Goblin’s hovercraft, with the intention of stabbing its jagged edges into its owner. Spiderman 2 (McGuire) stopped Spiderman 1 (Holland) by putting himself between the board and the Green Goblin, ultimately teaching him that grief is not cured by revenge.

Revenge is one of those actions that young boys and men are taught is acceptable, even commendable. Spiderman: No Way Home challenges this through Spiderman 2’s (McGuire) character, and the lessons learned from his own past. This is further proven when Spiderman 3 (Garfield) has an emotionally charged, self-redemptive moment when he saves MJ from the same accident in which his Gwen Stacy perished. These events demonstrate to the audience that:

To feel is human, but redemption can only be found through forgiveness and love.

Respect for the Woman’s Word

Women have long struggled for their autonomy – a fight that is still ongoing today. A great and recent film that depicts this is The Last Duel. It frustratingly portrays the ownership men had over women’s bodies, and the powerlessness of the female “no.” In media, men have long been taught that “no” means “convince me,” and if you pursue a woman long enough, she will eventually yield to you. Male power has been reinforced over time by culture, including film and television.

On the contrary, Spiderman: No Way Home masters the wonderful, and subtle art of respecting the women’s word. Two moments that exemplify this were:

  1. When Aunt May breaks it off with Happy. Although he is devastated, at no point throughout the film do we see him pursue, beg, or manipulate her into reconciling the relationship. He remains a loyal friend and resource for her and Spiderman, but it is specific to Spiderman’s pursuits as a superhero. Even if his feelings are evident throughout the film, he keeps his distance by sleeping on the couch, or prodding May no further. Of course, as the audience you may wonder about the relationship’s demise, but the script is written in such a way that your affections and sympathy don’t lie on either side (Happy versus Aunt May); you simply accept the situation and move along.
  2. Spiderman and MJ are in a lab preparing for Spiderman’s leave to cure the villains. Spiderman expresses his fear of MJ assisting him. She responds by taking his face in her hands and simply reminding him that she isn’t going anywhere. If this film leaned more traditional, he would have put up a fight, expressed the risks, her vulnerability, his dire love for her, maybe even forbade her to help… But instead, Peter Parker simply smiled and agreed. Her strength and ability to make her own decisions vanquished his fear.

As a woman watching these scenes, something in me buzzed with gratitude. To have your word heard and then honored can often feel like playing games of cards – you win some, you lose some. In Spiderman: No Way Home, the female characters weren’t required to put up a fight to be seen and respected, which is the ultimate hope for the future.

Power in Affection

Throughout this Spiderman trilogy, we witness Spiderman’s unabashed openness to affection. He isn’t afraid to show his love to his dear friend, Ned, go in for hugs with Iron Man, even if rejected, be wrapped in the arms of his Aunt May, or his beloved MJ. This Spiderman trilogy is full of affection! What’s even more exciting is that it is full of affection between men.

In some of the final scenes of Spiderman: No Way Home, we recognize Spiderman 3’s (Garfield) lack of confidence and desire to bond with the other two Spidermen. Spiderman 2 (McGuire) – being older and wiser – recognizes this and comforts Spiderman 3 (Garfield) when he doubts himself. He reassures Spiderman 3 that he is not a joke and is as important as the other Spidermen. This then continues into a more physical affection whereby, although comically, Spiderman 3 (Garfield) lifts Spiderman 2 in a backwards bear hug, cracking his back to help Spiderman 2 (McGuire) feel more limber. After the main battle scene, Spiderman 3 takes it upon himself to take care of Spiderman 2, by holding him up after he’s been stabbed by the Green Goblin. There is a clear bond between Spiderman 2 and 3, which is reinforced through a brotherly intimacy.

Overall, the proximity between men in this film is unlike other superhero movies. There is an affinity and understanding between characters that oftentimes, and without unease, leads to physical affection. Why is this important? Because male affection has always been viewed as sexual. Men are in as much need of closeness as anybody else, and Spiderman: No Way Home represents this in a pure way.

Spiderman is the Way Home

Leaving the theatre, my heart was full. James and I spent the next hour speaking about the impact this movie will have, and the trail it will be blazing! I wait for the day that movies such as this are not so much ahead of their time but are fully representative of the world we live in. What made Spiderman: No Way Home special is these elements are subtle, nuanced and not exaggerated; this will only help penetrate the minds of its audience, and in time will change the perception of male vulnerability and female bravery.

With Marvel Entertainment behind such an extraordinary and revolutionary film on male emotion and female bravery, I can only anticipate what is to come, because… With great power comes great responsibility, and with a changing culture in their hands, I do believe movies such as Spiderman are the way back home…

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