Why is Aunt May So Powerful in ‘Spider-Man: No Way Home’?
The giant story-telling flaw in Marvel’s latest outing
After two weeks of slinging myself away from a web of spoilers online and in real life and hearing friends talk non-stop about how awesome it is, I finally saw Spider-Man: No Way Home in theaters.
It definitely lived up to the hype. Well, almost.
SPOILERS, from here on out…
The OG Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire) and The Amazing Spider-Man (Andrew Garfield) entering the story in the moment of the Latest-Greatest Spider-Man’s grief is wish made reality, anticipation meeting fulfillment. All that red-and-blue on screen might seem overwhelming, but the feeling is welcome — especially for people like me who jumped into the superhero genre via Maguire’s friendly neighborhood crime-fighting. The stretch of film from the arrival of Tom Holland’s predecessors to the battle amid the scaffolding of the Statue of Liberty could have been the pinnacle of Marvel’s storytelling. But what came before all that glorious scenery severely undermined the entire film.
When Doctor Strange and LG Spider-Man flub a spell to make the entire universe forget Peter Parker = Spider-Man (with five or six exceptions), the boundaries between worlds are breached and other people who know Peter Parker is Spider-Man (along with other Spider-Men) start arriving in our Peter’s world.
Doctor Strange’s very sensible solution is to capture all the Spider-villains and send them back to their own universes as quickly as possible.* And he can do that with the push of a button. Peter seems on board with this until he gets word that another Spider-villain, Norman Osborn (aka the Green Goblin played by Willem Dafoe), is at the homeless shelter where Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) works.
Peter speeds there, thinking his aunt is in danger, only to find May and Norman sitting at a table in the midst of amiable conversation. Norman, who appears to be in complete control of his mental faculties, has convinced May that he is not a bad guy and just needs a little help to keep his alter ego from taking over his mind and controlling his body. He also seems to have convinced her that — despite the highway destruction wreaked by Doc Ock which she likely (definitely?) would have known about — his Spidey-villain contemporaries are basically in the same shape as himself: good guys who stumbled into the wrong world and have no ill intent. They need salvation from mental imbalances, not a righteous beat-down.
It takes just that little bit of convincing to transform Aunt May, whose entire character motivation is the safety of her nephew, into an advocate for the care and feeding of villains. (Sure: she hasn’t experienced the depths of their evil, but we—the audience which has met all these men before—have, and that’s why her actions make little sense.) And what’s worse: May’s sudden concern for the villain class is enough to convince Peter that, yeah, we should try to “cure” them before we send them back to their own worlds where, yeah, they will die fighting Spider-Man.**
“This is what we do,” Aunt May preaches.
Um, no. Rehabbing villains is not standard operating procedure for Holland’s Spider-Man or any Avenger. And May suddenly “we”-ing herself into Avengership is more than a tad suspicious.
This aspect of No Way Home deserves deeper analysis: Why do all of these villains suddenly need to be cured? Is Marvel trying to score woke-points by tackling mental illness? (If so, this attempt is sorely lacking.) Are we supposed to no longer feel justified that a few bad guys actually get their comeuppance? Is their victimhood to their own hubris sufficient grounds for excusing their behavior?
But the biggest question is why — why? — is it suddenly Aunt May’s job to advocate for the welfare of men who, in other universes, wanted nothing more but to see her nephew dead? Should someone care about them? Sure. Is it noble to pursue a better outcome than the one that befell them in their own worlds? Certainly.
But is it reasonable that a single conversation with Norman Osborn would transform Aunt May into a crusader for all the Spider-villains? Absolutely not. This is simply bad storytelling. It breaks the rule of a character’s actions aligning with their motivations.
With the flimsiest of promptings, Aunt May suddenly takes on an unjustifiably outsized role in order to convince her nephew that the right and only thing to do is to fix the men who had threatened his life and the lives of other Peter Parkers and countless thousands in other worlds — a fix that some of them aren’t too sure they want. (And that broaches the issue of free will and who is justified in forcing solutions on people who don’t want them, no matter how good those solutions are.)
The entire conflict of No Way Home hinges on this startling and ungrounded transformation of Aunt May’s character, which causes Spider-Man’s behavior to fall flat throughout the rest of the film. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Peter exhibited a “white savior complex,” but the sincerity of his actions within the context of the story is definitely hard to accept. (Admittedly, trying to help those who would harm others makes for a feel-good story. And, perhaps, that’s what Marvel was going for: positivity at the expense of good storytelling.)
No Way Home lends Aunt May far too much power. No doubt, because her death in this film was always in the cards and it needed to be more than incidental. It needed to cause a real crisis of morality for Peter: her dying because he took her advice to be a good guy instead of a pragmatist. But May being the one to spark Peter’s plan to “cure” the off-world villains does not align with her character’s over-arching motivation: the safety and well-being of the teenager in her care. If anything, May would have been arguing alongside Doctor Strange that the best and safest thing to do for Parker and for their world would be to send the intruders back to their own worlds as quickly as possible, no matter what awaited them on the other side.
If anyone were to advocate for the reform of the Spider-villains, it should have been Doctor Strange. I can see him seizing on an opportunity to do some good in other universes (especially with the other Spider-Men on his side) instead of simply trying to cover his ass before Sorcerer Supreme Wong got back.***
May’s sudden outsize influence in No Way Home sets the entire movie off-kilter. I get it: the movie-makers had a story to tell, a multiverse to expand, and a Phase to push forward, but they sacrificed narrative integrity to get there knowing that the excitement of the Spider-Trinity would make up for whatever qualms (most) viewers would have.
*I’m writing this about 24 hours after seeing the film and am relying on memory. Forgive me, and correct me, if some details aren’t precise.
**Maybe Aunt May doesn’t know a basic rule of timeline tampering: even if things are bad, you set things back the way they were because any deviation from the known outcome results in a worse and unknown outcome. Most of the time.
***Speaking of: wouldn’t The Sorcerer Supreme detect some kind of disturbance in the Force if the fabric between universes was being ripped apart no matter where he was at? Or was it localized to New York?