Spider-Man: No Way Home is the third outing for Tom Holland as the title character. In the last twenty years, this will be the ninth feature-length film starring Spider-Man (though he’s appeared in other films as well, including Avengers: Infinity War and Captain America: Civil War.) Spider-Man might be one of most recognizable characters in the world and the dictates of a film and story for such a well-known character are different than with characters you’re starting from scratch with.
This film picks up exactly where the end-credits of the previous film, Spider-Man: Far From Home, left off. Peter Parker’s identity has been revealed to the world and his life is in shambles because of it, so he needs to think of something drastic to fix the situation. He goes to Doctor Strange for help and they concoct a spell that will make the world forget that Peter Parker is Spider-Man. This doesn’t go well.
As we analyze a couple of things you’ll want to analyze from a writing perspective, I’ll warn you that there will be major spoilers from here on out.
Peter Parker and Spider-Man are practically two different people. They both have different goals and objectives. It is unfortunate for both of them that they reside in the same person. As you watch this Spider-Man movie (and all of them, really) notice how there’s a balance to be struck between the two personas. When Spider-Man is doing well in his friendly, neighborhood crime-fighting, Peter’s life is in complete disarray and falling apart. When Peter is doing well in his life, with his interpersonal relationships and school, his life as Spider-Man is in complete disarray and falling apart. The movies, including No Way Home, force Peter to vacillate between the extremes of his personas without ever finding equilibrium. It is likely not possible for Peter to find that balance even though we as an audience want him to. But that’s what creates so much of the drama in these screenplays: the life out of balance.
In Spider-Man: No Way Home, Peter loses the balance in both sides of his life when his identity is revealed. Seeking a way to find balance in at least one area of his life, Peter tries to protect his family by having his identity forgotten by the world. This causes his Spider-Man life to fall completely out of balance because he then needs to deal with a number of new super-villains who have crossed over into his dimension from the multi-verse. As he tries to strike a balance between the two, he finds he has to sacrifice something in order to maintain even the difficult imbalances of before.
As you write your characters, think about how you can set their life up on a scale like Peter’s. As they make decisions in one area of their life, how can they create imbalance in others. You can fashion an entire character arc with this one simple tool.
One of the best parts of Spider-Man: No Way Home was the character arc that Peter Parker had. The problems that carry the movie that Peter needs to solve are a direct result of his place as a character. When he goes to Doctor Strange to help with this memory spell for the world, he adds caveats. The people he loves need to be able to remember him, too. He interrupts Strange no less than five or six times with addendums to the spell and Strange loses control. This is what causes the people who know Peter’s identity in other dimensions to start bleeding into the Tom Holland Peter’s reality.
This is because Peter hasn’t thought about the sacrifices he would really need to make to allow the spell to work. As he works to stay true to himself and protect his friends, Peter realizes that, at this juncture, maybe there is no way he will be able to keep his lives in balance.
When he and Doctor Strange realize that the only way to save the very fabric of reality is for Peter Parker’s identity to be forgotten by everyone, Strange lets Peter make the choice. With his Aunt May dead (in an echo of the classic passing of Uncle Ben in other iterations of Spider-Man), his friends are the only people he has left in his life. He chooses to let everyone forget him in order to save the world, which was a choice that he was incapable of making at the beginning of the film. He suffers the consequences of his immaturity and attachment through the entire film, and arrives at this conclusion by the end.
Can you fashion stories where characters get to make a choice in the first act that causes them problems all through the second act that allow them to learn and grow, so that when the choice comes back around at the climax, they can make the right choice this time?
The Surprise Return
Spider-Man: No Way Home juggles a lot of different characters from a lot of different movie universes. The screenwriters included most of the villains from the Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield iterations of Spider-Man. There are a lot of moving parts there and they fall off the map here and there, leaving the audience wondering when they will come back.
As you watch Spider-Man: Now Way Home, look at when they’re taking these pieces off the board and when they’re putting them back on. The two best examples of this come with Doc Ock (Alfred Molina) and Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe). Peter (Tom Holland) is able to get the chip that fried Doc Ock replaced so he turns back from villain to ally. Norman Osborn started as an ally in this universe, but switches to villain just as Doc Ock makes his switch, giving them an interesting role reversal. In the chaos that ensues, Green Goblin is able to mortally wound Aunt May and he and the other villains—including Doc Ock — scatter.
The emotional energy of the scene and sequence is with Peter and his loss. He’s broken and the audience is with him every step of the way, so they lose track of the pieces not on the board.
The three Peters (Holland, Garfield, and Maguire) hatch a plan to lure all of the villains to the Statue of Liberty and cure them of their afflictions before sending them back home to give them a second chance. This is the kindness common to Peters of all three of these dimensions.
The plan works and they’re able to bring the villains to their chosen battleground.
The audience almost doesn’t realize that the two missing pieces are Doc Ock and Green Goblin. Electro, Sandman, and the Lizard give the Spider-Men enough of a problem that it doesn’t register that not all of the pieces are there. Pay attention to when and how these characters come back, though. With Doc Ock, his return creates confusion about which side he’s on. Did their cure for him not work? Is the entire plan doomed to fail?
Then watch when Green Goblin arrives back into the picture. Notice the moment he arrives is when things seem to start working out for the heroes. He’s as much a complication for the plot as he is an exciting element brought back to play.
How can you obfuscate missing pieces so you can put them on the board of your plot at the right time? In Spider-Man: No Way Home, the answer is to give the audience stakes high enough to make them care as much about what’s happening on screen as what’s happening off.
The Final Accounting
Overall, Spider-Man: No Way Home allowed the previous generations of Spider-Man films (and actors) who were cut short by studio decisions, get their due. It allowed Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield to shine, emotionally at times, while never undercutting Tom Holland as the star of the movie. It is a complicated comic book film that could only be made in this day and age of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
If you’re a fan of any iteration of Spider-Man over the last twenty years, you’re going to want to see this movie. And if you’re a screenwriter, there are definitely things to pick apart and adapt to your own work, big blockbuster superhero movie or not.
Spider-Man: No Way Home is currently in cinemas everywhere.