No Way Home Proves Tobey Maguire Is Still the Best Spider-Man

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<i>No Way Home</i> Proves Tobey Maguire Is Still the Best Spider-Man

As a film, it’s genuinely hard not to like—or at the very least really enjoy watching—Spider-Man: No Way Home. A riotous blend of nostalgia and unvarnished fan service, it manages to fuse two decades of comic book movie history into something that’s part celebration, part weird apology and part extended Marvel fix-it fic that tries to right many of the wrongs of the previous two (Sony-made) Spider-Man film series. The end result certainly has its moments: Tom Holland actually gets to really act with someone who isn’t Robert Downey Jr., the film’s conclusion is surprisingly brave, my girl Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) shows up in the end credits looking refreshed and rested after mind-controlling a town, and the whole thing is just a lot of fun to watch.


But No Way Home is also a movie that’s plot is laughably thin, that fridges Peter’s aunt solely in the name of his emotional development and that seems to think the entire concept of villainy is now something that can be cured with a fancy gadget or chemical compound. (Um, Thanos, guys?) It builds its entire narrative backward from the—admittedly great—setpiece of bringing all three on-screen Spider-Men together without considering whether getting to that moment was a story that made sense. Did we ever find out why Stephen Strange, having just witnessed the damage that trying to change the timeline can do to the world, would so easily volunteer to do it again like six months later? No, no we did not.

But, to its credit, the plot is the least important thing about this movie, which is ultimately a story about second chances and the cost of heroism—one that waits until the last possible moment to drop the “with great power must also come great responsibility” line to devastating and truthful effect. No Way Home is essentially the film in which the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Peter Parker grows up, finally transitioning from a smart-mouth whiz kid in the talented and gifted program to a real hero who might just do some good despite himself.

But it’s also a film that reminds us how essential Tobey Maguire’s original Peter Parker has always been—not only to the film evolution of Spider-Man as a character but our understanding of what superhero stories are supposed to do and be. As much as we are all obsessed with the entertainment behemoth that is the MCU, Marvel movies aren’t exactly known for their heart. For their wry humor, their big-budget special effects, their self-awareness that there’s something deeply silly about fighting bad guys in sparkly spandex, yes. But even the best of the franchise’s offerings could hardly be called sentimental. (WandaVision’s intense study of grief is maybe the only thing that comes close.) And while Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies are many things that are groan-worthy, the one thing they are, always, is sincere. This is a Spider-Man story that is genuinely and completely uncynical, something that the MCU has never been particularly interested in becoming.

Maguire’s Peter Parker is not the sort of character that would likely headline a Marvel film today. (Despite the fact that he did have the required MCU Abs of Death at one point back in Spider-Man 2.) This is a Peter who is distinctly uncool. He’s not a tech genius, he doesn’t have sidekicks (his only friend tries to kill him in the second movie) and there are no rapid-fire wisecracks or constant quips. His quiet, unassuming demeanor is distinctly at odds with the MCU’s predominant take on what heroes should look like these days: Sarcastic, snide men like Tony Stark, Peter Quill or Stephen Strange, who ironically side-eye the whole hero gig and have all the subtlety of air horns. And to be honest, Maguire’s Peter often comes across as kind of a loser, the sort of frumpy dope who gets bullied by a local bus driver and can barely string three words together in front of his crush Mary Jane. He doesn’t have billionaire money, Stark tech or an advanced team of godlike fellow heroes in his iPhone contacts. He’s generally the butt of the joke, even when he’s just saved the day.

Yet, the climax of No Way Home underlines why Maguire’s Peter is still such an incredible hero—and how desperately Marvel still needs a character like his on its canvas. This Peter is as likely to drop a terrible dad joke as he is an MCU-style one-liner, he dresses like a deranged substitute teacher and he basically fell ass-backward into the superhero business with no help or guidance. But he’s still here, well into middle-age, fighting the good fight because someone has to. Because, yes, with great power must also come great responsibility.

This Peter is aggressively normal, unabashedly sentimental and sincere in a way that so much of the MCU is rarely allowed to be. (The lone exception to this rule is Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers, who is consistently mocked by almost everyone else as an out-of-touch dinosaur.) The animated film. He has certainly seen some shit, but even in the wake of an apparent lifetime of mistakes and setbacks, he’s still struggling to be his best self. Things with his Mary Jane are apparently “complicated” in his universe (likely as a result of those mistakes) and he’s clearly worn out by everything that life has thrown at him as the MCU’s apparent true elder statesman. But it’s not enough to make him hard or cold.

The flip side of this is the Peter B. Parker we meet in Sony’s animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. He’s a burned-out husk of his former do-gooder self who’s lost all belief in the power of heroes to change things. This Peter has not only gotten fat and increasingly jaded, but he’s also essentially given up—on helping others, on his relationship with Mary Jane, on himself. As a mentor, he leaves a lot to be desired, and it’s essentially his young protegee Miles Morales who ends up saving him, pointing him back toward a life of meaning.

This is another reason why the actions of Maguire’s Peter in No Way Home are so darn moving. He’s suffered, lost people and gotten possessed by black alien goo, but he’s never given up. Even when he tried to walk away from everything, he turned around and came back. Perhaps he thinks this is the penance he still owes his Uncle Ben, but whatever the reason, this is a Peter who still shows up, with his stupid big eyes and bruised heart on his sleeve, to stop Tom Holland’s younger, shinier version from making the biggest mistake of his life—and to save his own greatest enemy at the same time. Yes, he gets stabbed for his trouble, but Maguire’s face makes clear that this chance to help another version of himself make the right choice where he didn’t is worth it.

Maybe it’s the fact that we’ve all gotten older alongside this Peter—and who among us isn’t worn out and battling random, inexplicable back pain these days?—but there’s something genuinely emotional about watching a man who has made mistakes and learned from them, who has done the wrong thing and seen what it costs, but keeps trying to do better anyway. Still trying, after all this time. It’s a dramatic and painfully timely reminder that goodness—that being a hero—isn’t a character trait. It’s not something you are. It’s something you do. It’s a choice you must make, every day, and it’s not always an easy one.

And in a world where a certain style of cynicism has come to dominate our pop culture, Maguire’s Peter Parker feels simultaneously like a throwback and a revelation, a reminder that part of the reason we tell stories about heroes like him is that, at the end of the day, they are aspirational. Maybe we can’t fight alongside Avengers or consult our local wizard when we have a problem, but we can be the regular guy who reaches out a hand when someone else needs it, even if we have to get our backs cracked first.

Lacy Baugher Milas is a digital producer by day, but a television enthusiast pretty much all the time. Her writing has been featured in Collider, IGN, Screenrant, The Baltimore Sun and others. Literally always looking for someone to yell about Doctor Who and/or CW superhero properties with, you can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.