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Spider-Man: No Way Home and the complex message of freedom

Spider-Man: No Way Home Theatrical Poster
This is a poster for Spider-Man: No Way Home. The poster art copyright is believed to belong to the distributor of the film, Sony Pictures Releasing, the publisher, Columbia Pictures / Marvel Studios, or the graphic artist.

Warning: serious spoilers for Spider-Man No Way Home.

Spider-Man: No Way Home (NWH), the movie spectacular, completes Jon Watts’ “Home trilogy” with British actor Tom Holland playing the eponymous web-slinging superhero. The trilogy of films situated the young hero squarely in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) of ever-expanding movies and television series. The latter film also brings to a close the circle of three sets of movies produced over twenty years. Hard-core comic-film fans were treated to all three actors who played “Spidey” over the past 20 years swinging on one screen. Tobey Maguire from Sam Raimi’s Sony Pictures Entertainment, Andrew Garfield, another British actor, in Marc Webb’s version also for Sony, and finally Holland in a joint venture with Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures and Marvel Studios. In one epic, the triumvirate of Spider-Men fought five of the most famous screen villains from various other films. After an incredible $260 million opening weekend in the U. S. and Canada, No Way Home may become the highest-grossing film of all time.

Created in 1962 by writer-editor Stan Lee and artist Steve Ditko, Spider-Man remains one of the most popular superhero figures in all mediums – comic book, graphic novel, television, and big-screen.

Spider-Man’s motto goes, “with great power, there must also come great responsibility.” This phrase might echo a similar phrase in some versions of the Parable of the Faithful Servant in the New Testament, “to whom much is given, much will be required” (Luke 12:48.) Tracing this guiding phrase uttered by his dying uncle (or aunt in the latest rendition) back to Jesus fits with an aspect of the narrative arc. Spider-Man’s power forces Peter Parker, Spidey’s alter-ego, to sacrifice essential aspects of himself for the greater good like other mythological and fictional characters. Some might see Parker as a Christ-like figure; however, as will be seen, aspects of the story fit with Jewish sources.

In all three of the latest installments of Spider-Man, Peter Parker, loses someone close to him. In the comic books, Peter, orphaned from before the story begins, is responsible for the death of his surrogate father, Ben Parker. Ben, who utters the famous phrase in the first films, motivates Peter to forgo some aspects of crime-fighting-life balance. Peter must choose to be the hero, often at a high cost to himself and others.

Maguire’s Peter Parker, in a roundabout way, causes the death of his uncle. In Garfield’s presentation, Peter is responsible for Ben Parker’s death in the first film of the series and increasing the tension in the second film, the death of the love of his life, Gwen Stacey, played by the popular Emma Stone. The death of Stacey/Stone was challenging on many fans who accused the directors of using the “Women in Refrigerators” trope. The trope consists of disposing of a character’s love interest and using the dead or injured woman as an object or prop to motivate the male lead. Some even believe that the third installment of Webb’s trilogy died along with Gwen Stacey and, therefore, was never made. The guilt for losing Uncle Ben and Gwen Stacey haunts the various Peter Parkers for the rest of their lives. These sacrifices steeled their will to fight for the good.  

In NWH, Peter is asked to sacrifice even more. In a gender twist, Tom Holland’s Peter is responsible for the death of his Aunt May. In NWH, there is no Uncle Ben. May Parker, portrayed by the comparatively youthful Marisa Tomei, fulfills the roles of both surrogate parents. Not only does Parker, who lost his quasi-step-father Iron Man in an emotional scene from another film, lose Aunt May, but the writers demand an even greater sacrifice.

The story is a bit complex for those not solid MCU fans; however, basically, to save the world, Peter asks a magician, Doctor Strange, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, to erase the memory of “Peter Parker” from the world. The spell works, and Peter is bereft of everything. No one remembers him. His closest friend and love interest do not recognize him. He is financial in ruin, does not graduate high school, and certainly can not go on to the bigger and brighter things in college with his friends. He is an unknown who just happened to have been the most famous person in the world at the beginning of the film. His adventures saving the planet and the love of friends and family have all been wiped away. He is utterly alone.

However, the ultimate sacrifice comes at the end of the film. Before Peter erases his friends’ minds, he promises to find them and reveal himself to them. He arrives at the coffee shop where his love interest, M.J., played by Zendaya, works. His best friend, Ned Leeds, played by Jacob Batalon, also arrives. They do not recognize Peter but instead rejoice in their plans to go together to M.I.T. in the fall. Despite having a speech explaining who he is prepared, Peter chooses to let his friends remain oblivious and go on with their lives. They will live the life that Peter thought he would and wished he could. However, he now knows “with great power, there must also come great responsibility.” Instead of going with them to college, he moves into a small apartment and fully embraces the crime-fighting Spider-Man alter ego.

Unlike the earlier versions of SPIDER-MAN, which were faithful to the comic book source material, some fans accuse Disney’s version of being overly happy and sterile. SPIDER-MAN of comic-book fame was a hungry, poor, hurting, and lonely soul. Peter Parker of Disney and the MCU found assistance in the pantheon of MCU superheroes. Tony Stark/ Iron Man served as Peter’s mentor and gifted him powerful tools and suits to enhance his abilities. He served as part of the Avengers team and found comradery and friendship among other notable people. By the end of NWH, Peter is bereft of everything.

Some fans found the ending jostling and disappointing, while others see the wisdom in the new potential of the unconnected and unprotected – financially, emotionally, and even physically – Spider-Man. Many have suggested that by removing MCU’ Peter’s connections with family, friends, and even the MCU itself, Sony Pictures could “soft-reboot” the character more in line with the source material. If “with great power, there must also come great responsibility,” then the corollary is also true “with no connections comes ultimate potential.”

Stan Lee, one of Spider-Man’s creators, died before NWH was produced. However, many have suggested that the Jewish Lee saw Spider-Man as his most authentic self. Many have hinted that aspects of Lee’s Spider-Man suggest Jewish roots. Peter Parker grew up in the Forest Hills section of Queens, NY, known for being a Jewish neighborhood. References here and there, like Channukah decorations, adorn some scenes. As mentioned on the website Screen Rant, “Actor Andrew Garfield, in a 2014 interview with Time Out, maintained that Spider-Man is Jewish, because, in part, ‘…he never feels like he’s doing enough. And Peter suffers from self-doubt… he’s neurotic. He’s Jewish, it’s a defining feature.'” Whether or not Stan Lee consciously placed Jewish elements in Peter’s character, the end of NWH with the newly impoverished, lonely, and full of potential Spider-Man dovetails nicely with ideas in Jewish sources. 

The notion of freedom is especially relevant to the Torah readings of the past few weeks about leaving Egypt. Those sections of the Torah we have been reading seem to coincide interestingly with the theatrical release of Now Way Home. 

The Passover Seder begins with the declaration, “Ha Lachma Anya Di Achalu Avhatana B’Aretz DiMitrayim” or “this is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.” The first symbolic food of the Seder night is matzah. Some Seder participants even point to the matzah while reciting the declaration. Some commentators argue that the term “bread of affliction” links to the verse in Deuteronomy 16:3, “You shall eat unleavened bread with it seven days, the bread of affliction.” The Hebrew “Lechem Oni” is the cognate of the Haggadah’s Aramaic term, “Lachma Anya .”The commandment and indeed first symbolic representation is to present “bread of affliction” or “poor bread” at the beginning of the Seder and to eat it during the meal. 

The Talmudic sages interpreted the term “Lechem Oni” in various playful ways: “poor person’s bread” focusing on the consumer, “poor bread” looking at the minimal ingredients which produce an unleavened, unflavored, rough-textured loaf, and even “bread upon which many [stories] are told” which stems from a pun of “oni” meaning “poor” and “onim” meaning “to recite.” 

So the cracker contains few ingredients, is formed and baked quickly, is eaten generally by the poor and slave people. Jews are commanded to celebrate their freedom by telling stories in the presence of this unimpressive cracker.

How, indeed, does this “poor bread” matzah function as a symbol of freedom? Rabbi Judah Loew (16th-17th c) of Prague, known as the Maharal, discusses the complexity of the symbol of matzah:

“Matzah is called “poor bread,” which is the opposite of “enriched bread.” When oil and honey are added, the bread becomes “enriched,” for these extra ingredients enrich the dough. A poor person has only himself. He has no money, only himself and his body.”

The Maharal explicates further,

“Perhaps you will find this difficult. What is the connection between poverty (Aniyut) and freedom (Cherut)? They [seem to be] opposites. This is not a difficulty. For poverty expresses redemption. The notion of redemption [or exodus] is [connected to] leaving. [The poor person] lacks connection to [material] things. Unlike a slave who lacks independence, he has a connection to another, i.e., the master. Therefore that which has “wealth” is connected to those objects [of wealth] and is not redeemed. However, that which is poor and does not have [a connection to] objects and instead stands alone, and this is connected to redemption [and freedom.]” (Gevurot HaShem Chapter 51)

Here the Maharal seems to echo or at least reflect the rabbinic aphorism “more wealth means more worries.” (Avot 2:7) Ownership of the objects which make up wealth ties one down. Poverty, at least from this theological standpoint, grants freedom. The poor person is not tied down to property or objects and can move about freely from one place to the other.

However, the Maharal differentiates between the symbol of freedom and the free person. Poverty is not an ideal state.

He continues,

“If matzah, which is “lechem oni,” informed us about the free person, that they are free, then one might inquire that poverty is not a symbol of freedom. However, this “lechem oni” teaches us about the essence of going out to freedom, and that essence stems from the ability to disconnect from other things.”

Poverty is a two-edged sword. Being poor disables a person from living a whole life, while the disconnect from objects of wealth enables one to move on to other things. So “poverty” represents the ability to leave one place and move to another – to exit as the Jewish people did from Egypt; however, lack of wealth can also burden a person in another way. Matzah, the poor bread, represents the ability to leave while poverty can also hobble future progress.

Peter Parker left everything behind. Indeed, the producers’ decision enables Parker to walk away and start afresh. The trilogy came to a close. Peter, in a way, can finally take on the full mantel of Spider-Man with all the emotional strain that accompanies that decision. His lack of connection to objects and people enables future films to start a new chapter – the soft reboot that perhaps Sony, Disney, or Marvel were looking for. Tom Holland can remain in the role, but he will be a completely new Spider-Man.

On the other hand, being entirely alone will bring incredible burdens. How the writers and filmmakers will navigate, if they do, the subsequent films will require serious thought. Fans will be waiting to see how this matured, and lonely Peter Parker will find redemption without being surrounded by friends and colleagues.

In poor Peter’s case, the filmmakers have ultimate power over the character. Fans are Looking forward to seeing how they live up to their responsibility.

About the Author
Rabbi Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.
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