This article contains spoilers for Spider-Man: No Way Home, Hawkeye, What If…?, and WandaVision.
In the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), Earth’s mightiest heroes are heartbreakingly human. Over the course of the last decade and half, Marvel has released dozens of films and television shows featuring larger-than-life characters with an impressive array of biochemical enhancements, god-like powers, and magical abilities. However, despite their enhanced skills, the common throughline connecting the superheroes of the MCU is their struggle with the consequences of heroism, and the losses that come with it. The latest film in the franchise, Spider-Man: No Way Home, exemplifies this struggle in a new way: Through its exploration of the multiverse, No Way Home shows its characters and viewers alike that—no matter what magic or powers you have—grief impacts us all.
Phase Four of the MCU has been heavily focused on the aftermath of Avengers: Endgame (2019), in which half of the population disappears for five years and several Avengers die in the process of bringing them back. Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019) picks up immediately after the events of Endgame and shows Peter Parker (Tom Holland) grappling with what it means to be Spider-Man without the guidance of his mentor Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), who died in Endgame while defeating Thanos (Josh Brolin). Far From Home marks the beginning of Peter’s difficulty navigating the tension between the two lives he is trying to live—one as a high schooler and one as a superhero.
Significantly, this new chapter of the MCU shows the consequences of how characters cope with grief. In the Disney+ mini-series WandaVision (2021), Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) tries to escape the grief of losing Vision (Paul Bettany) in Avengers: Infinity War (2018) by constructing an alternate reality. Through chaos magic, she is able to create a world in Westview, New Jersey where Vision is still alive and they can live their life together. At the end of the show (after literally poisoning the town she enslaved with her grief), Wanda recognizes the permanence of her loss: She cannot undo the tragic events of Infinity War, and she must accept her grief. Similarly, in the latest Disney+ series Hawkeye, the titular Hawkeye a.k.a. Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) mourns the loss of Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), while also dealing with the consequences of how he coped with the loss of his entire family during the “blip.” During the five years he spent without his wife and kids, Clint became Ronin, a masked vigilante who brutally took down organized crime rings. In Hawkeye, we see the toll this loss has taken on him–his flashbacks of losing Natasha, his guilt over the lives he took while mourning—and we watch as he tries to prevent losing anyone else.
No Way Home follows the same trajectory but adds a relatively new layer: the multiverse. The film starts moments after Spider-Man’s identity is revealed to the world, and we see Peter struggle to accept his newfound fame and the repercussions that come with it. He begins to mourn the life he once had. Now that the world knows his identity, he loses the separation between his two lives as Spider-Man and Peter Parker. The intertwining of Peter’s personal life and his identity as a superhero also impacts those closest to him; his girlfriend Michelle “MJ” Jones-Watson (Zendaya) and best friend Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalon) are both interrogated by the FBI, harassed by the press, and rejected from their dream colleges because of their proximity to Spider-Man.
In a desperate attempt to undo the consequences of being doxxed, Peter turns to Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) for help, asking him to use magic to make the world forget Spider-Man’s identity. But while Strange is casting the spell, Peter repeatedly interrupts him, modifying the spell in the process. Realizing that the spell would erase his loved one’s memories of him, he frantically says, “Basically everyone who already knew I was Spider-Man should still know.” But Peter’s tampering backfires and leads to an unprecedented multiversal event: Across multiple universes, anyone who knows Spider-Man’s identity is transported into Peter’s universe (the MCU).
The concept of the multiverse was first introduced to the MCU in Endgame, but to quote Doctor Strange, it’s a concept about which we (and the characters) know frighteningly little. The Disney+ series What If…? expanded on this concept when it was released in August, introducing audiences to the infinite realities of the multiverse and how they may—but definitely should not—interact. Prior to No Way Home, the series was the first look into how characters might try to abuse the multiverse to reverse losses in their lives.
The fourth episode of What If…? offers viewers a glimpse into a timeline where, instead of losing the use of his hands, Doctor Strange loses the woman he loves, Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams). Devastated by this loss, Strange becomes a sorcerer and attempts to manipulate time to bring back Christine. But tragically—no matter what he does, however he alters the events of that day— she still dies. The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) explains that Christine’s death was inevitable—it was an “absolute point” in time that not even time travel or magic could change.
In No Way Home, we see a similar truth. After the multiverse opens up, allowing various villains into Peter’s universe, he goes against Doctor Strange’s orders not to interfere and tries to help them instead. Honoring his Aunt May’s (Marissa Tomei) desire to save them, he changes each of them back to their original forms to prevent them from dying in their own universes. But in doing so, Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) betrays Peter, killing Aunt May in the process.
Loss and grief—including how he chooses to handle that grief—is central to Peter Parker’s character, and No Way Home highlights that point by bringing in his counterparts from other universes. Soon after Aunt May’s death, Holland’s Peter Parker meets two versions of himself that audiences will be familiar with: Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker from the Sam Raimi Spider-Man trilogy and Andrew Garfield’s Peter from the Amazing Spider-Man series. Onscreen, the differences between the three iterations of Spider-Man are subtle: Unlike Holland and Garfield, Maguire’s webs come out of his body, and unlike Garfield and Maguire, Holland’s Spider-Man suit is made of nanotechnology. But one thing is clear: All three versions of Peter Parker have experienced unimaginable loss, and all three have struggled with how to cope.
Before her tragic death, Aunt May utters an altered version of one of the franchise’s most iconic lines for the first time: With great power, there must also come great responsibility. As Holland quotes the line, the other Peters finish his sentence for him, each knowing the pain and comfort of that statement uniquely. In both Maguire and Garfield’s universes, the line is attributed to their Uncle Ben, who has not yet been included in the MCU. But all three Peter Parkers hear it from someone who cares for them deeply, shortly before their deaths. In that shared moment of understanding between them, we’re again met with the concept first discussed in What If…?: Some events and, tragically, some losses, are absolute points in time that cannot change—no matter the universe, no matter the choices we make.
Loss and grief—including how he chooses to handle that grief—is central to Peter Parker’s character, and “No Way Home” highlights that point by bringing in his counterparts from other universes.
While the multiverse cannot allow Holland’s Peter Parker to undo his loss, Maguire and Garfield show him what happens when Spider-Man allows grief to harden him. Garfield tells the group that after he lost Gwen Stacey (Emma Stone) in his universe, he stopped pulling punches when fighting villains, leading many to imagine a much darker Peter Parker in the Amazing Spider-Man universe. Maguire offers similar insight into the anger he felt after his Uncle Ben was killed. Both iterations of Peter see that Holland is different—he’s more innocent, he hasn’t yet been hardened. They show Holland that the grief may be inevitable, but how he deals with it doesn’t have to be, and Maguire ultimately stops him from killing Green Goblin at the end of the film.
For Maguire and Garfield’s characters, the multiverse allows them a chance to make things right in the MCU. Although he can never change Gwen’s death, Garfield is able to save MJ as she falls in almost the exact same way that Gwen fell to her death. As he saves her, Garfield sees that things turn out differently in this universe: The woman Peter loves is safe. Even if it’s not his reality, Garfield knows there is a version of himself who doesn’t have to experience that same loss, and that knowledge provides him with a sense of comfort—a satisfying moment of respite from his grief.
If Phase Four of the MCU has anything to teach us, it is that grief and loss are inevitable. We have little control over the losses we experience, and if a multiverse does exist, in any form, many of these losses are likely absolute points in time. Nothing can change that. The best we can do is allow ourselves the space and time to process our grief with care and compassion for ourselves and others. At the very least, we can lean on the idea of the multiverse, however far-fetched it may be, and imagine a version of our lives where things turned out differently.