The following contains spoilers for Spider-Man: No Way Home.
Like our Spider-Man: No Way Home reviewer Dylan Roth, I left Tom Holland’s third headlining act as Peter “Spider-Man” Parker feeling refreshed and more confident in the character’s future. The movie is a two-and-a-half-hour-long series of tricks to bring the character back to ground zero, shedding his identity as a possible replacement to Iron Man in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. But while the movie course corrects that version of Peter Parker, he’s not the one I’m thinking about hours after leaving the theater. I’m thinking about Andrew Garfield; about the Peter who never got a third movie.
Thanks to some multiverse magic, previous Spider-Man actors Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield reprise their roles as their respective Peter Parkers in Spider-Man: No Way Home. They haven’t been plucked right out of the end of their movie continuity, as time has clearly passed in their worlds as it has in ours. Maguire’s Peter is a bit older and has made things work with Mary Jane Watson after their estranged relationship in Spider-Man 3. But the last time we saw Garfield’s take on the web-slinger in 2014’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2, he was hardly set up for the same peace.
Despite being a messy, tangled web of worldbuilding that would never actually go anywhere, I still really enjoyed the Amazing Spider-Man movies. This was largely because of Garfield’s portrayal of Peter and his chemistry with Gwen Stacey actress Emma Stone. I bought into that relationship, even though my knowledge of the comics meant I knew it was on borrowed time. As she did in the comics, Gwen met a tragic end in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 in a scene that, even with some hokiness, had me ugly crying in the same theater in which I would watch Spider-Man: No Way Home seven years later.
Though the foundation for Garfield’s version of Peter to eventually meet his own MJ was established in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, none of these threads ever went anywhere on-screen. A year after the movie’s release, Sony and Marvel sealed the deal that would make Holland the Spider-Man we would see come into his own under the wing of Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man. This resulted in the cancellation of The Amazing Spider-Man series and several spin-offs Sony had planned. Well, except for Venom and its sequel (though the absolute waste of a post-credits scene cameo by Tom Hardy as the titular antihero in Spider-Man: No Way Home was one of the most disappointing parts of the movie). It was a new clean slate for the live-action Spider-Man, and people were free to collectively forget the, as many people consider them, “inferior” Spider-Man movies.
But in a franchise with a multiverse, there’s always a chance we won’t be able to just forget about a canceled story for long. In Spider-Man: No Way Home, I had to reckon with Garfield’s Peter, the one Marvel and Sony left behind in pursuit of making Spider-Man part of a cinematic universe.
He’s still in a bad way. He says he’s not seeing anyone, which means he’s never met the MJ who was meant to be played by Shailene Woodley in a third film. He doesn’t have a lot of time for “Peter Parker stuff” these days, having thrown himself into his work as Spider-Man after Gwen’s death. Maguire’s Peter attempts to console him, telling him that a work/life balance and romantic connection are still possible. But he’s not entirely convinced. After all, Garfield’s Peter has only ever seen the negative consequences of being in Spider-Man’s orbit. Even though the years have passed since The Amazing Spider-Man 2, this Peter’s been isolated, unwilling to forgive himself for his failures.
Spider-Man: No Way Home is a second shot at closure for Garfield’s Spider-Man, as well as for the fans who enjoyed his version of the hero. But it’s also a reminder that, as creators and corporations seek to revisit old stories, everyone has to contend with a reality that can run counter to what we once imagined. When news came that The Amazing Spider-Man 3 wasn’t going to happen, I shrugged it off without much more thought. The second movie had set up Peter to grow stronger and more emboldened in his heroics, and I figured he’d find some modicum of peace in whatever happened after the credits. But Spider-Man: No Way Home reveals he hasn’t found it yet. Well, not until he saves the MCU’s version of MJ, redeeming himself for Gwen’s death in his own continuity.
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Creators don’t always get the final say on what their work means and where it goes after it’s over. For a lot of people, they connect dots and fill blanks in themselves, sometimes going as far as ignoring what a text actually says if it contradicts the interpretation they want to hold on to. But Spider-Man: No Way Home’s decision to touch base with where Garfield and Maguire’s Peter Parkers have been in the years since we last saw them means that my own understanding of who those characters are has to shift — even if the implications are heartbreaking.
It would have likely been easier for Marvel and Sony to make these two’s appearances as simple as a cameo and a wink at the camera. But Spider-Man: No Way Home serves as a sequel to The Amazing Spider-Man series we never got, allowing that story to continue. The movie’s entire setup is the result of corporations getting in public slap fights about movie rights and legitimizing continuity. But, at the very least, it gives the character and the actor who became collateral damage a chance at redemption — and peace of mind for those who cared about him in his prime.