Transfiguring Adoption’s Overview:
Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021) is the third Marvel/Sony collaboration film that takes place in the same universe as the Avengers. Teens familiar with the Avengers and Tom Holland’s rendition of the webslinger will likely enjoy this film. The target audience appears to be teens 13 and up. Caregivers should note this is not a “kids’ movie” and will have more mature themes and a longer run time due to this being a film for older youth and adults.
Overall the film itself was a great action film but is very long and has a complex story-line that younger children will not understand. I completely understand a younger child’s interest in other Spidey adventures but this is not going to mesh with those other universes and will expose them to existential and abstract traumas that they will not enjoy or understand. There is some violence and language as well that are not suitable for younger audiences. Just because a film has super heroes does not immediately make it a kid-friendly movie and parents should always consider MPAA ratings before taking their children to movies even before considering potential trauma triggering.
** Spoilers Could Be Ahead **
How Is This Relevant To Adoption & Foster Care?
While characters are not explicitly in foster or adoptive care Peter himself is a youth who has been raised by his Aunt May following the passing of his parents prior to the events of the films. Due to the separation from his parents Peter has experienced and in navigating young adulthood with multiple identities this may resonate with youth who have endured similar traumas.
While I wish I could assure you that this is a film that will end with warm-fuzzies and closure I must warn you that this is not the case. In addition to the usual Marvel Studios battles and banter there are some very heavy themes in this film that could potentially be triggering for youth who have endured traumas surrounding grief and loss, death of a primary caregiver, identity crises, mental illness, and more. For this reason I would advise that caregivers of youth who are 13 and up view this film with their teen so they can be prepared to discuss some of these heavy topics after the youth has had time to process the events of the film.
- Honoring Grief in Loss
Even when far apart children will long for and think of their biological family. This is human nature as we are biologically wired to form attachment to our primary caregivers at birth. For this reason caregivers need to be prepared for their children to ask questions or talk about their biological family and not discourage such conversation. Even if the biological family was not in the picture for long they still represent much of your child’s identity and culture and should be given respect as such. Though it’s hard because caregivers often focus on the pain and suffering a biological relative may have caused that led to removal, the biological family always deserves our utmost reverence especially when speaking to our children. Our child literally wouldn’t exist without them and it’s important to remember that, especially when things are feeling hard or intense.
- Identifying Healthy & Supportive Relationships
Resilience is very important for healing trauma. One protective factor for helping youth process trauma is having a wide network of support. Peter shows a great example of support (even after losing some Avengers and Aunt May) through his relationships with Ned and MJ. Unlike Peter, many youth who have been through trauma in foster care or adoption backgrounds may not have had the opportunity to learn how to identify trusting relationships and develop a support network and will need additional help from caregivers in navigating this skill. Though by the end Peter let MJ and Ned go on without remembering him it was clear how important their legacy was to him in his keeping Ned’s LEGO Emperor Palpatine and MJ’s coffee cup before embarking on his new phase as Spider-Man and these bonds still give him strength even when separated from them.
- Developing Better Self-Esteem/Self-Talk
One of my favorite parts of the film was watching the three Spider-Man actors all talking to one another and building each other up. Toby McGuire’s Spider-Man comes more seasoned and is quick to encourage and advise the other two characters as they are still actively processing grief in their own ways. He also shows them that they can eventually find closure and move forward in their identities as Spider-Man. Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Man shares with them how hard the loss of Gwen was for him (in addition to other losses) and shares how revenge did not make anything better. And Tom Holland’s Spider-Man teaches the two previously-solo heroes how to work together as a team and utilizing one another’s strengths. I loved how this very much mirrors how sometimes youth need help learning how to develop self-talk internally with themselves and need another person sometimes to validate their emotions, support their grief, and help advise and support as they move forward. Eventually the goal is to help youth learn to reframe experiences and work through struggles both as individuals and in supportive relationship teams.
- Fantasy/Supernatural Violence
As with most Marvel movies there are plenty of fight scenes and characters in peril. This includes explosions, vehicles crashing into one another and being flung, hand-to-hand combat sequences including with superpowered weaponry, magical spells, a trans-dimensional fight with fall sequences, use of wild inventions for battle, forced astral projection, grenades, buildings destroyed, elemental-based attacks (e.g. – electricity, sand), stabbings from various weapons, etc. Remember, children and teens who have been through trauma sometimes can self-sabotage in response to bursts of adrenaline even from fun experiences like enjoying an action movie because this is the same neural pathway their traumatized brain goes through when they are experiencing fight-or-flight responses to danger. This means your child could potentially act out with survival behaviors or have nightmares in response to the violence depicted in this movie. So with a movie with this level of violence you are also risking your child becoming retraumatized from past events and responding to all of the various trauma triggers plus associating a fun experience with all of it.
- Character Death & Permanent Separation from Loved Ones
Towards the end of the film Aunt May dies on screen in Peter’s arms following an attack from the villains. Peter blames himself for her death due to being the reason the villains were brought into their universe and giving the villains a second chance at their lives by looking for their “cures” before returning them. Additionally, the film ends with no one in any universe remembering Peter Parker and Peter finds himself completely alone without support of any sort after it is revealed this is the only way to prevent the multiverse from merging. This self-blame and grief processing can resemble that of children who have been through trauma such as those from foster or adoptive circumstances. Often youth who have been separated from a primary caregiver due to death or another type of permanent separation may blame themselves though they had no true responsibility in what happened to their loved one. For this reason Peter’s grief may compound with their own unresolved grief and create some emotions too heavy for one youth (or anyone) to handle.
- Foul Language & Crude Humor
Through the course of the there are several uses of the words “ass”, “shit”, “damned”, and an implied f-bomb censored by a car alarm. There are also sequences of characters appearing naked after quick costume changes or transforming into humanoid. This is joked about including Electro when he says “Are we gonna act like I’m not buck-ass naked?” post transformation in one scene. There is also a scene of Peter and MJ having Aunt May walk in on them just after flying through the window to avoid paparazzi and Peter being mid-changed from the Spidey suit while still holding MJ from flying in. She appears to believe she walked in on them being intimate and responds awkwardly as such. There is also a sequence where Aunt May and Happy have broken up (Aunt May calling the relationship a “fling”) and Aunt May brings up sex to Peter in the midst of the confusion of this happening along with Peter and MJ showing up in a compromised position. Finally, in an end-of-credits scene Eddie and Venom are shown drunk in a bar in Mexico. Venom demands to go skinny dipping in this scene before they are sent back to their universe.
- Violent Depictions of Mental Illness
During the film villains including Green Goblin (Norman Osborn) and Doc Ock (Dr. Otto Octavius) are depicted as having voices in their head. Norman especially is shown as being very confused between times when Green Goblin takes over his head and shows a significant amount of distress. Additionally, the removal of these “voices” by interventions from the three Spider-Man team appears to completely take away all evil desires or plans. When the “bad” alter-egos take over and the “voices” kick up though both characters are shown to be violent and very evil. In addition to these being some heavy depictions of mental illness youth may be triggered by the depiction of dual personalities and auditory hallucinations as seen in the film especially if they have a history of treatment for similar issues.
- Negative Depictions of Authority/Police
In response to the accusations that Peter attempted to use Stark technology to harm civilians in an act of war crime and murder Mysterio he is detained (along with Aunt May, MJ, and Ned) for questioning. Aunt May and MJ both frequently and often state their rights and point out areas in which it appears the police are not following civil rights. It is not specified in the movie if Peter, Ned, or MJ are minors at the time of detainment and various interrogation techniques are employed, possibly illegally. There is also a possibility that the Department of Damage Control (DODC) enters their apartment to detain and search without a warrant. Aunt May is also threatened with Child Endangerment charges for allowing Peter to act as Spider-Man. In addition to all of these sequences being scary in general, many youth have had varying experiences with law enforcement and may be triggered by the depiction of a government agency treating Peter and company in such ways. Youth who have endured trauma often already have a hard time trusting adults without such depictions reinforcing that adults are not safe.
- Bullying in Journalism
When it was announced that J.K. Simmons would reprise his role as J. Jonah Jameson from the first Spider-Man trilogy, I did expect heavy criticism for Peter. What I did not expect was the all-out onslaught of emotional and verbal abuse spewed by Jameson at a character that is barely an adult. This, in addition to retaliations from Mysterio supporters such as flinging paint and bricks at Peter, made for some intense bullying sequences that clearly had a huge effect on Peter as he processes how to move forward and how he is defined in his identity. Even a coach from school called him a murderer to his face upon returning to class. While hopefully your youth won’t have an entire news outlet dedicated to smearing them, bullying is still a hard topic to process when living it and your youth may need added support watching Peter endure the harassment to such a degree.
About the Reviewer: Rachael Rathe
Rachael B. Rathe is an East Tennessee native with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Psychology with a Minor in Child & Family Studies from The University of Tennessee Knoxville. She has worked in mental health since 2013 and in foster care/adoptions for a private provider agency since 2014. Rachael was inspired to work in the field after working with children and teens on a volunteer basis 2008 – 2013. Rachael’s ideal self-care day involves snuggling on a couch with her kitties (Tabitha, Fergus, and Rufus) while enjoying a good movie or book. She also enjoys galavanting around conventions concerning all things nerd and geekery.
Transfiguring Adoption is a nonprofit organization seeking to nurture growth in foster and adoptive families by giving a HOOT about their families. Transfiguring Adoption does not intend for its reviewers nor its reviews nor this discussion packet to be professional, medical or legal advice. These reviews and discussion guides are intended to help parents to better be able to connect and understand their children who come from traumatic backgrounds