WARNING: This article is based on a major spoiler for “Spider-Man: No Way Home.” If that is the kind of thing you care about, we recommend watching the movie before reading.
Andrew Garfield is in the new Spider-Man movie. Though he’d repeatedly denied rumors of his appearance alongside past and present Spider-Men Tobey Maguire and Tom Holland for months leading up to the release of “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” Garfield is definitely in it. And his presence is a gift to anxious Jews everywhere.
Reprising his role from 2012’s “The Amazing Spider-Man” and its 2014 sequel, Garfield plays a Peter Parker/Spider-Man from an alternate universe, brought into the world of the Marvel Cinematic Universe by a magic spell gone awry. He’s older than when we last saw him, but still very much the character introduced almost a decade earlier — Garfield’s Peter stammers, shrugs, and gets exasperated. He struggles with self-doubt and feeling out of place.
In press for his last outing as Peter Parker, Garfield, whose father is Jewish, identified Spider-Man as an anxious Jewish character. “He ums and ahs because he’s neurotic. He’s Jewish,” Garfield told Time Out in 2014. “That’s a defining feature. I hope Jewish people won’t mind me raising the cliché, because my father’s Jewish. I have that in me for sure.” Garfield has also played the roles of real-life Jews Eduardo Saverin in “The Social Network” and Jonathan Larson in “tick, tick… Boom!”. When asked about having both American and English backgrounds, he said, “I identify more as Jewish than anything.”
As Peter/Spider-Man, Garfield’s original performance was expressed through a lot of awkwardness and stumbling over words. Upon first discovering he has superpowers and accidentally finding himself in a fight, this Peter slips and struggles while defending himself from sudden attacks; he apologizes every time he trips up somebody trying to hit him or whacks them with a subway pole. When he goes home, Peter looks up his symptoms online, scrolling past pictures of spider bites, in a familiar portrait of anxiety about any possible medical condition.
In “No Way Home,” Garfield’s Spider-Man has to measure himself against two other Spider-Men and comes out feeling inadequate. Holland’s Spider-Man says he fought a purple alien in space, Maguire’s says he fought a black and goopy alien and Garfield’s responds, “I’m lame compar— like, I fought a Russian man in, like, a rhinoceros machine.” He has to be told that he’s not lame, and even then, he can’t say it about himself out loud. To handle the confusion between the three Spider-Men all named Peter Parker, they give themselves numbers, and Garfield exasperatedly accepts that he’s “Peter 3!”
Saying Spider-Man is Jewish is not so simple. The character was created by Stan Lee, who was Jewish, and Steve Ditko, who was not. In 2018’s “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” one iteration of the character was implied to be Jewish via a montage scene, but generally speaking, religion is not so explicit for the character. “You see people saying, ‘Marvel was Jewish because it has Spider-Man who’s very neurotic and lives in Queens,’” writer and comics journalist Abraham Reisman told Alma earlier this year. “And it’s like, a lot of neurotic people lived in Queens of any number of ethnicities, it’s a very diverse borough, that does not necessarily narrow it down to Spider-Man being Jewish.”
In “The Amazing Spider-Man,” the web-slinger can be read as a representative for Jews, but he can also be a representative for nerds: He marvels at his inventions and tries to put on a deeper voice of bravado when shifting into superhero mode. He represents Tumblr aesthetics of layered hoodies, rumpled hair and a flair for romantic melodrama. This Peter Parker is also simply a teenager, trying to fit into his own body and understand who he is as opposed to who he’s pretending to be. He’s a working class hero who finds kinship with crane operators and firefighters. He’s also a distinctly New York hero, inspiring the city or lamely shouting “I’m swingin’ here!”
There are multiple valid ways to read this Spider-Man, none necessarily to the exclusion of the others. Read as a Jewish character, Garfield’s Spider-Man resonates with anxious Jews because there’s so much to identify with. In “No Way Home,” he has a back problem. He says something’s not a big deal but still waits for the other Spider-Men to be impressed or proud of him. After a serious injury, he asks Maguire’s Spider-Man, “You okay?” “Yeah, I’ve been stabbed before,” is the response. “Oh good, good, good,” says Garfield’s character. Within 30 seconds, he asks again, “You okay?”
Though Garfield’s Spider-Man got the chance to be in a good-but-flawed and a mediocre Spider-Man movie (the second and the first, respectively), he never really garnered the widespread respect that Maguire’s or even Holland’s achieved (although some have begun campaigning for an “Amazing Spider-Man 3”). But in “No Way Home,” a film with a couple of stellar villain performances and three Spider-Men, Garfield walks out as the highlight of the show.
He’s an NJB (nice Jewish boy, a term that can be misused) who cleans the cobwebs from the ceiling since he’s hanging there anyway. He shows up immediately ready to be mistrusted: “No, no, no. No, no, no. It’s okay, it’s okay. I’m a nice guy!” In true anxious Jew fashion, he’s ready to say “I love you guys” to people who’ve shared his experiences even though they’ve just met. And you can see in his eyes the way he’s always reliving his past failures — a scene where he reenacts his greatest regret, the death of Gwen Stacy, and redeems himself is the greatest moment of the entire movie.
Hopefully we haven’t seen the last of this anxious, possibly Jewish Spider-Man. Either way, it was amazing to encounter him again in “No Way Home.”