Cover We break down why the unsubtitled Tagalog scene in Spider-Man: No Way Home celebrated Filipino culture (Photo: Sony Pictures)

Spiderman No Way Home’s unsubtitled Tagalog scene had me cheering in the cinema. I break down why that matters to me as a Filipino and how it’s a leap in representation for the community

I put off writing this piece for a while. The most obvious reason being, I didn’t want to share spoilers for those who haven’t seen the movie yet. The second reason, is a more personal one. One scene in Spider-Man: No Way Home made me feel so emotional that I needed time to recollect my thoughts. 

The spoilers in this piece begin right away––you have been warned!

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It’s one of the most important scenes in the movie, and no, it’s not the epic Statue of Liberty fight sequence at the end of the film (although I’m sure we love that too). I’m talking about the unsubtitled Tagalog scene in the latest Spider-Man movie. It matters to me, not just as a Filipino but it’s important to the movie itself as it’s the moment Andrew Garfield’s and Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker/Spider-Man finally appeared in the movie. It’s no doubt one of the highly anticipated scenes––so much so that roars and cheers erupted from the audience.

I joined in too and while I was very happy to see both Garfield and Maguire reprise their roles, I was also cheering for something else entirely: the unsubtitled conversation between the two Spider-Mans and Ned’s lola (or grandmother in Tagalog).

In the scene, Ned (Jacob Batalon) and MJ (Zendaya) are at Ned’s house with his grandmother (Mary Rivera). The two friends are trying to get in touch with Tom Holland’s Peter Parker/Spider-Man, but are struggling to contact him until Ned remembers Doctor Strange’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) ring. He tries to conjure up a portal, hoping that Peter would appear. Much to their surprise (and relief), a figure looking like Spider-Man runs towards their portal and into the room. When he removes his mask, he’s Spider-Man but not the Peter or Spider-Man they know, rather the one from The Amazing Spider-Man films played by Andrew Garfield.

Ned and MJ doubt his identity. After all, they only know of one Spider-Man and ask him to prove himself. MJ asks him to crawl and Ned’s lola tells him to clean up the cobweb in the corner of the ceiling. She didn’t speak in English but Tagalog, making it a little secret between Tagalog speakers who can understand without the subtitles. Although Ned eventually translates it to English, there’s nothing that can translate the joy of hearing Tagalog.

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When Ned’s lola said her lines, I translated them word-for-word to my friend. And since it wasn’t subtitled, I can imagine the rest of the audience were scratching their heads. I saw the film at a media screening, and in Hong Kong, there are only a handful of journalists, reporters or writers who are Filipino so I was fairly certain that I was one of the few, if not, the only Filipino in the entire screening who understood the dialogue. The conversation felt like Ned’s lola was talking directly to me.

The use of language wasn’t the only part of the scene that resonated with me as a Filipino. The film could have portrayed Ned’s mother or father, but instead, it was his lola. That felt very close to home because I was raised by my lola. In fact, I never saw my parents until I was about six years old. I only knew them through pictures and stories that my late lola told me. I was known to my relatives as the lola’s girl so the scene reminded me of her and made me miss her more. The fact that there’s bread on the dining table which MJ later throws at Garfield’s Spider-Man is a reminder of a Filipino home. The bread looks very similar to a pandesal, a bread that’s a staple in a Filipino breakfast and one that my lola and I often eat together.

When Maguire’s Spider-Man appears, he exchanges cobwebs with Garfield’s Spider-Man, making a mess of the room. This doesn’t escape Ned’s lola’s eyes and she scolds the two for it, asking them to clean it up. She then says she wants the house to be clean. What followed, earned another cheer from me because Garfield’s Spider-Man says, “Oh, sorry, lola” mimicking what Ned calls her. Can you believe it? Andrew Garfield said lola?

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Filipinos can relate to Ned’s lola wanting the house to be kept clean. And being scolded for making a mess of it. The way Garfield’s Spider-Man and Maguire’s Spider-Man exchanged looks while being told off by lola reminds Filipinos when they’re being scolded for the same reason. Home is a sacred place, it’s where friends and family gather, and so having a tidy home is important. When I was young, my lola spoiled me––she didn’t ask me to clean the house, instead I was told to keep my things tidy. She would say that a tidy house makes you happier and feel more pleasant. When I was a little older, I’d visit her at her home and she would ask me to tidy or clean the areas that she couldn’t reach, much like Ned’s lola, asking Garfield’s Spider-Man to clean the cobwebs because she can’t reach them. At the end of the scene, when she said she’s taking off for the night, it also reminded me of my lola valuing sleep, not because she’s no fun but because rest is important. In the end, it felt like she was saying, “I’ll leave you kids alone!”

The scene is also especially important because Jacob Batalon, who plays Ned, had a hand in it. In our interview with Batalon, he recalls director Jon Watts asking him for his input, as a Filipino American actor himself, and it made him “feel seen” as much as the Filipinos watching it. “I’m so happy that people get to see a bit of themselves in this movie in particular because it’s such a huge deal. I’m very proud of Pinoy culture,” he says.

Batalon also mentioned that Watts “really [wanted to] represent Filipino culture” and so seems to have launched a casting call for lola’s role in early January 2021. Applicants weren’t required to have acting experience but should be Filipino or Filipino American, within 50–90 years old, speak fluent English and be available for filming. In short, you just have to be a lola. Mary Rivera who was eventually cast into the role certainly embodied a Filipino grandma. She even wears a duster, a typical dress lolas and sometimes, Filipino mothers wear at home—certainly not what a typical Hollywood grandmother looks like.

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As a Filipino born, raised and living in Hong Kong, I know a thing or two about the need to feel and be seen. In Hong Kong media, Filipinos or, in general, ethnic minorities are underrepresented. Many of us grew up not seeing people who looked like us on local TV or movies, so we longed for it. But things are slowly changing, for instance, Crisel Consunji starred in the movie, Still Human and earned her a Best New Performer award at the Hong Kong Film Awards—the first Filipino actress to ever receive one. There’s also Bipin Karma, the first Nepali actor to land a leading role in a Hong Kong movie for Hand Rolled Cigarette.

For so many of us, we’ve grown up watching superhero movies. Today, these superhero movies or to be more specific, Marvel movies are being watched by millions of people around the world, regardless of age and nationality. Spider-Man: No Way Home has earned US$1.5 billion worldwide, was the highest-grossing movie of 2021 and the eighth highest-grossing movie of all time––despite being released during the pandemic. This is why it matters so much to me that the movie made a leap in celebrating and representing Filipino culture. It opens the doors for many more to come and it reflects a small portion of the reality we live in. I’m smiling at the thought of my young nephews and nieces feeling a little less invisible, and instead represented and seen.

The unsubtitled dialogue might put off many but it represented the reality. They’re in Ned’s house, a character who’s Filipino, her grandmother is Filipino and the movie is set in Queens, which has the largest concentration of Filipinos within New York City. In a way, it’s a reflection of the life that Ned is living and it being unsubtitled means that it didn’t need to be explained because it just is.

While some Filipinos also commented on the slowness of Rivera’s Tagalog delivery which may have felt unnatural, for me, it was an excuse to hear the lines longer. And because it wasn’t subtitled, it’s clear who the audience is for the dialogue—it was for Filipinos to feel and be seen.

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