Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Robert Downey Jr.
Amazing Fantasy #15
At the time of this writing Spider-Man: Homecoming debuted three days prior and the reviews are in. Publications from The Hollywood Reporter to io9, to Comic Book Resources are celebrating the new reboot of the Spider-Man franchise, and breathing a sigh of relief that finally, finally, critics and audiences alike have been spared the hero’s origin story.
In a moviegoing climate where we have seen Thomas and Martha Wayne gunned-down at least four times since 1989, Krypton was blown to smithereens in 1978 and 2013, and Ben Parker gunned-down twice between 2002 and 2012, I suppose it’s easy for comics fans to feel origin fatigue. This is due in no small part to the fact that these origins, which most avid comics fans already know like the pledge of allegiance, get rehashed not only in the movies but inevitably in tie-in comics and universe-wide reboots designed to simplify decades of continuity and lower the bar for new readers. I’m sick to death of seeing the Waynes die in Crime Alley, and I’m perfectly fine with Krypton’s demise happening off-screen. But I feel differently about the death of Uncle Ben.
While I’m not happy with how Uncle Ben’s death played out on screen, I’m also uncomfortable with its absence as Tom Holland takes up the Parker mantle. As Homecoming I tried to keep an open mind. I’m a comics fan, first and foremost, and if you want to stay a comics fan for any length of time, you have to get used to change. I’m not a dyed-in-the-wool canonist or suffering some old-man fetishism, but I can’t help but feel that something rich and vital has been lost and that something erosive has taken its place. This isn’t Spider-Man. This isn’t Spider-Man because Spider-Man doesn’t belong in this universe” He doesn’t belong in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (the MCU) because it’s too late to have him there. Maybe he never could have been an MCU player, anyway
If you are a fan of Spider-Man, no matter when or where or how you came to the character, I am willing to bet you can repeat these words: “With great power comes great responsibility.” (Or some version of it. The line, famously attributed to Peter’s Uncle Ben, was actually Stan Lee’s closing narration in Amazing Fantasy #15.)
Peter Parker may be a brilliant scientist with a good heart, but it was this lesson about power—not the acquisition of his powers—that turned him into a hero. This made Spider-Man important and unique when he made his debut in the late summer of 1962. The full-page count of Amazing Fantasy #15 is devoted not just to the genesis of Spider-Man, but to the genesis of the morality that has been driving him for nearly 60 years. Spidey’s famous DC forebearer, Superman, received only a single page on the hero’s origin when the Blue Boyscout first appeared in Action Comics #1, 24 years before the arrival of the webslinger. Fans in 1939 had to wait six full issues of Detective Comics before they would enjoy the Batman origin story. Superman’s origin splash focused less on the tragedy of his destroyed home world than it did on his amazing powers. Batman’s motivations were both deferred and non-transforming: his parents’ murderer is killed by the murderer’s own henchmen, at which point the Caped Crusader is already on his eponymous crusade, and the identity and death of Joe Chill neither contributes to nor diminishes the self-righteousness of that mission.
By contrast, Peter’s 1962 debut reprioritized and redefined the superhero origin story. When we first meet Superman and Batman in the Golden Age, they are already fighting crime; their status as heroes is a presupposed and unambiguous feature of their stories. When we first meet Peter Parker, he is a weak, strange, introspective high schooler with a penchant for science who is frequently the recipient of ridicule and abuse. At first glance, Peter’s beginnings more closely resemble those of a Golden Age villain than a Silver Age hero. It wouldn’t be shocking to see Peter become a Lex Luthor or a Dr. Sivana, and after the accident that grants him his powers, this threat still looms. (Take this clip of dialog from Amazing Fantasy #15, for example: “Some day I’ll show them! Some day they’ll be sorry!—sorry that they laughed at me!”—and tell me that doesn’t sound like dialog moments before a tragic accident that creates an evil mastermind. For a good portion of Spidey’s early run, from Stan Lee & Ditko to Romita to Gerry Conway, these violent and vengeful moments in Peter continued to flare—an aspect of the character’s origins I have been sad to see softened or outright ignored in his film incarnations.)
While Superman’s early origin story is primarily a demonstration of self-justifying power, and Batman’s origin story is an after-the-fact justification for its accumulation, readers of Amazing Fantasy #15 were able to see the process by which Peter Parker not only became empowered, but by which he became a hero. This very first Spider-Man story (unlike Superman’s or Batman’s) is a story of how power has the potential to be misused, squandered, or abused—even, or perhaps especially, by those who have suffered its abuses in the past. Compare this to the origin of Spidey’s Marvel-mates, the Fantastic Four, who are changed physically by their cosmic mishap, but not ethically or emotionally (with, I suppose, the exception of Ben Grimm). Reed remains the patriarch, Sue the devoted love-interest, Johnny the hot-head kid brother. Marvel’s first family, which preceded Spider-Man by a mere nine months, is very much that: a father-knows-best story where the purity and righteousness of the empowered is never questioned. It was, perhaps, a model of morality that felt less and less certain as the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis played out on the world stage, defining the decade’s start with a complicated conflict so very different from the black-and-white enmity of World War II.
The story of Peter Parker is, at its heart, the story of a reluctant hero, a complicated protagonist with frequent uncertainties who constantly checks himself against his own moral code.
What Does Homecoming’s Spider-Man Stand For?
Homecoming’s Spider-Man is, in comparison to his comic counterparts, a teenage glory-seeker less concerned with helping others than with proving himself to be Marvel Studios’ thoroughbred shill. Robert Downey Jr. is utterly watchable, but his existentially loathsome Tony Stark is a vain, negligent plutocrat who comes across—in an age that looks to the largesse of imperious technotopiaists like Elon Musk and Peter Thiel to rescue the world from the excesses and ravages of the 20th Century — more and more like sleeper propaganda for unchecked militarism. It’s rule of the 99 percent by the one percent and the normalization of the surveillance state. Stan Lee had this to say about the character in the bonus materials for the DVD of the 2008 film: “I think I gave myself a dare. It was the height of the Cold War. The readers, the young readers, if there was one thing they hated, it was war, it was the military… So I got a hero who represented that to the hundredth degree. He was a weapons manufacturer, he was providing weapons for the Army, he was rich, he was an industrialist… I thought it would be fun to take the kind of character that nobody would like, none of our readers would like, and shove him down their throats and make them like him.”
While it’s true that the Spider-Man of the comics has an on-again, off-again flirtation with Avengers membership (either being rejected or rejecting membership himself), and has struggled with fame-seeking from the beginning, it has always been balanced by the lesson that Peter learned in that first origin story. (Parker originally uses his spider powers to win at pro wrestling and to become a television variety act for money, before choosing to become a hero in the wake of his uncle’s death.) The story of Peter Parker has never been one of Peter looking to others to tell him what is right; the story of Spider-Man is one where our hero is frequently forced to choose the hard path, often to his own detriment, because of his moral system.
In Spider-Man: Homecoming, Peter seems much more obsessed with demonstrating his worthiness than he does in operating under his own moral code. He wants to be seen stopping the bad guy, and he wants credit for it. While charming in his own right, the Peter of Homecoming logs every costumed activity with his “contact” Happy Hogan, in the hope of drawing the attention of his ersatz father-figure, Stark. Every action Peter takes as Spider-Man is triangulated with respect to Stark’s esteem or expectation. Indeed, the Peter Parker of Homecoming doesn’t resemble a superhero so much as an approval-starved, attention-seeking child. “I’m sick of Mr. Stark treating me like a kid,” Peter says.
All of this is psychologically realistic, of course, if you consent to erasing Ben Parker’s death from the Spider-Man story. Peter is an orphan. He’s an individual of incredible talents, even before his accident with the radioactive spider, and he desperately wants to be seen, to be recognized: by the Avengers, by Stark, by the world, by Liz Allen/Toomes, even by the criminals he fails to intimidate. He wants to be taken seriously. He wants to be loved and affirmed by the absent family that will never be able to love him. It’s typical for children who have lost family members to look for surrogates. All of this is to the film’s credit. For two franchises we have been in need of a Spider-Man that adequately explores the fact that Peter is a child in an adult world, and Homecoming does this exceptionally well. (High marks to Jon Watts’ wonderful representation of the diversity of Queens—a New York borough where currently no racial or ethnic group holds a 50 percent majority—and the casting of a variety of people of color, albeit in minor roles and as supporting cast.)
But Peter cannot be a hero and a child at the same time, and this is part of the emotional complexity that has traditionally made Spider-Man so tragic and unique. The Peter Parker of the comics is forced to grow up prematurely, to take on responsibility for others when he should be focused on discovering who he is. The entire point of Amazing Fantasy #15’s origin story is that Peter is galvanized in its final moments into the man he will be. It’s perfectly acceptable for Peter, as a child in the MCU, to look to others to tell him the difference between right and wrong; children are expected to do this. But Spider-Man can’t be our hero if Peter loses this galvanizing moment and never establishes a morality of his own. If he stands for nothing, represents nothing.
I had hoped for a Peter whose moral code would seek the approval of, but ultimately clash, with Tony Stark’s “heroism”. Maybe this speaks more to my politics than to the character himself. (Comics fans hoping for a moral turn similar the turn from Iron Spider to fugitive hunted by Tony in 2006’s Civil War miniseries may still have a long time to wait, I’m afraid, despite Holland debuting in the Captain America film of the same name.) I’m struggling, in the aftermath of Homecoming, to understand what Spider-Man stands for. Throughout the movie, Spider-Man’s presence or direct involvement either causes crisis or makes things worse: he attacks innocent citizens impulsively without verifying that criminal activity has taken place; his first encounter with the Vulture’s/Tinkerer’s weapons results in the dangerous destruction of a local business; his attempt to track the weapons back to their origin results in a car chase that threatens his life and, likely, the people in the neighborhood through which the damage cuts. (It’s worth noting that this is the first time Peter seems to realize that his mistakes can have dangerous repercussions, replacing Ben Parker with, essentially, an exploded sandwich shop.)
Spider-Man’s grandest attempt at solo heroism results in the destruction of the Staten Island ferry and the endangerment of everyone aboard. This seems, ultimately, to be the point. Iron Man arrives in both instances of destruction to give Peter a talking to. But the MCU’s Iron Man doesn’t have a leg to stand on. With only one exception, Downey Jr.’s Iron Man and his father-knows-best vigilanteism and industrial trappings have directly or indirectly created a host of threats: Iron Monger, Whiplash, Killian/The Mandarin, Ultron, Helmut Zemo and the Guantanamo-Bay-like Raft Maximum Security super prison, and in Civil War the desperate enlisting and arming of a child soldier who then himself becomes a liability in civilian life; that is, Peter.
Marvel Studios’ Tony Stark seems to be withdrawing from his Iron Man persona, and this is good. The MCU Stark’s character arc is the story of an arrogant man who is humbled by swaths of collateral damage, who struggles to make things better within a system of action that is, itself, the very problem. (Downey Jr.’s Stark says, in the first Iron Man movie, “I saw that I had become part of a system that is comfortable with zero accountability.”) Perhaps the MCU Stark is beginning to realize that it’s impossible to fix problems using the same tools that caused the damage in the first place.
Seen in this light, however, Spider-Man: Homecoming is less a movie about Spider-Man than it is a movie that focuses on one of Iron Man’s loose ends; Spiderman is just another mess that Tony has caused and is trying to contain. After Peter’s first encounter with Homecoming’s big bad, Iron Man arrives to save the day, if not thwart the villain. A nearly drowned and soaking-wet Spider-Man is lectured about responsibility by a suit of hovering armor, which opens to reveal nothing. There’s no one inside. This image has come to symbolize the moral paradigm of Iron Man’s half of the MCU: a facade of heroism delivering a sermon on righteousness that opens up to reveal its emptiness.