Like Spider-man in Homecoming, we fans don’t care about being heroes. We have felt weak for so long that nothing else matters but feeling strong.
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.
Marvel Made Pathos Its Trademark
It is, perhaps, inevitable that Spider-Man’s story would be subsumed by Iron Man’s as Peter is integrated into the MCU. In many ways, Tony’s MCU character arc has mirrored Peter’s own in the comics.
When Tony Stark first appeared in Tales of Suspense in March of 1963, Spider-Man was still a fledgling character. The combination of moral ambiguity and pathos that would make him unique hadn’t yet revealed itself to be a winning formula for Marvel; those sales numbers were still coming in. While Stark’s first appearance was a fully devoted origin story like Spidey’s, Stark was more in-line with the moral certitude of Superman, Batman and Reed Richards. Unlike in director Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, which would set the tone for the MCU, the Stark that appears in Tales of Suspense #39 is not specifically targeted for capture. His acumen as a war profiteer or weapons designer is only exploited by his captors after his identity is discovered. And, in a similar fashion, the Tony Stark from Tales of Suspense recognizes no irony at all in his capture and injury. He remains, at story’s end, convinced of his moral righteousness and his right to both sell weapons of war and to be a weapon. Like his predecessors, his power was a right, not a responsibility.
A slightly different story is told in Favreau’s 2008 Iron Man. The Robert Downey, Jr.’s take on the character that would define the MCU: 1. begins as a gifted but ultimately self-interested and morally ambiguous protagonist; 2. has a deceased father figure; 3. has an older mentor who provides sage advice and then promptly dies, imparting a moral mission with his final words; and 4. recontextualizes his newfound power in the service of responsibility. Take, for example, these quotes from the movie:
“Thank you for saving my life.”
“Don’t waste it. Don’t waste your life.” — Conversation between a dying Dr. Yinsen and Tony Stark.
“I never got to say goodbye to my father.”
“I’m being responsible. That’s a new direction for me — for the company.”
Tony Stark never says “with great power comes great responsibility,” but he gets a lot closer than Holland’s Peter ever does.
I don’t think the tweaks to Iron Man’s origin story in the 2008 script were self-consciously deployed by screenwriters Fergus and Ostby. I have no doubt that had Marvel Studios owned the rights to Spider-Man in 2008, they would have kicked-off the MCU with the story of Peter Parker. It’s just that after Spidey’s popularity boomed in the late ’60s and early ’70s, the formula that made him popular quickly became the Marvel Comics house style. While rival publisher DC was known for the larger-than-life demigod archetypes of Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman, Marvel Comics made pathos its trademark.
The formula for Spider-Man comics — in which the hero tries to lead a regular life, but his alter ego makes this impossible, action ensues, and the hero’s regular life suffers in the aftermath — became the touchstone for the Marvel Universe. Tony Stark wrestled with corporate takeovers and alcoholism; Reed Richards was increasingly written as emotionally distant and alienating to his family; Captain American struggled with questions of what his patriotism meant in a post-WWII America. Even Bruce Banner dove into his own psyche to try to cure himself of the Hulk by exorcising the anger inside him. While exceptional work was being done at DC by the likes of Denny O’Neill and others, Marvel Comics was seen by many to be more emotionally relevant and complex. (Some might argue, however, that O’Neil’s work on Green Arrow/Green Lantern in the ’70s is just as daring and mature, if not more so.)
For those who find themselves asking why the MCU is currently outperforming DC at the box office, I suggest that Marvel characters have a tradition of humanization that makes them better able to deliver the kind of drama that transcends mere spectacle. While DC heroes may be exhilarating and inspiring, it’s easier to identify with a kid from Queens than a nigh-omnipotent space god, and it’s no wonder that the MCU embraced these elements of the Marvel comics with open arms. The characters that populate the MCU come from a post-Spider-Man Marvel Universe, one where the conflict, doubt, and moral anxiety of Peter Parker have made it into all strata of the pantheon. Spider-Man became famous for asking the questions such as, What would most people do with all this power? and What should a person do with power? Marvel Comics established its brand by applying that question to each of its characters in turn.
In Homecoming, however, we are presented with a Spider-Man rendered across a Möbius strip, a Spider-Man ostensibly being taught the lessons that the MCU Iron Man inherited from Spider-Man himself — albeit the Spider-Man from the comics.
So why are we watching Spider-Man: Homecoming? Is Peter Parker purpose in the MCU to hold our hands through the Cliff Notes version of Tony Stark’s Greatest Failures? Is Holland’s Spider-Man the template from which we’re to watch Tony Stark play out a high stakes game of “Do as I say, not as I do?” James Whitbrook was on to something when he wrote “I Have Concerns About Tony Stark’s Role in Spider-Man: Homecoming, in That I Hate it So Much” in io9. (While the focus of the article was Peter’s agency in the new film, Whitbrook makes some good points about Peter’s morality that I have already echoed, here.) Will Sony’s five-picture deal with Marvel Studios play out the beats of Peter Parker’s Bildungsroman in excruciating slow motion? At what point does the MCU Peter Parker differentiate himself from Tony Stark and form his own morality?
So far as I can tell, every event in which Spider-Man involves himself in Homecoming would have been objectively better off without his interference. The sole act of heroism the teen displays, the act which sets him apart from Stark, is his turn at the movie’s climax, where he struggles to save the man that, just seconds before, was beating him within an inch of his life.
Despite these disappointments, I don’t much care who learns that with great power comes great responsibility, so long as somebody does.
I want to believe that Tony has learned it over his seven-film arc, but when he chides Peter for trying to stop an illegal weapons shipment on a public ferry, then congratulates him for escalating the heist of an unmanned Stark jet in such a way that dangerous, burning wreckage rains down on Coney Island in what must have caused unseen civilian injury (if not death), I find it hard to believe that this version of Tony cares much about anything other than his own bottom line. Or at least that this is the subtext the film is transmitting.
I want to believe in a Peter that decides, by the end of the technotopians, that doing things Stark’s way is not for him. But when Peter turns down Avengers membership at the end (from a Downey Jr. whose delivery is perhaps slyly insincere and distracted), he immediately asks if the fancy new suit and title were a test, unable to resist checking in with Tony’s estimation of him. (His delivery in this scene reminds me of a delegating CEO who has had subordinates brief him just seconds before a meet and greet.)
What we’re left with are two damaging models of heroism, where power is not coupled with great responsibility, but instead is its own reward. In Homecoming, it’s cool to be a superhero. It’s fun. For all of the lip service Homecoming pays to responsibility — from Happy Hogan’s ham-fisted references to Tony Stark’s weekend-dad speeches — in the end, there is no cost. Peter wants to be a superhero more than he wants to be a teenager, despite whatever momentary pangs he feels for a normal life, and in the end, he gets what he wants — with all the requisite future-tech and material embellishments. (This struggle is mainly dramatized not by Peter having to give up something he wants for the sake of responsibility, so much as by showing Peter “heroically” not use his identity as Spider-Man to court Liz.) In almost every other Spider-Man origin, that reward came at a cost, and that cost was Uncle Ben.
Maybe I’m impatient. Maybe over the course of this five-picture deal, we’ll see the cost of heroism exacted from Peter, although I know that to see Ben die in a future film would make this entry feel even more emotionally tinny and false, as if the lesson of power and responsibility were just suddenly remembered, as if it had been carelessly forgotten for this first outing.
Maybe Michelle will die a Gwen Stacey-like death. Or maybe Tony himself will die like Jean DeWolff died. Spider-Man has always been a character who works best in a serial setting because his story beats are better served when diluted in large volumes of adventure. In a world of thunder gods and Hulks and indestructible robot Pinocchios and cosmic alien threats, his powers render him pretty redundant and insignificant. But part of the reason that Spider-Man is both anomalous and compelling is that he feels an irresistible urge to help people, even when there are others who can do it more ably, and especially when being Spider-Man makes Peter’s life worse. A well-adjusted person would see that he wasn’t needed. A well-adjusted person would quit being Spider-Man when Iron Man and Thor and the Fantastic Four came along. The only conceivable reason Peter continues to be Spider-Man is due to a pathological guilt complex that started with the death of Uncle Ben, and that needs to be recharged regularly. This guilt is crucial, and throughout Spider-Man’s story, supporting characters have been periodically offed in order to renew Peter’s sense of guilt.
While past adaptations have tried to grapple with the absurdity of compressing these story beats into a trilogy, the current incarnation of Spider-Man doesn’t deal with them at all. I’m sure Sony and Marvel Studios are trying to avoid the complications inherent to Peter’s thanatopic drive with their light and breezy take on the webslinger. Now that the Spider-Man character is over 40 years old, even the comics are struggling to find storylines that show Peter in a new light. Current Spider-scribe Dan Slott has been doing incredible work making the Spider-verse fresh and new, but he has never lost sight of what makes the Peter Parker if Spider-Man: Spider-Island, Superior Spider-Man, All-New International Spider-Man. All these story arcs explore the central question of responsibility and how those who feel they have it interpret what it means.
If the producers of Spider-Man: Homecoming want to pursue a version of Spidey that is driven to help others but inspired by the heroism of those who came before him, instead of driven by some crippling guilt (the way Homecoming suggests), then they needn’t have looked any farther than Miles Morales, the current teen Spider-Man of the comics. A guilt-free origin is his story, and in Homecoming it’s hard to see a Ned Leeds that looks and acts like Miles’ Ganke Lee, and a stupendous, if bit-part-playing Donald Glover — who was once the focus of a campaign to cast a Miles Morales Spider-Man — as anything other than appropriation in the service of whitewashing and insincere ass-covering, respectively. An io9 commenter laments new names “dressed up as the same character ad infinitum” as an argument to more or less Keep Our Spider-Man Peter, and I wonder if the commenter would come to the defense of a Miles Morales movie if they could see the echoes of Miles’ story in Homecoming the way that I do.
I get it. Some may be frustrated with how I’m complicating and dragging down images and characters they love. As a child in an abusive, working-class household, Spider-Man saved my life, and I remember how the delicate, precarious and endangered these characters and stories gave me hope. I remember how the loneliness before fandom gave way to a different loneliness afterward, and how the desire to protect the things I loved could often alienate me from all but those who shared my passion, and how this feeling could often send me deeper into that fearful possessiveness.
Some echo of that feeling is why I’m writing this now, no doubt. I want to protect what I think makes Spider-Man valuable. I have no desire to come into someone else’s house and break all their toys. I don’t want to be cruel or imperious or self-righteous. And really, who am I to say what is and is not permissible for the character? But when reviews both professional and amateur celebrate Homecoming as a “breath of fresh air”, when commenters delight in how fun and unserious and light the movie is, when they celebrate the teen elements above the hero, I worry. When Spider-fans ogle Marissa Tomei as the new Aunt May without considering how her character has no function in the movie but to be the object of that very ogling, I worry. (I don’t think there’s a single scene involving Tomei where her looks and body are not commented on — including a scene where Peter and May eat at a restaurant. May’s body is even objectified when she is off-screen by Stark, even by the bodega proprietor whose sandwich shop is exploded by purple lasers.)
I worry that what they some say about comics fans is true. I worry that we really are, deep down, the stunted, sexually frustrated, emotionally violent and often misogynist trolls. I worry that, in the end, what we want is the costume, the red-and-blue, all that iconography that makes the pleasure centers of our brain light up, and we don’t care very much about what message it might be carrying. In the end, we have let Sony and Marvel Studios (the latter which, it bears reminding, is owned by Disney) drain the character of his most essential elements in service of his most incidental, and turn him into the Mickey Mouse of the MCU. A mascot. A flag to rally around. I worry that instead of the lesson that with great power comes great responsibility, what we really want is what our critics have always accused us of: a juvenile power fantasy. We don’t care about being heroes. We have felt weak so long that nothing else matters but feeling strong.
When we feel that way, sometimes we need heroes. Our stories and our heroes are the way we make sense of our lives; they help us climb out of dark places, or dig deeper into them. If all we care about is feeling, we are capable of anything. Even great cruelty.
That’s the very lesson that Stan Lee and Steve Ditko were telling way back 1962: it’s easy to misuse power when you’ve never had it before. It’s easy to be seduced by the rush of it. We who feel weak have the most responsibility to use what power we attain wisely.