WASHINGTON, July 29, 2017 – There isn’t a more iconic character in Marvel Comics than Spider-Man. At various times, the X-Men and Fantastic Four might have been more profitable or more enticing concepts in the past, while the current core of Avengers holding down the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has forced its way into the pop culture canon. But Spider-Man is still the champion superhero and crown jewel of the Marvel empire.
“Spider-Man: Homecoming” doesn’t bother rehashing its most recent pair of critically-trashed predecessors. Instead, it essentially treats “Captain America: Civil War” as a good enough introduction to the current Marvel Cinematic Universe edition of Spider-Man, assuming that audiences are already familiar with how Peter Parker became Spider-Man, which is a pretty good bet.
Cutting through the ritual origin story most superhero reboots tend to require, this choice allowed “Spider Man’s” filmmakers the chance to flesh out additional details of Spidey’s backstory. Here’s how they got there.
Spider-Man back in the day
Spider-Man wasn’t the first Marvel character created during their phenomenal 1960s comics industry boom in the comics industry. But Spidey was the first Marvel superhero to become a genuine pop culture icon, based solely on the strength of the comic and the eventual newspaper comic strip.
Since the 1970s, it was easy to find the marquee Marvel character in animated form as well, and a Spider-Man film always seemed right around the corner, as various proposals and treatments thrashed through the painful Hollywood developmental process again and again.
Spidey finally hit the silver screen in 2002 with Sony’s “Spider-Man,” which launched a pair of sequels, another pair of reboot films, and then a second reboot film co-produced with Marvel Studios.
This is where things get a little complicated for both Spider-Man and the MCU. The first film of the MCU as currently defined was “Iron Man” (2008). As successful as that film was for Marvel (now part of the Disney combine), the only reason Marvel went ahead with that film initially was largely because Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, and the X-Men were tied up with other production studios. Marvel needed the supporting since it didn’t have an in-house studio and lacked the capital to launch one.
After the first pair of Spider-Man reboots, “Amazing Spider-Man” and “Amazing Spider-Man 2,” failed to pull in decent box office numbers, the situation permitted Marvel to negotiate a deal with its earlier partners to bring Spider-Man back into the proper (i.e., MCU) fold, permitting an agreement permitting the now-Disney-fied Marvel Studios and Sony to co-produce a film.
It’s a peculiar agreement in a way, cutting Marvel’s new owner, Disney, directly out of the new Spider-Man movie itself while allow The Mouse to create future MCU films that aren’t directly Spider-Man solo features. The corporate fingerprints of these decisions are all over “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” the second attempt to reboot Marvel’s popular wall-crawler.
Peter Parker is always the key
Spider-Man’s alter-ego Peter Parker has existed since 1962. While Peter’s cinematic age has varied over the years, due to the way Marvel Comics has always defined its character, the Peter Parker of the current film is essentially in line with the original Peter that we first meet as a high school student. In other words, the current silver screen Peter Parker (portrayed by Tom Holland) is close to the original Peter that Steve Ditko and Stan Lee created in 1962.
Once again in this film, the focus is on Peter Parker as a teen. This actually makes a lot of sense as it did in the original comic. High school is the time and environment in which Peter acquired his spider-powers. As such, his youth and lack of adult experience permits him to screw up, learn from his mistakes and adapt with considerably more ease than a grown-up rookie Spider-Man.
That’s essentially where the story arc of “Spider-Man: Homecoming” begins. Spidey’s current iteration in this film, as portrayed by Tom Holland, was introduced as an ancillary character in “Captain American: Civil War.” “Homecoming” almost immediately begins to build on the new Spider-Man’s small arc in that film. We first see Peter in this new film as he’s whisked away to Germany by Iron Man’s assistant Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) to make his appearance in the massive airport fight among the Avengers.
This is where we glimpse “Homecoming’s” core conceit, which propels the rest of this film. The youthful superhero’s mentor/father figure Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) causes Peter to spend most of the new film trying to prove to Tony his qualifications and readiness to be numbered as a superhero along with the other Avengers we’ve already met.
Again, this version of the Spider-Man story arc largely eliminates the need to re-hash what’s probably become one of the best-known origin stories in the vast universe of superheroes. On the other hand, by ignoring that origin story for the most part – such re-hashing can get old – you might end up eliminating a character’s important background elements.
The reasons behind the origin of a character like Spider-Man can’t be altogether abandoned. “Homecoming” tries to deal with this backstory issue by straddling it. But, since the filmmakers wanted to move quickly to the main story line and establish Peter in an already solidified MCU, they risk leaving behind some of the key characteristics that make Peter a uniquely appealing superhero.
One of Peter Parker’s core philosophical tenets is his powerful sense of personal responsibility. That’s been endlessly re-enforced over the years whenever we hear the phrase, “with great power comes great responsibility.” These were, of course, the words Peter’s Uncle Ben uttered with his dying breath.
While that implied “responsibility” takes many forms, one of them is Peter’s need for independence. He doesn’t become Spider-Man due to the influence of other superheroes. He’s Spider-Man almost in spite of them. Peter feels he must shoulder the burden of responsibility to protect those around him on his own.
Much of that idea is either ignored or just outright abandoned in the current film. The filmmakers don’t have to replay Uncle Ben’s death again. But it’s still a primary component defining just who Peter is – especially the teenaged Peter. But “Homecoming” more or less treats such material as a non-event outside of the quick reference to the loss that Peter’s Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) has recently suffered.
Is Tony Stark Peter Parker’s new Dad?
What’s used to fill this void in “Homecoming” is Peter’s relationship with Tony. In this film, Peter doesn’t just look up to Tony Stark. He seeks Tony’s approval at almost every turn. Complicating this mentor relationship further is our knowledge that Spider-Man’s current suit/costume is provided almost entirely by Tony Stark, including all manner of Iron Man-esque gadgets and even an in-suit artificial intelligence (AI, as voiced by Jennifer Connelly)* that essentially functions just like Iron Man’s.
There’s a hierarchical aspect to the Peter/Tony relationship that’s somewhat disquieting, given Peter’s need to be seen as an adult, even though he defers to and seeks the approval of Tony every time the latter appears onscreen.
In terms of plot and character development, this substitute father-son relationship segues easily into the apparent MCU notion that Spider-Man’s occasional dysfunctions are mostly Peter’s fault due to his youth and inexperience. Yet this glosses over and minimizes the inherent control that Tony exerts at every turn in this film and just how problematic that can be for Spider-Man fans.
Clearly, this relationship is an attempt to get “Homecoming” to do more heavy lifting for the larger MCU narrative. At the same time, though, it fails to address some of the more concerning questions we have about the characters inhabiting that narrative.
Inserting Peter into the larger MCU narrative overshadows what should have been a purely Spider-Man movie. Instead a good portion of “Homecoming” feels more like an explanation of how Spider-Man fits into Tony Stark’s world and that of the Avengers.
As any Marvel Comics fan knows, Spider-Man has co-existed with superheroes during his entire comic and silver screen career even as he has remained in his own continuity. He’s accomplished this by the virtue of his own strength of character. Unfortunately, “Homecoming” diminishes that quality, at least to some degree.
The last several Spider-Man movies have missed the mark when it comes to Peter’s romantic life. “Homecoming” widens the romance lens considerably, as Peter has a nominal love interest in Liz (Laura Harrier). That’s because Peter always needs someone to pine after, even if it’s not Mary-Jane Watson.
“Homecoming” also expands is the rest of Spidey’s supporting cast to include best friend Ned (Jacob Batalan), quipping classmate Michelle (Zendaya), and bullying nemesis Flash (Tony Revolori).
All these characters are sketched out just enough to give them sufficient personalities to play off Peter, and the high school aspects of this film are easily its strongest suit. Unfortunately, this high school crowd is never given enough space to allow them to grow as characters, largely condemning them to distinctly secondary roles as foils to Peter’s story arc.
Does Spider-Man’s MCU mod betray a classic Marvel character?
When Peter enters the Avengers’ world, they almost serve no purpose. Even when the film tries to insert complications, like Liz being the daughter of the villainous Vulture (Michael Keaton), the link at best feels forced.
In the end, “Spider-Man: Homecoming” falls into the same mixed bag as pretty much every previous Spider-Man film. There are things it gets right, and those are easily the most fun and energizing moments of the film, at times strong enough to drive this movie to new superhero heights. But at the same time, the current film it also has trouble fully embracing everything about Spider-Man that makes this much-loved Marvel character unique in in own right.
By choosing to modify Spider-Man in a way that thoroughly and completely depends on the larger MCU narrative, “Spider-Man: Homecoming” fails utterly, damaging this classic character by refusing to let a Spider-Man film be a Spider-Man film on its own merits.
*The voicing of Spider-Man’s AI is actually something of an in-joke. Jennifer Connelly’s husband Paul Bettany was Iron Man’s first AI voice/device and is now Avengers character, Vision.