NOTE: Read my original 2017 review of SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING here.
Stan Lee once famously told his writing staff that readers might think they wanted characters to grow and change, but what they really wanted was the illusion of change. The audience for comics largely consisted of adolescent boys, and every five years or so, they’d grow out of reading the adventures of costumed heroes and move onto more adult activities like trying to get laid. True, there’s that small but important minority of readers who grow up to work in comic stores and try to get laid, and sometimes succeeded in doing so, back in the stock room when the store was empty. That’s what closed circuit cameras are for, after all. I don’t personally have any knowledge of such activities, but I can assure any local consumers of that era that if I did have firsthand experience of this sort – and I assure you, with my hand on the Bible, I don’t, seriously – I would have been sure to wash my hands before returning to stock and sell the Wednesday product. Being a collector absolutely encourages good personal hygiene.
The point is: kids were, and are, constantly coming and going through the revolving door of readership. The trick to writing the continuing adventures of a character like Spider-Man is to stick to a formula, because what makes him appealing has to remain appealing for the next generation of readers. Peter Parker is the Charlie Brown of superheroes, so that raincloud has to go on following him around in order to keep him relatable – to keep him human. So that means guilt; it means the conflict between what he wants to do and what he needs to do; and it means having to rise to greatness in the form of a worldwide icon, even at the risk of his personal potential, and the hope of being something more important than an underappreciated freelance photographer. He gets the girl, and Spider-Man tears them apart. He gets the girl back, and Spider-Man kills her, or sells the marriage to Mephisto to save Aunt May’s life. Any accomplishment is undone by that fabled Parker Luck, which can be considered a defining trait, or the result of a reset button disguised as a character trait.
The point is, new readers don’t want to see a grown-up Peter Parker, married to a supermodel and touring the country to promote a coffee table book with all his best Spider-Man photos; they want Charlie Brown, tugging at a kite that’s eternally stuck in a tree. They want what makes him human. They want those things that set him apart from his spandex-wearing peers, and make him feel like a big brother, or else a trip down an idealized memory lane for old farts folks like myself. We’ve all been young, and we’ve all been dumped. High school sucks, and everyone knows what it’s like to feel different. That’s Spider-Man.
There have been several attempts to retain the ongoing continuity for the older folks who welcome Peter’s autograph-signing adventures, and Mary Jane’s transition to soap opera star, all while finding ways to simultaneously reboot the Spiderverse for kids walking into a comic store and having no idea where to start reading. ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN was probably the most successful attempt in this regard, but it too became bogged down in continuity that becomes impenetrable without a Wikipedia guide to establish who’s who and what’s what. It’s no mystery why trade collections have become a driving force in the industry, as they’re more assessable to freshman fans.
It’s the same with the movies. No one really wants to see Peter grow up, juggling his Spider-Man activities with mowing the lawn and getting the kids to daycare. The Shocker’s robbing a bank, and only I can stop him – but now I’ll be late for that prostate exam it took me a month to schedule! Had the Raimi series endured as long as the MCU has, Tobey Maguire would be a very different Peter Parker, indeed. So when reintroducing the character by way of Marvel Studios, the decision was made to go young and return Peter to his high school roots, because that’s the age people most identify him with, despite the fact that, technically, he graduated all the way back in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #28.* I know; I have the issue.
The Marvel version of Spider-Man – and I say “Marvel” rather than “John Watts,” as it’s safe to say that this interconnected franchise is treated more like a television series in which the producers call the shots, and the director is a journeyman – is consciously removed from many familiar parts of his legacy. The Uncle Ben thing is mentioned only twice: first in CIVIL WAR and again in HOMECOMING, and in either case it’s in the most roundabout way possible. Peter’s life is both recognizably the same and radically reinterpreted all at once; anyone that takes issue with this can lay the blame squarely at the feet of the AMAZING SPIDER-MAN duology, which retold the same fucking story that had barely had the chance to breathe the first time around. There was no way Kevin Feige was going back to the same well a third time.
So here we get a new version of Peter Parker that’s essentially a mashup of the comic book proper, and the alternate universe-dwelling Miles Morales. As with the latter, Peter attends a magnet school, and the issues of bullying carry over in a new academic paradigm. For the first time, Peter’s given a best friend who isn’t named “Gwen” or “Mary Jane,” though the idiosyncratic realization of Ned Leeds – Peter’s on-page Daily Bugle co-worker, as well as the husband of Betty Brant, and kinda-maybe civilian identity of the Hobgoblin – is ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN’s Ganke in all but name. Their uneasy social circle includes the aforementioned Miss Brant (who might as well be Gwen Stacy here), an appropriately douchey Flash Thompson, and a girl named Liz who may or may not be the same Liz Allen from the comics, and an “MJ” who also may or may not be the same Mary Jane from the comics. The films have yet to tell us.
Rather than the Cool Kids vs. Peter model shown in the two previous iterations, HOMECOMING offers us the more realistic concept of a high school experience in which, on some level, they’re all nerds…and yet there are still cliques that fall into the same exact parameters as anywhere else. There’s social strata, and there are attractive girls, and there are also dorky chess players. It’s just like the public school system in that regard, but it’s also a place where, in 2017, we’d be more likely to find the Peter Parkers of the world. His supporting cast is simply made over to reflect his environmental transplant, albeit with a more diverse cultural makeup. An appropriate subtitle might have been BREAKFAST CLUB IN TIGHTS.
Peter’s a latchkey kid, living with his Aunt May, who’s played by the same actress who was a co-conspirator in the death of a different Aunt May in BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOUR DEAD.** Circle of life, and all that. If the idea was to move away from the wonderfully wholesome, unapologetically old-fashioned Sam Raimi take – and one that effortlessly evoked the Stan Lee-John Romita era, particularly in SPIDER-MAN 2 – then it was time to give May Parker a much-needed creative spa treatment. From her first appearance in AMAZING FANTASY #15, artist Steve Ditko depicted Peter’s surrogate mother as a toothless crone perpetually on death’s door; the Spider costume had to be kept well-hidden, as its wearer lived in mortal terror of what a shock of that magnitude might do to the frail old woman’s weakened heart. Later creative teams – notably the pairing of J. Michael Stracynski and Romita’s superstar son of the same name – attempted to soften and de-age the grandmotherly, perpetually helpless Aunt May, and this shift continues to be seen in the comics, as well as video games like MARVEL’S SPIDER-MAN. However, none of these takes even remotely resemble Marisa Tomei (who admittedly, is de-glammed a bit in HOMECOMING due to the MPAA’s insistence that her visual depiction required changes, because Too Hot).
All of this is an effort to modernize the character while retaining his beating, bleeding heart. Be that as it may, there remain two possibly dubious points where SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (and by extension, Feige’s overall conception of Parker and his clean integration into the Marvel Cinematic Universe) becomes too far removed from “classic:” Spidey, and to some a betrayal of his core. These include 1) his A.I.-based suit, and 2) the substitution of Tony Stark for Uncle Ben.
How did a teenage boy make that outfit? asks the same person who keeps bugging you about the fact that The Eagles*** could have just dropped Frodo off at Mount Doom. I previously discussed that even the terrible costume Nicholas Hammond wore in the short-lived TV show was beyond the means of a teenage boy using needle and thread, though it’s definitely more Real World Believable than the intentionally unacknowledged costumes worn by Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield. CIVIL WAR and HOMECOMING borrow a page from the 2002 origin story, where Peter’s first attempt is depicted as a hilariously lame sweatsuit with an airbrushed chest logo; similarly, Tom Holland is cruising the neighborhood, stopping out-of-control cars in an approximation of the iconically bad Scarlet Spider getup. Add tights, and that was actually a real character, friends and neighbors. Still is.
But the MCU has an all-purpose workaround in Tony Stark, who has previously provided upgrades for Black Widow and Hawkeye. Not wanting to be embarrassed at an airport fistfight by bringing a kid in a Crayola-colored cross country outfit, Stark delivers a fully-realized Spider-Man suit just prior to the dustup. The webshooters alone have several hundred different combos, and the whole thing collapses into a shape that can best be described as a deflated beach ball, all primed for easy removal. There’s even an onboard voice operator whom Peter affectionately names Karen, and she’s there to help activate INSTANT KILL MODE when Batman-style interrogations are in order. Raise your hand if any of this sounds like Spider-Man to you. Someone? Anyone? No…? Well, okay, then.
But you see, if you’re sitting there with arms crossed, you’re wrong, and here’s why. Spider-Man was always high-tech; it’s just the standards that have changed. As with the modernized take on Peter’s high school environment, his gear has also been updated from the charmingly antiquated, “cutting edge” accessories depicted by Steve Ditko. From the very beginning, Spidey had a belt-activated Spider-Light that he’d use to terrify his prey; he employed stealth trackers that, at first, allowed him to pinpoint his adversary by use of a remote signal detector; later, this was reconfigured reconfigured into tiny, arachnid-shaped Spider Tracers that could be planted on his target, which emitted frequencies specifically tuned to set off his Spider-Sense. The webshooters and accompanying dissolvable liquid cable – dispensable in a variety of shapes and thicknesses for specific uses – are so sci-fi that almost sixty years later, we still can’t get our heads around how it’s possible. Well, maybe the spider who bit him also passed along the intuition to create his own web, goes a very convincing argument, and it’s one that makes total Comic Book Sense; but in 2019, we’re closer to full-on Iron Man tech than anything even remotely resembling Spider-Man’s preferred means of transportation.
Basically, it’s all the same stuff, with some fun new realizations of aspects that couldn’t be reproduced in other films, such as the long-running in-panel use of Spidey’s eyes to convey reactions or emotional states, and his endless, inner monologue, here reframed as conversation with his A.I. chatterbox. If you really want to go there, there have been similar, high-powered costumes in the comics, whether we’re talking about the hideous Spider Armor, the Iron Spider suit from the CIVIL WAR miniseries, and even an A.I. suit manufactured by Peter himself during his brief stint as the Big Cheese of Parker Industries. It’s all there; it’s all valid.
And while we’re on the subject of old Shellhead’s physical contribution to Spidey’s MCU presence, let’s talk about the emotional one. In bypassing the twice-told tale of Uncle Ben, who has died once at the hand of a carjacker, and then again Because Chocolate Milk,**** the issues of Power and Responsibility have been an unfortunate casualty of change. Peter more or less expresses that something very bad happened to him once; he tells Stark: When you can do the things that I can, but you don't, and then the bad things happen, they happen because of you. Less poetic than Ben’s speech, perhaps, but also more in line with what a fifteen year-old would say; likewise the Oh shit! he lets fly when Scott Lang goes into Giant-Man mode.
The specific events are kept in the background because, come on, we all saw the Sam Raimi movie, and while that trilogy certainly captured the painful, angsty aspects of the character, they also failed to explore other equally-valid kinds of Spider-Man story. There’s a perception that this is a maudlin, weepy superhero inhabiting a maudlin, weepy world of likewise maudlin, weepy people, when this couldn’t be further from the truth. Above all else, Spider-Man is fun, and it’s a key component that Marvel Studios has chosen to underline in their films. So, out with all that Uncle Ben stuff. If there’s a problem, it’s that Peter Parker is Spider-Man because of guilt, and while it’s nice that we’ve seen the implication that something did in fact happen to Peter at some point (and we can safely guess what it was with some fair degree of accuracy), there needs to be more recognition – even if we see the effect on May rather than Peter. This would, in fact, do more for both; the transferal of grief would give a paper-thin character depth while informing Spidey by inference.
That’s where Iron Man enters the picture. In HOMECOMING, the brief alliance between Stark and Peter has become a Superhero Internship. Happy Hogan is assigned as Spidey’s point of contact, but Peter, the scientific protégé-in-waiting, idolizes the older, cooler billionaire playboy who is more or less the de facto face of the (very public) Avengers. Again, this is from the comics. The CIVIL WAR saga of 2006 played out in similar fashion, with Stark taking Peter under his wing as an apprentice to whom he gave a significantly upgraded costume.***** Rather than lamenting his ability to fit in with his high school peers, this version of Peter Parker is desperately trying to impress his other peers – the ones with Super Powers, or Super Clothing.
If Flash Thompson is the BMOC, then that makes Tony Stark the BMFOC, WW. The fact that his idol – who ignores him, criticizes him, but bails him out and shows occasional lapses in Outward Douchebaggery – all but admits his deep belief in Peter by wanting him to be “better” than he himself, creates a Father/Son dynamic that may be more dysfunctional than the one experienced with Ben Parker, but resonant in other ways. When it comes right down to it, Peter Parker’s an emotional teenager with the ability to lift a concrete ceiling off his back, and we see him learning from Tony Stark’s often questionable example, and becoming better for it.
Is the MCU Spider-Man “valid”? That’s the question from detractors, or the fuddy-duddies who want their Peter Parker stuck in the 1960s, courting college girls in go-go boots. The answer is yes. While my preferred Spider-Man will always be the one seen in the three films directed by Sam Raimi, which skew more “classic” in look and tone, I find that SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING puts a smile on my usually grumpy face. That’s its greatest strength. It’s fun, and taps into elements of the character’s history and iconography that have gone previously unexplored. FAR FROM HOME looks to extend and then cap the AVENGERS: ENDGAME fallout, in which our hero has more or less been written out of existence and then returned to it; the most “classic” thing the character could do is make a series of corny jokes about returning from the dead, and then getting yelled at by some ungrateful pedestrian he bothered to save because he somehow inconvenienced them in the process. That’s what makes Spider-Man so great, and all the A.I. in the world can’t take away from that.
*The same “keep him in high school” mission statement was frequently thrown around by Sony when discussing their long-term plans for the AMAZING SPIDER-MAN reboot; then they had him graduate ten minutes into the second film. It takes place as valedictorian Gwen Stacy delivers the in-no-way-prophetic speech in which she says (and I’m paraphrasing, but it’s still basically the same thing): Go forward, seniors, and live each day to the fullest, because YOU NEVER KNOW WHEN YOU’RE GONNA DIE.
**This film not only inspired my first feature, ROULETTE, but it also inspired me to watch the source of my inspiration over and over and over again, thanks in no small part to a scene featuring Marisa Tomei that has, in so many ways, ruined me for all other women. Joking, joking. But yeah, not joking.
***The band, not The Birds (who are best known with a y instead of an i, unless we’re referring to the ones frequently known to play in The Yard).
****Sorry folks, but I refuse to let this one go.
*****He also coerced Peter into unmasking at a press conference that would later require that dual efforts of Mephisto and Doctor Strange to make go away, but hey: nobody’s perfect. In the meantime, Movie Peter has the good sense to turn down this same public opportunity during the final minutes of HOMECOMING; Tony has to improvise by proposing to Pepper Potts, showing his unwavering tendency to use people for his own purposes. And this is the guy people were crying over during the epilogue of ENDGAME…?
Erik Kristopher Myers (aka ekm)