This article contains spoilers.
“A lean, silent figure slowly fades into the gathering darkness, aware at last that in this world, with great power there must also come – great responsibility!” Stan Lee’s concluding narration from Spider-man’s inaugural appearance in “Amazing Fantasy #15” (oft misattributed to Uncle Ben) has become so repeated across the various interpretations of the Spider-man story as to risk becoming bromide by this point.
Marvel Studio’s “Spider-Man: Homecoming” deftly defies the temptation to utter the ubiquitous apothegm yet again, while keeping power and responsibility as the foundation for exploring this character. But contra previous adaptations, “Homecoming’s” place in the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe affords the opportunity to compare Peter’s pursuit to wield super-powers responsibly with other, older heroes’ endeavors to do the same. Thus audiences are spared a trite retelling of the same Spider-man story so familiar to fans and filmgoers, but in lieu of such receive a banal blockbuster thin on character progression and compelling pathos.
The Burden of Being Spider-Man
Time and again throughout, Peter is given a choice between pursuing his personal wants—such as attending his first real party, bonding with his decathlon teammates at a hotel pool, or attending the homecoming dance with his crush—and the needs of his neighbors. Although it clearly causes him some pain, he never hesitates to place his duties above his desires.
As such, the burden of being Spider-man never seems to be felt so fully by Tom Holland’s Peter Parker as Tobey Maguire’s in the first two films. Whereas the former gives up a date with his crush, the latter spurned the affections of his lifelong love, sacrificing the very thing he wanted most in life. Holland’s Spider-man’s sacrifices seem so shallow in comparison, robbing the character of the emotional depth evident in previous incarnations. It’s easier for him to be Spider-man, with less to lose and more to gain—thus stripping the conflict so core to the character.
After all, Peter’s struggle in this film is not to learn a lesson on responsibility and take such to heart. It’s not to choose between his happiness and others’ welfare. It’s not even to develop the skills of a superhero requisite to stand alongside the Avengers. Rather, the movie demonstrated that Peter already has power and responsibility on par with Captain America and Iron Man. His whole goal is not to grow to be more like them, but merely to prove himself their equal.
Indeed, all of Parker’s apparent irresponsibility can be seen as equal to Stark’s, such as the Staten Island Ferry disaster, with Peter only feeling the need to interfere in the Vulture’s arms deal because Tony failed to communicate that he understood the threat and had a plan for stopping it. Much more than the Vulture’s machinations, Iron Man’s infantilization of Peter is the true conflict of the film. By the end, Stark’s acceptance of Parker as a peer is more potent character progression than Peter’s own acceptance of his place as a high-schooler and “Springsteen-y, working class hero.”
The Responsible and Irresponsible Use of Power
If anything, it is in this capacity as a working-class hero that Spider-man is shown to be exercising his power more responsibly than the likes of Iron Man and Captain America as they’re depicted here. Early in the film, Stark is seen wielding his wealth and accompanying political connections in the appearance of impropriety, seemingly profiteering off the reconstruction following the Battle of New York from the first Avengers film. Adrian Toomes recognizes the potential conflict of interest in a superhero responsible for preventing collateral damage during his defense of a city then making money upon that destruction, opining “They’ve got us coming and going.”
Worse, Tony uses that political power to peddle in the same crony capitalism he’d condemned in “Iron Man 2,” with Stark Industries working alongside the Department of Damage Control while the latter ignores the contract for clean-up Toomes’ small business had successfully bid on, and Toomes’ company not even receiving fair compensation from the government.
As Iron Man is shown using his power irresponsibly as a technocratic tycoon, so Captain America is depicted as a stooge of the state, his power to genuinely inspire his fellow Americans reduced to patronizing propaganda. He irresponsibly agrees to appear in a series of videos on such topics as physical fitness, hormonal changes, detention, and disappointment. The final is particularly humorous, coming at the end of the credits as a sly metacommentary on the lack of payoff in so many of Marvel’s post-credits scenes of late, but it unintentionally highlights the inevitable disappointment viewers must have had about “Homecoming” as a whole.
One of the most particularly disappointing scenes comes near the climax, after Spider-man has been buried beneath the rubble of the Vulture’s collapsed lair. Comic readers will recognize the scene as a clear reference to the iconic opening pages of Amazing Spider-man #33 “The Final Chapter,” one of the most memorable issues of Lee and Stephen Ditko’s original run. But whereas the scene in the comics has been hailed as Shakespearian, combining Lee’s powerful prose and Ditko’s visual storytelling at the height of their respective careers, the same scene in the film is bereft of emotional gravitas. Like Donald Glover’s offhanded reference to his nephew (Miles Morales), such amounted to little more than an Easter egg servicing the fans instead of the film.
The Last Set of Spider-Man Films Were Better
Of course, the failings of a single scene pale in comparison with the casting mistakes, which permeate the film. Characters cast for prior Marvel movies—such as Holland’s Spider-man, Marisa Tomei’s Aunt May, and Robert Downy Jr.’s Tony Stark—all stand in clear relief with those cast first for “Homecoming.” Parker’s classmates in particular—Zendaya’s MJ, Harrier’s Liz, and Revolori’s Flash—will make audiences yearn for yesteryears when Hollywood cast every high school character with improbably attractive twentysomethings who at the very least could act, unlike their more appropriately aged replacements these days.
The original Spider-man movie came out immediately in the wake of the worst day in our country’s living memory. Indeed, such was the proximity of the film to September 11 that the film was delayed to remove the scene shown in its first teasers, wherein Spider-man caught a helicopter containing criminals in a web woven between the Twin Towers.
More than ever, the nation needed a patriotic colors-clad everyman who was willing to struggle and sacrifice to help his fellow Americans and do what was right. Behind his mask was the face of every first responder: every firefighter, every police officer, every EMT. In embodying those real-life heroes, Spider-man paved the way for every superhero to grace the silver screen since.
But those successors far succeeded Spider-man. “Homecoming” was Marvel’s chance to restore Peter Parker’s proper place in the pantheon of American superheroes. Yet “Homecoming” fails to understand what makes Ol’ Web-head work. It realizes he has something to do with the ideas of power and responsibility, but misses the enormous personal cost that is the emotional center of the spider’s web.