Spider-Man: Homecoming … With Frosting So Good You Can Forget There’s Something Off About the Cake

Grateful for this look at Spider-Man: Homecoming, from our friend Jeremiah Lawson. When I finished […]

Mockingbird / 7.20.17

Grateful for this look at Spider-Man: Homecoming, from our friend Jeremiah Lawson.

When I finished watching the new Spider-Man film with my brother, he told me he liked it, but he couldn’t help but think of a military joke—if you break the rules and you fail, you get a courtmartial, but if you succeed beyond everyone’s hopes and dreams, you get a medal. That doesn’t mean that what you decided to do was necessarily ever a good idea. There are other ways of expressing this kind of concern about Spider-Man: Homecoming and the Marvel Cinematic Universe in general, but that joke about the difference between a medal and a courtmartial is what has stuck with me, not least because of the running gag in the new film about Captain America telling kids to follow the rules now that he’s become a fugitive since Civil War.

Spider-Man: Homecoming has so many, and so many well-executed, grace notes throughout its run-time that it can be easy to overlook all the ways in which the foundational melody seems out of tune from the Peter Parker we’ve seen in comics and in earlier films. This is hardly to say that the new Spider-Man film is a badly made film or that it isn’t bursting with charm and action. Tom Holland is the first actor in this century to have a firm grasp of both the Peter Parker and Spider-Man sides of the superhero. Where Tobey Maguire was strong as Parker and weak as Spider-Man; and where Garfield was strong as Spider-Man but foundered as Parker thanks to bad scripting; Holland strikes the right balance in handling both parts of the title role. Keaton’s turn as the Vulture makes him one of the few memorable Marvel cinematic villains. The supporting cast is by and large solid.

But something feels off about this new film, at least for this lifelong Spider-Man fan. Fans of the web-slinger have mentioned that there’s no mention of Uncle Ben, whose murder was the defining moment for Peter Parker in the comics. While on the one hand it was good we were spared yet another origin story, the problem is that this new movie gives us a Peter Parker who takes risks and ignores the concerns of others as if he were the Peter Parker who has not yet seen his Uncle Ben dead. It’s as though we’re in an era now that is so averse to feelings like guilt and shame nobody wants to write a script in which guilt is allowed to be the primary motivation for a character in a mainstream superhero film. Yet it’s impossible to understand Peter Parker without understanding that he is driven by guilt.

Parker is, for that matter, not just driven by any old kind of guilt. His guilt is very specific, and it’s a guilt that was perfected in Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man film. While in comics and film Parker has penchant for being a self-pitying crybaby who feels the world owes him more, this element of his character is always, at least eventually, overpowered by his sense of neighborly duty. Because Parker’s motivation is living with the reality that when he decided to stop worrying about others and only look out for himself, one of the people he loved most got murdered. Parker’s guilt is guilt over the deadly consequences that came because he decided to live first by his sense of self-pitying entitlement rather than his sense of social responsibility.

So when in Homecoming, Parker repeatedly beseeches Happy Hogan and Tony Stark to get a new mission because he feels he can do more, or when he repeatedly intervenes in crime scenes that escalate into life-threatening stand-offs that they simply would not have had were Spider-Man not jumping in, it seems as though we’re getting an impulsive teenage boy who doesn’t realize he’s making things worse. And if this were some character besides Peter Parker, that could make a lot of sense, but this is Peter Parker.

Yet this Peter Parker, though ably played by Tom Holland, seems to inhabit a completely different moral universe than either the Raimi/Maguire Peter Parker or the Lee/Ditko comics. In both those versions of Spider-Man, the knife-twist is hard and sharp, that it was when Parker indignantly embraced his self-pity and entitlement that he literally came face to face with the man whom he would unknowingly allow to kill his Uncle Ben. Most notoriously in the comics, the moment when Parker congratulated himself on how great he was at saving people was the night his girlfriend Gwen Stacy died, possibly because of his very efforts to save her.

The new Spider-Man film is good at establishing the people in the neighborhood of our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. There are a lot of funny and winsome moments, such as Parker incompetently attempting to shake down a petty criminal about where a deal is going to go down—the two men end up comparing notes about what sandwich vendors they prefer. Spider-Man’s inept attempt to stop a man from breaking into his own car lets us know this is a kid with very little experience or wisdom. All of that is certainly entertaining and effective.

Yet what all the movies have by and large failed to convey is that in the comics Parker lives daily with rude and bullying types of people with whom he gets angry and frustrated but against whom he knows he’ll never be able to retaliate.  He knows he has the power to kill the people who frustrate him, but he realizes this would be evil. Parker learns how to grit his teeth day after day in the face of these humiliations and set-backs, and it’s only as Spider-Man, facing off against villains like the Green Goblin or Doctor Octopus or Kraven the Hunter, that he feels safe to resort to the put-downs and sucker punches he knows would be wrong to use on regular jerks on the street. It was in Raimi’s first film that we got to hear Ben Parker warn his nephew, “Peter, these are the years when a man changes into the man he’s gonna become the rest of his life. Just be careful who you change into.” As we saw across three Raimi films of varied quality, the defining difference between a hero and villain would turn out to be the difference between acting out of entitlement and out of a sense of neighborly responsibility. What Raimi’s Peter Parker would discover was that he was always caught between doing right by the people he loves as Peter Parker and doing right by stopping the people he dealt with as Spider-Man.

In the comics Parker’s desire to join a super-team had practical motivations. He was a teenager who was too young to enter the full-time workforce but he was vexed to see his Aunt May pawning her belongings to pay the rent so they would have a home. Half out of desperation and half from ambition, Parker tried to turn Spider-Man into an entertainer/superhero but once he was dubbed a menace by the Daily Bugle and framed by the Chameleon, Parker began to worry that the only way to get money to provide for himself and Aunt May might be turning into the criminal everybody seemed to think he was. In Homecoming, Spider-Man’s attempts to save the day make situations worse, to the point that Iron Man feels obliged to take back the suit he designed for Peter Parker.

What makes this Spider-Man’s recklessness more jarring, on reflection, is that his adversary the Vulture, as played by Michael Keaton, is fastidiously risk averse.  Perhaps the ultimate Hollywood distillation of a “mancession” patriarch who has lost his job to crony corporate/government technocracy, Adrian Toomes resents that Stark and his Avenger friends wrecked New York and then had the power of the federal government to rescind Toomes’ own contract to salvage alien wreckage in the city in the wake of the Avengers’ battle with Loki. Determined to stick to what he’s good at, he becomes an underground arms dealer and mastermind behind a theft ring that steals Chitauri technology from the Department of Damage Control under Tony Stark’s nose. Yet Toomes’ heists are so meticulously planned that, barring intrusions by Spider-Man, these heists would be the first in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that could comply with a kind of supervillain OSHA standard of safety—avoid civilian casualties, kill anyone on the team who threatens the secrecy of the job, and do everything for the benefit of your family. Vulture’s minions, save one Shocker, might as well have union cards and OSHA certification. It’s only when Spider-Man interferes that things go bad and people nearly die. A second viewing (or even a first) shows us a Spider-Man who increases the risk that people will get killed by trying to stop the Vulture’s heists.

This new movie is still a lot better than The Amazing Spider-Man 2. There’s none of the Webb films’ penchant for Peter’s loved ones giving him pep talks about how awesome he is from beyond the grave, having died because of some error of his judgment. There’s certainly no dancing emo Parker. But it’s as though in all the fun of the new film, the guilt has been erased, despite the fact that for half a century that guilt has been the single most defining trait about Spider-Man.  Spider-Man: Homecoming is certainly fun, and yet for fans of the old Spider-Man comics, its great flavor and plenty of frosting can obscure the fact that something tastes a little bit off about the cake itself.