The Catholic philosopher and theologian Peter Kreeft once quipped, “People will forgive you for being wrong, but they will never forgive you for being right.” I imagine that this is why my distaste for Spider-Man: Homecoming will not likely be forgiven: fans of the movie will not be willing to admit that, for all of its successes, the latest film from Marvel Studios fundamentally changes Spider-Man’s character for the worse.
Make no mistake: Homecoming is not a bad movie. Tom Holland shines as the latest incarnation of the Wall-crawler, Michael Keaton’s Vulture is even better, and the only problem with Donald Glover’s portrayal of Aaron Davis is that there wasn’t more of it in the final cut (though the line about his nephew certainly suggests his return in a sequel). In particular, the backstory of the Vulture’s crew scavenging and stealing debris from the Avengers’ battles is presented in a manner that fits perfectly with everything else that the MCU has painstakingly crafted since 2008; as usual Keaton brings a grounded sense of realism to his character (even if the surprise connection to Peter’s love interest was a bit predictable). And, as many will likely point out, the movie is quite funny and maintains a light-hearted tone from start to finish that is certainly kid-friendly (it’s the woefully under-used Hannibal Burress who gets the award for the funniest line about Captain America being a war criminal).
But behind the many visual nods to Spider-Man’s history in the comics (like the moment in the suburbs when his web-line fails to find any tall buildings), a crucial element of Spidey’s backstory has been lost. Well-deserved praise has been heaped on the filmmakers’ decision to forego showing how Peter Parker became Spider-Man; after watching both Cliff Robertson and Martin Sheen take a bullet to teach Peter a lesson, it’s understandable that the studio wanted to focus on fresh material for this third shot at developing a cinematic wall-crawler. But in scrubbing Spidey’s origin story, the writers unnecessarily threw out the fundamental motivation for Spider-Man’s existence: his sense of duty and, yes, responsibility.
Unlike other heroes who would garner praise, popularity, and even wealth as a result of their heroics (notably Captain America and other members of the Avengers like Wonder Man), the comic book Spider-Man would often receive only threats and insults as a reward for his work. The Web-Head has been framed for murder, had his body stolen, been buried alive, and saw his pregnant wife poisoned (before Satan changed the timeline to erase his wedding) – and that doesn’t even mention J. Jonah Jameson’s crusade of hatred. Nevertheless, he persists in standing up for those who need help; the weight of his guilt over failing loved ones like Uncle Ben and Gwen Stacy has burdened him with a severe sense of purpose.
This is the essence of Spider-Man’s character and why he exemplifies true heroism within the Marvel universe: without reward, recompense, or even recognition, Spidey strives to put his gifts to work for others, not simply for himself. Fundamentally, he is not a self-serving hero out to seek fame and fortune – when he tried that, his loved ones were hurt – instead, he simply wants to do what he can for whom he can for as long as he can. This determination to do the right thing for others has helped to keep the superpowered hero relatable: Spider-Man is a hero who suffers like normal people – and overcoming his pain is simply more proof of his heroism.
One of the most poignant stories demonstrating Peter’s selflessness is from the pages of Amazing Spider-Man #33. After a desperate search for a cure for Aunt May’s illness culminates in a battle with Doctor Octopus, Peter finds himself trapped under a collapsed (and flooding) building with May’s treatment just out of his reach. Spurred on by his love for his family, Spider-Man manages to marshal his strength, free himself from the rubble, and ultimately save May.
Homecoming includes a similar scene leading up to its final battle: after an attempted ambush of the Vulture goes awry, Peter also finds himself crushed beneath the rubble of a warehouse with puddles of water all around. However, this time, it is not the thought of his dying Aunt that empowers him, nor her life-saving medication at his fingertips, but a desire to prove that he is a real hero, symbolized by his lost mask lying in a puddle. Much of the movie to that point saw Peter wracked with the mixture of overconfidence and frustration against restriction that will be familiar to teenagers everywhere, but that moment under the warehouse sees Peter resolve to grow up and become Spider-Man, choosing to take care of himself (without help), and thereby proving his merit as an Avenger. What was once an emotional scene embodying Peter’s devotion to helping others has become a display of self-focused expression and self-directed triumph.
This is a subtle difference, but one that reverses the core of Spider-Man’s character. Without an iron-clad commitment to externally-directed self-sacrifice, whether borne from the fires of personal trauma or not, much of Spider-Man’s redemption-seeking heroism becomes popularity-seeking showboating. Homecoming makes an attempt to salvage this sentiment by having Tony Stark repeatedly remind Peter that he “screwed the pooch” on the ferry, but not only does this criticism pale under the news that no permanent damage was done by Peter’s mistake (which means that no permanent lesson has been learned), but it comes within a larger storyline of Peter seeking popularity at high school parties and the attention of Liz Allen. In the end, this is a story about Peter learning to believe in himself, apart from the approval of his peers, which might explain why he chooses to walk away from the spotlight (for a time) at the end of the film – before he becomes the next fame-obsessed Tony Stark.
In many ways, this characterization seems more like the arc that comics character Miles Morales took than anything Peter Parker experienced. Not only did Miles enjoy the support of a best friend who knew his secret (much like Homecoming’s Ned), but he became Spider-Man under the auspices of a heroic role-model he was seeking to emulate: whereas Miles had Peter, MCU-Peter has Tony Stark. This storyline choice is particularly odd given the initial outcry at the news that Spidey would rejoin the MCU: speculation immediately suggested that it would be Miles, not Peter, who was fighting alongside the Avengers (and a sizable fanbase attempted to win Glover himself the role). If the plan was to tell Miles’ story all along, why not actually use Miles’ character in the first place?
Ultimately, it’s unsurprising that 2017’s Spider-Man flies free from the consequences of his actions to explore self-directed messages of empowerment – this storyline hits many of the tropes popular with millennial audiences. Peter’s struggle with authority, his hints towards an entitlement mentality with Stark’s suit, even his affinity for recording videos of himself all hit on standard stereotypes for behavior from the millennial generation – many of whom will likely see themselves reflected on the screen of Spider-Man: Homecoming.
This is unfortunate. Because superheroes are our modern myths, they should not simply present our world as it is, but as it could be. The thought that we could have a Spider-Man free from the burden of responsibility might well be popular today, but that’s all the more reason why we need a sacrificial, duty-bound Spider-Man reminding us of what humanity can be.
The best hope remaining lies in Kevin Feige’s indication that Peter Parker’s story arc is planned over the course of five movies, starting with Captain America: Civil War, moving through Homecoming and two Avengers sequels, and finally culminating in one additional film. Perhaps MCU-Peter will make a journey similar to that of Spider-Man in 2006’s Civil War event where Peter’s affinity for Stark eventually gave way to Steve Rogers’ rebellious underground. Perhaps this Web-Head will come to learn a real lesson about sacrifice. But if this self-centered Spidey is here to stay, then we’ll still be waiting for our Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man – even if (and you’ll have to forgive me) we don’t know it.