Maintaining the Shame of Peter Parker in ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’

Tom Holland stars as Spider-Man in Columbia Pictures' SPIDER-MAN™: HOMECOMING.

Peter Parker has a lot to answer for. The ultra-nerd teenager who spent most of his life pining for unattainable dream girls and dodging the physical aggression of jock drones was one wish fulfillment fantasy away from following in the footsteps of Aldrich Killian (remember that guy?). A radioactive spider makes a snack of his hand and transforms him into a beefcake specimen worthy of Asgard. He takes his newfound superpowers and selfishly applies them to get-rich feats of strength.

When the opportunity to prevent a stickup presents itself, Peter doesn’t lift a finger. Not his problem. Why should he care? His exact words delivered to a police officer in pursuit of the criminal and provided by Stan Lee in “Amazing Fantasy #15” were, “From now on I just look out for number one – that means – me!” Here is another Marvel protagonist battling his inner A-hole.

BOOM. Peter returns home to discover that the very deviant he so flagrantly neglected while counting his sideshow winnings has killed his Uncle Ben. The resulting shame of his involvement in that murder is the true origin of the superhero Spider-Man. For every positive action he makes, that anguish remains buried deep inside Peter’s soul. The friendly neighborhood Avenger is scarred with sin.

Springing forth from the success of Bryan Singer’s X-Men, the 2002 Spider-Man helped solidify our modern era of superhero domination. Taking a little inspiration from Brian Michael Bendis’ Ultimate Spider-Man comic series, a few bits from an aborted James Cameron script, and great gobs of Sam Raimi’s nostalgia for the classic Stan Lee and Steve Ditko books, our first cinematic iteration of ol’ Webhead was an incredibly earnest endeavor. Spider-Man 2 embraced the melodrama even further, and thanks to the effects wizardry of John Dykstra, the Amazing Spider-Man could live up to his adjective in a series of groundbreaking digital set-pieces.

Spider-Man 3, stuffed with at least one unwanted villain and a passionless director, seemingly killed the franchise. Desperate to cling on to a once-profitable IP, Sony Pictures rebooted the character ten years after his first Hollywood debut, and only five years after his last appearance. Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man made a few strides in capturing Peter Parker’s awkward nerdom under the mask but mostly succeeded on the real-life chemistry between its stars. Jump to one embarrassing sequel later, and Spider-Man was caught in his own web of critical failure. The hero that proved the value of Marvel’s stable of characters got trounced at the box office by a team of Avengers once unrecognizable to the general public.

Enter reboot #2. Fifteen years after swinging into our hearts, the enthusiasm for Spider-Man was at an all-time low. There was only one man the fan community would trust to right this ship – Kevin Feige. For that to happen, an unprecedented negotiation between Marvel Studios and Sony had to be struck. Having spent years watching Sony come close to the Peter Parker from the comic books only to fall short, the Marvel puppet master was eager to unleash the definitive version of the teenage superhero.

And yet…Feige knew he could not repeat what had come before. Since Spider-Man’s introduction in 1962, we have seen the tragedy of Uncle Ben revisited not only numerous times in the movies, but also in the comic books, cartoons, and video games. The origin is burned into our pop culture consciousness. We get it. We don’t need to see it anymore.

The challenge of Spider-Man: Homecoming became how to remain true to the character without relying on the lesson of “With great power comes great responsibility.” That process began in Captain America: Civil War when Tony Stark called on Underoos to back up his spat with Steve Rogers. Cornering Peter Parker in his bedroom, Stark confronted the budding vigilante with YouTube footage of the Spider-ling in action. Pressed to justify his do-gooder desire, Parker explains his motives, “When you can do the things that I can, but you don’t, and then the bad things happen, they happen because of you.” Immediately, you sense the wisdom and the tragedy, of Uncle Ben without any unnecessary and redundant flashbacks.

With six screenwriters credited on the script, including director Jon Watts, Spider-Man: Homecoming beautifully grounds Peter’s unbridled teenage enthusiasm with hard-knock realities. Graduating from dumpster-diving onesie to Tony Stark’s upgraded spider suit complete with A.I. (cleverly voiced by Paul Bettany’s better half, Jennifer Connelly), Peter engages his neighborhood watch with newfound gusto. Leaping without looking, Spider-Man intervenes in a bank robbery perpetrated by masked hoods packing some serious sci-fi firepower. Instead of the wham, bam, thank you ma’am capture he was expecting, Peter accidentally triggers a laser beam that slices through Delmar’s Deli.

Peter Parker once again finds himself responsible for a catastrophe. As he did in the wake of Uncle Ben’s death, Peter swears to hunt down the other culpable players, and that brings him into conflict with The Vulture. This blue-collar Green Goblin steals the concept of Marvel’s third one-shot (Item 47) and uses the Chitauri debris from The Battle of New York to fund his criminal empire.

This looks like a case for The Avengers! Not quite their pay grade. Tony Stark cannot be bothered with Peter Parker, despite the fact that both of them are motivated by guilt caused by their complicity in the death of others. Iron Man is too busy upholding the scraps of his team to listen to the teenager he had only called on because he was in a pinch. Passing Spider-Pest off to Happy Hogan, Stark does not register the pain festering inside the kid. His lack of interest only causes further misery.

While alienating everyone around him (with the exception of his ever-faithful guy in the chair, Ned Leeds), Spider-Man tracks The Vulture to an arms deal aboard the Staten Island Ferry. A surprise appearance by the F.B.I. leads to a three-way shoot-out that results in another sci-fi explosion ripping the fairy in half. Spider-Man is unable to control the situation, and all of the occupants would have perished without the intervention of Iron Man.

Totally owned by his mentor (“If you’re nothing without the suit, then you shouldn’t have it”), Parker returns to the John Hughes movie Watts has erected around him. Can he re-enter a life where asking Liz Allan to the Homecoming dance is his most difficult task? Peter’s self-assurance is at an all-time low, but Duckie gets lucky, and Liz hasn’t even bothered with the formalities of high school ritual.

If The Vulture didn’t answer the door as Papa Allan, Peter could have wallowed the rest of his adolescence away. The revelation that his wannabe girlfriend’s father masquerades as New York’s deadliest arms dealer forces Spider-Man into combat. As per usual, he does not have the time to consider the ramifications of his actions; the web-slinger must act. Suit or no suit, the hero inside rises to the surface despite the regret of past failures bubbling below.

The teenager who struggled with confidence before and after he was bitten by a radioactive spider no longer has the luxury of choice. Peter is obligated to match fear with courage. When The Vulture pins his tiny body under a building’s worth of concrete, Peter stares down into a puddle reflecting his shivering terror. He reaches within and finds belief in himself, “Come on Peter…Come on Spider-Man…Come on Spider-Man – COME ON SPIDER-MAN!”

The Peter Parker of Spider-Man: Homecoming is finally the same Peter Parker from that classic cover of “The Amazing Spider-Man #33.” Similar to the other Avengers he’ll eventually sidle next to in Infinity War, the appeal of Spider-Man is his constant education of self. The kid messes up cuz he’s a kid…or because he’s painfully human. However, he needs that pain.

Even if we do not see or hear the morality of Uncle Ben, we feel it in Peter’s behavior. Spider-Man is a fake-it-till-you-make-it superhero. He has the drive, but more importantly, he has the memory of the loss to propel him into the position of a savior.

What Spider-Man: Homecoming Contributes to the MCU:

  • The Vulture – Michael Keaton radically alters one of Spider-Man’s lamest villains into a serious contender for the MCU’s top dog bad guy. Standing in the rubble of New York City, Adrian Toomes seizes opportunity from an alien invasion. All you need to know about his POV is immediately summed up in the choice of music selected to score his underworld organization: “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” by the Rolling Stones. This song has defined the morality of gangsters and drug dealers from Casino to Blow.”
  • Midtown School of Science and Technology – A high school movie is only as good as the teens that populate it. Jon Watts gathers a diverse cast of youngsters to match the Queens neighborhood. What I seriously appreciate about these kids is the fact that they are all portrayed with significant intelligence. Even that jerk Flash can make it on the academic decathlon team.
  • Damage Control – Formed in partnership with Stark Industries, Damage Control is the perfect response to our real-world disgust at Man of Steel’s climactic devastation. We can no longer watch superheroes smashing through buildings without thinking about the poor little people doomed to sweep the streets after the credits roll.
  • Aaron Davis – Donald Glover makes a cameo as a thug on the quest for a pistol. He gets more than he bargains for when he tries to make a purchase from The Vulture’s goons. In the comic books, Davis delves into even darker territories as The Prowler. I doubt we’ll ever see his purple mask (leave that to the Spider-Verse), but the nephew he alludes to during Spider-Man’s interrogation mode will certainly make an appearance one of these days.
  • The Scorpion – Another goofy ass villain from the Spider-Man rogue’s gallery. Michael Mando’s Mac Gargan is the scumbag looking to purchase The Vulture’s weaponry on the Staten Island Ferry. He does little more than tough guy posturing here, but his appearance during the mid-credits stinger may allude to more shenanigans further down the franchise.
  • The Tinkerer – A cowboy is only as good as his guns. You get the impression that this character doesn’t really care how his weapons are used as long as he gets to make them. Michael Chernus supplies a little dry wit and a good dose of color to The Vulture’s gangs of miscreants.
  • The Shocker Part II – Bokeem Woodbine picks up the gauntlet of the original Shocker and steps into the ring against Spider-Man towards the film’s climax. If Homecoming proves anything, it’s that no two-bit hood is small enough to get his own set-piece.

What Spider-Man: Homecoming Withholds from the MCU:

  • Uncle Ben – So, no dead Uncle in the MCU. Will he ever be referenced in a sequel beyond repurposed luggage? Do we even need that? I’m not sure. Obviously, I feel his death permeating throughout Homecoming’s proceedings, and that’s essential to the character. Addressing Ben in some flashback or dream sequence feels more than a little clunky, but I would like an acknowledgment at some point.
  • Miles Morales – He’s the unseen nephew of Aaron Davis. Comic book fans know that he’ll eventually don a pair of Spidey Underoos as well. That does involve an alternate dimension and the death of their Peter Parker, but then Doctor Doom sparks the Secret Wars and the multiverse collapses and then….geez, yeah, don’t worry about any of that. The MCU will streamline Miles into the costume one day. Until then, enjoy his animated adventure.
  • The Shocker Part I – “I’m The Shocker!” This sap enjoys his job a little too much and allows his ego to get the best of him. Unable to remain discreet with the alien tech, The Shocker lets loose on Spider-Man in the suburbs surrounding Toomes’ family home. Unwise. The Vulture vaporizes him in a fit of rage, and Logan Marshall-Green
    loses the mantel to Bokeem Woodbine.

Further Reading:

Ultimate Spider-Man: Power and Responsibility by Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley – In the early aughts, Marvel Comics was concerned that decades of continuity were scaring away new readers. In an effort to lie out the Welcome mat, the company launched their Ultimate brand. The idea was that they would start from scratch, adding a contemporary dimension to characters that have swung around New York City for forty plus years. The comic book audience expected Ultimate Spider-Man to fall on its face. Instead, Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley created the quintessential take on the character. The first volume in the series introduces a Peter Parker struggling to find his place in high school society. When a radioactive spider nips his hand during a class field trip to the science laboratories of Norman Osborn, New York’s greatest hero is set into motion. Yes, you know the drill. But if you’re looking to get into comics, or you want to introduce your favorite character to a comic-phobic friend, Ultimate Spider-Man is the perfect starting point. Bendis’ dialogue is snappy, and his ideas are clever reworkings of classic concepts. And no Spidey bends quite like the one drawn by Mark Bagley.

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Brad Gullickson: Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.