Spider-Man is by far my favorite superhero. Really, he’s one of my favorite fictional characters in general and has been since I first saw Sam Raimi’s original Spider-Man film. It’s one of the first movies I can remember watching and is probably the reason I’m into comics. Since the character is so important and influential to me, I naturally have a lot of opinions about him and all his various incarnations, including the version currently in the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s. An iteration which is controversial in some circles.
The MCU’s take on the character is one that is different in a lot of ways to the previous cinematic outings. Some differences, such as his membership in a larger universe, are things that fans have been clamoring for ever since Sam Raimi first brought him to the big screen in 2002. Others however, are differences that some feel fundamentally violate the core of who Spider-Man is. Ever since Captain America: Civil War and especially since Spider-Man: Homecoming I’ve heard a lot of these complaints, but I myself don’t share them. I want to take a look at what led to some of these controversial decisions and how Marvel Studios ultimately managed to craft a worthwhile version of the characters despite the circumstances they were forced to create in.
Who is Spider-Man?
The MCU’s take on the character is deliberately very different to previous versions, but before we can discuss whether these differences are good or bad, let’s ask and answer a question. Who is Spider-Man? What does he represent? What is the essential nature of this character that must be maintained in every adaptation?
It’s a complicated question and one that I think different people will have slightly different opinions on. His humor, love of science, lack of wealth, and romantic troubles are all aspects of his character that audiences have related to since his creation in 1962. He’s been a teenager, an adult, he’s been dark and edgy as well as lighthearted and fun, he’s been a street level hero fighting average crooks as well as a member of the Avengers fighting for the sake of the world and even the multiverse. He’s a character with a decades long history and many different writers have molded him throughout that time. Truthfully, no adaptation, even beloved ones like the Raimi movies or the Spectacular Spider-Man cartoon have captured every aspect of Spider-Man because doing that would be impossible. However, the cinematic versions, in my opinion at least, all “get” Spider-Man to some degree.
By my metric, Spider-Man is an underdog, someone who the audience can relate to. He’s someone who doesn’t have a perfect life, who nonetheless tries his hardest to do the right thing. He’s not perfect. Sometimes his attempts to do good don’t work out and can even have tragic consequences. Often his attempts come with a personal cost. Occasionally, he’s even led astray and is tempted to use his powers irresponsibly or sit on the sidelines when he could be helping people. At the end of the day though, he always ends up trying his best to be good, because he understands the consequences for selfishness and apathy. If an adaptation understands this core fact, then to me it understands Spider-Man, even if it fails in other major ways and ends up being a poor offering overall. The MCU’s Spider-Man may be reckless or act naively, and he sometimes has to battle between doing the right thing or submitting to more selfish impulses, but at the end of the day he suits up and does what he has to. That’s Spider-Man.
Yet, despite all that, the MCU’s take on the character is still different to the one many people have in their heads. He’s very attached to Tony Stark, he has no onscreen origin and to-date, no explicit mention of Uncle Ben. His first two movies have been lighthearted and fun without tragic death. He doesn’t seem to have the same maturity that Maguire and Garfield’s versions have had. Why is that?
Well, Marvel Studios was in a pretty unenviable position when it comes to their turn at Spider-Man. Weird to say, considering Spider-Man is one of the most financially viable characters ever made, but it’s true. Spider-Man had already had two different major film franchises before they even got their shot at him, and both of them had ended poorly, to say the least. This would be the second reboot in less than 10 years, and would be coming off the back of three consecutive misfires movie wise.
And we’re just talking about the movies here. There have been several different versions of Spider-Man throughout comics, TV, video games, etc, and as one of the most popular superheroes of all time, it’s fair to say that the audience would be at least passingly familiar with many of these different incarnations of the character, which is a much different landscape to be in when compared to virtually unknown characters like the Guardians of the Galaxy or the Eternals. Even characters like Iron Man that had their own cartoon series didn’t have the same ubiquity as Spider-Man. Marvel Studios had to stand out. So they did.
Sam Raimi and Marc Webb’s Spider-Man films were very different interpretations of the character, yet, despite that, they ended up following somewhat of a formula: A villain has a plan that puts many people (or even the entire city) at risk and Peter’s love interest is in imminent, life threatening danger. Spider-Man and the villain come to blows and someone close to Peter (perhaps the villain themselves?) ends up tragically dying as a result. In all but one case, the funeral for that person will occur and Peter will take their death hard, but at the end of the movie the music will swell and Spider-Man will swing through the streets of New York City because no matter what happens, with great power comes great responsibility.
They did that five times.
Marvel Studios, resultantly, made their Spider-Man a tonal reboot, in addition to a continuity reboot. Their Spider-Man would be a breezy, relatively low stakes, John Hughes style comedy. Now, look. Does Spider-Man suffer frequently? Of course. He’s up there with Batman and Daredevil in terms of characters whom writers love to torture every month for the delight of their sadistic audience. Despite that, I’d like to make clear that Spider-Man’s suffering, when it’s being done well, is in service of a specific point about his character. It’s not torture porn, or at least it shouldn’t be. In Spider-Man discourse there’s sometimes an idea that if Spider-Man isn’t actively at the end of his rope at all times, then it isn’t Spider-Man. If he doesn’t eventually lose everyone he loves and wind up plagued with despair, saddled with the guilt of yet another tragedy on his conscience, then it’s not authentic. That’s an idea that actively goes against what Spider-Man is.
Daredevil, at least post Frank Miller, is a character with a prevailing undercurrent of mental illness, instability, and an explicitly biblical, Christ-like suffering at his core. Daredevil’s story is like that of Job. His suffering is beyond what most people will ever go through. Spider-Man isn’t Daredevil. Peter Parker’s suffering could just as easily be that he ends up having to give up on a girl he likes, such as what happens at the end of Homecoming, as it could be him losing someone he’s close to, like what happens in the previous Spider-Man movies. Now, seeing as Spider-Man is a fictional character, and one that’s been around for decades, the tragedies that have occurred throughout his life have, at this point, mounted up to much more than almost anyone will ever deal with. But when we see Spider-Man fail it’s supposed to remind us of ourselves, not be a fetishistic depiction of the devil’s own personal punching bag. There are some, nay, many Spider-Man stories which convey the weight of the responsibility Peter chooses to carry while also being fun and lighthearted. You can do both. Of course, this led to another, even more controversial decision.
The Origin Story
Spider-Man’s origin story is important. More important, I’d say, than a lot of other superhero origin stories. It defines who the character is and all of the actions that he takes. Batman’s parents dying isn’t Batman’s fault. Superman’s planet exploding isn’t Superman’s fault. But Uncle Ben died as a direct result of Peter’s actions, and he has to carry that with him through life.
However, if you’re an executive at Marvel who knows the cinematic history of the character and the need for your movie to stand out, if you’re a writer or director who wants to tell a fresh and interesting story that hasn’t yet been told before with the character, if you’re an audience member, especially a casual one, who already has seen the Sam Raimi and Amazing Spider-Man movies, the idea of having the entire first act of the new Spider-Man movie dedicated to a story everyone already knows isn’t very appealing.
Fine, you might be thinking. But where does that leave his character? Well I’d argue that the effects of his origin are felt pretty clearly across all his movies. Even from his introductory scene, when he says his version of the responsibility speech: “When you can do the things I can, and you don’t, and then the bad things happen, they happen because of you.” This line isn’t just a teenager’s, on the fly, ineloquent way of summarising that “With great power, there must also come great responsibility”. It’s more specific than that. In addition to being the MCU’s version of the all important Spider-Man motto, it lets the audience know, or at the very least let me know that this version of Peter Parker definitely lost his Uncle Ben, and it was his fault. Clearly, something happened to this kid because he didn’t use his powers when he should have.
While no one ever says the “power and responsibility” phrase specifically, their meaning is clearly already apparent to Peter. He explains in that same scene that while he could use his powers for personal gain, he knows he shouldn’t. “Sure, I’d love to play sports. But I couldn’t then, so I shouldn’t now.” Seeing Peter learn that with great power comes great responsibility is all well and good (and I don’t just say that blithely, Spider-Man’s origin story is my favorite origin of any hero), but the important thing, at least to me, is that I know he knows it.
It’s why if I had a friend who knew Spider-Man’s origin story from pop culture and wanted to get into Spider-Man comics, I wouldn’t make them read Amazing Fantasy #15 first. Because we, the audience, already know that Peter knows. Sure, maybe it would be nice to have a quick mention of Uncle Ben’s existence, or a small allusion to his death, but the important thing is that you know it happened and that it’s important to Peter. And judging by the fact that Uncle Ben isn’t there and Peter Parker is Spider-Man we can safely assume that is the case. Of course, if it isn’t, and Uncle Ben walks in the front door during some future MCU Spider-Man movie completely unharmed, I will be just as confused as the rest of you.
Civil War and Homecoming
So what does all of this look like on-screen? I remember watching Civil War in theaters and loving it. I particularly loved how effectively they managed to introduce Spider-Man in the MCU in the short span of time he was in that film. Holland’s charm and youthful energy really worked for me, and I enjoyed his rapport with Tony Stark.
Plucking Spider-Man from small-time “friendly neighborhood” hero work and putting him on the Avengers’ stage served as the launching point for Homecoming. After having such a wild adventure, being stuck back on the ground is an interesting point to pick up with Peter. It allows for an origin of sorts, just without the “get bit by spider and accidentally kill your uncle” part, as it shows Peter recognizing both his limits and his potential, figuring out the correct place to operate within the MCU in the process.
When I look at MCU Spider-Man’s journey so far, it seems to be the traditional teen movie premise of “figuring out who you are and who you want to me”, tailor made for a superhero. It’s not so much about him struggling to uphold his responsibility, as much as it is about him figuring out what his responsibilities even are within the ever changing world of the MCU, as well as defining himself and growing more confident as a hero. It’s a coming-of-age story told across multiple movies. One way they illustrate this process, both in Homecoming as well as Far From Home is with the character of Tony Stark. It’s a common pastime within some circles to decry the MCU Spider-Man as “Iron Boy Jr” or some other title, due to this version of Peter’s supposed reliance on and attachment to Tony Stark. The argument goes that Peter loses much of his identity as a result of this. He’s not a broke loner who nonetheless valiantly fights for his principles even at immense personal cost, he’s just a kid who’s funded by a billionaire that he can always run back to when things get too tough. In truth, I think this view misses the point of what they’ve been doing with both characters.
This isn’t an essay about Tony Stark, but I’ll mention that I think his relationship with Peter does a lot for his character. When Tony meets Peter it’s at a low point in his life, a point where he’s pushed away the people closest to him, potentially broken up the Avengers, and has the destruction of Sokovia and deaths of many people on his conscience. Peter represents a chance to do better. A fellow scientist and a fellow hero, one he can mold into something better than he has been. There’s also a very obvious layer of somewhat paternal affection for Peter with Tony even referencing his own father during one of their interactions.
On Peter’s end, as a broke, unpopular, socially awkward loser Tony Stark – the exact opposite of all those things, and a much more successful hero – would of course be something of an icon and Peter’s rapport with Tony is very nice and even heartwarming, at times. It’s a dynamic that brings out the best in both characters. That being said, part of the point of their interactions is that they are fundamentally not the same and Peter should not try to be Iron Man. In this multi-film arc of identity and maturation and Peter trying to be the best Spider-Man he can be, Iron Man continually is shown to be a wiser, more accomplished hero who Spider-Man might admire and learn from, but who he nonetheless exists in contrast to, not in the image of.
In the case of Homecoming specifically, these contrasts can’t be more apparent. Spider-Man is given a Stark suit and one of his talking AI helps and not only do they not save him, but sometimes they even exacerbate his problems. Peter nearly drowns due to a parachute Iron Man installed inside the suit. In the climax of the film, Peter is at his most heroic donned in his homemade costume, relying on nothing more than his own wit and skill to survive.
Peter starts the movie wanting to impress Tony Stark and be on the Avengers, partly out of boredom with his own life as well as a genuine feeling that he’s not doing enough. At the end of the movie, he denies the opportunity to have his own “I am Iron Man” moment, because he realizes the value in being who he is and helping the other underdogs of the world. I think this was a great direction to take the character for a first film.
My opinions on this version of Spider-Man were solidified in two scenes during Homecoming. The first was the scene where Peter abandons Liz at the dance in order to stop Vulture. His desire to be with Liz has been a significant subplot throughout the entire movie and something he’s denied himself, either due to a lack of confidence, or a need to be Spider-Man. At this moment though, he can have the thing he wants the most and he chooses not to.
This moment is quintessential Spider-Man.
It is Peter Parker, with a choice to be selfish, and a choice to be responsible laid out plainly at his feet, choosing to do the right thing, even though it is disadvantageous to him, because he knows it is his responsibility to do so. Forget the quips, or the fact that his eyes move like they do in the comics, forget the fact that he has web shooters instead of organic webbing, forget all of the comic-accurate details. This moment is what Spider-Man is. It’s one of my personal favorite MCU moments, and one of my favorite Spider-Man cinematic Spider-Man moments.
To really hammer it home, Peter actually has to deal with the consequences of this choice. Spider-Man 2, which is one of the greatest comic book movies of all time, presented Peter’s life as Spider-Man and his relationship with MJ as a choice throughout the movie, but in the end Peter got to have both. The Amazing Spider-Man, which is an alright movie, presented Peter with the choice to be with Gwen, or break things off for her own good. Peter chooses to break things off with her, only to immediately change his mind, and then change it again multiple times throughout TASM 2.
In Homecoming, after Peter makes his choice, Liz is pretty much done with him. And she moves to Oregon, so there’s no way to make it better. Hell, after Endgame she might be five years older than him. Peter Parker has to live with his actions, with his only consolation being that he did the right thing.
The second moment that solidified my opinion on this version of Spider-Man is the scene where Vulture brings down the building on him and he has to get himself out of the rubble. Not only is Peter trapped under rubble, desperately calling for help, quite harrowing, but it’s also an adaptation of a specific scenario from the comics: Amazing Spider-Man #33. It’s an oft-referenced moment in adaptations, one that encapsulates Peter’s tenacity. In Homecoming it marks the point where Peter realizes his inner strength and potential without the need for some external validation like membership with the Avengers. He realizes the power of Spider-Man. They illustrate this visually with Peter looking in at his mask in a puddle of water and seeing his face reflected alongside the mask. Many Spider-Man fans will be familiar with the image of Peter Parker’s face split with his Spider-Man mask. Seeing such a pivotal story moment couched in all this Spider-Man iconography put any fears I would’ve had about this version of the character at ease.
Watching the trailer for Infinity War – as excited as I was – I was also concerned that involving Spider-Man in a giant space-faring adventure against the biggest threat in the universe might have been the wrong choice for the character after making the entire point of his arc in the first movie about how he should “stay close to the ground” and be a friendly, neighborhood Spider-Man. I didn’t ultimately have a problem with how it was handled in that movie. After all, as he said, “You can’t be a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man if there is no neighborhood.” The stay close to the ground philosophy was put on hold in the face of exceptional circumstances.
However, as I watched the trailers of Far From Home, those fears arose in me again. Isn’t it weird to put Spider-Man into a big, world ending threat, in the face of everything he learned in the first movie? Luckily, as I walked out of Far From Home, perhaps my biggest praise for the film was how it managed to craft a compelling character arc for Peter that incorporated his character development from Homecoming, while also addressing the fallout of Infinity War and Endgame.
In an interview with Collider, Jon Watts talked about how in Far From Home, Peter Parker is finally given the responsibility that he craved so much in the first movie. He’s finally being treated like an adult. Except, after the events of Homecoming, Infinity War, and Endgame, that’s something Peter Parker no longer needs or even wants. He’s accepted being a Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man. He’s content just being regular high schooler Peter Parker. In some ways, Peter’s character arc in this movie is the inverse of his arc in Homecoming. In Homecoming he was discontent with his circumstances, and desperate for change. In Far From Home, he’s content with his life, but change comes to his doorstep, whether he likes it or not.
Identity and Illusion
Spoiler alert for a little indie movie known as Avenger’s Endgame: Tony Stark dies. Honestly, as soon as he and Peter started to form their little father/son dynamic we should’ve known this is how it would go. Now, in a world post Iron Man, and possibly even post-Avengers, things are more uncertain than they’ve ever been. The world needs a hero to save them. And Nick Fury’s not gonna stand there and wait. He recruits Peter – quite against his will – as well as apparent multiverse refugee Quentin Beck and tasks them with defeating creatures called the Elementals. An Avenger’s level threat.
What’s interesting about Far From Home is that it takes Peter’s arc from the previous movie, something which was healthy for him to learn at the time, and twists it on its head. It’s not about the neighborhood now. The world needs him to step up. Meanwhile all Peter Parker wants is a relationship with MJ. Within this story about the future of the Marvel Universe and this big action blockbuster that takes Spider-Man to the world stage, they manage to once again find a classic Peter Parker dilemma, a more traditional one, in fact, than Homecoming had. In that movie, being Spider-Man was what Peter wanted to do, and besides the potential for a relationship with Liz, being Peter didn’t have much appeal to him. It’s the opposite here.
With Peter Parker in this mindset, it’s easy for Mysterio to start laying the groundwork for his own scheme. The twist of him being a bad guy in Far From Home is not shocking to many, if not most people, but Mysterio is still a very effective villain for how he challenges Peter and encapsulates the themes of the movie. In the comics, Mysterio is a former special effects guy who turns to crime and uses his talents to become a master of illusion. In the movie he’s a former Stark Industries employee (I’ll extend this olive branch to MCU Spider-Man detractors: I think it’s a bit ridiculous that every villain is tied to Tony Stark as well.) who decides to take advantage of Tony’s death and the lack of any real superhero presence in the world post-Endgame to become the next Iron Man. And to do this he commits acts of terror and pretends to stop them in order to position himself as the Earth’s savior. Basically, he’s Syndrome from The Incredibles.
His facades and illusions run deeper than that though. The most devastating trick is the one he pulls on Peter’s psyche. He positions himself as another father figure for Peter. As someone who understands that Peter has great power and responsibility, but also recognizes that…y’know…that’s a lot to handle. Especially for a kid. He spends the entire movie preying on his insecurities, selling him a fiction that eventually makes Peter comfortable around him and confident in him. Peter begins to see him as the new Tony, which is what Peter desperately needs, in this time where the specter of Tony’s legacy looms so large over his life.
I mentioned before how even though these films use Tony Stark a lot, the primary purpose of this is for Spider-Man to define himself apart from Tony and the wider MCU as a whole. In Homecoming this was very literal, Peter decided that the best thing for him to do was look after the people that Tony and the Avengers didn’t have time for. He was humbled, understood his weaknesses, and decided the best place for him to maximize his potential was in the spaces the Avengers didn’t occupy. While that was fine then, the problem with that solution was that Peter even in defining himself apart from the Tony and the Avengers, they were still intimately tied to his sense of identity. Now at a time when Peter does genuinely need to step up for his own sake, he’s too trapped by the idea that he’s not the right guy for the job. In Far From Home, Peter goes from defining himself as “Not the Avengers” to just believing in himself in his capacity as Spider-Man, something which is illustrated with his Peter Tingle (AKA Spider-Sense, but I would rather call it Peter Tingle). Just as Spider-Man’s moment of triumph in the last film happens when he’s in his own, homemade outfit, his moment of triumph in this film comes when he relies on his intuition and trusts in himself to succeed.
Peter’s journey throughout these films is to figure out his responsibilities and construct a sense of identity within the Marvel universe. Themes of identity and illusion are so explicit in this movie that ending it the way they did makes sense. It makes me nervous, as a Spider-Man fan who knows how revealing his identity can go wrong, but if they manage to pull it off in No Way Home (which based on the critical response, it seems like they did), they’ll have my respect for taking the character in such a ballsy direction.
Back in 2002, comic book films weren’t as big as they are now. A huge ongoing series, or even a trilogy of films weren’t the virtual guarantee that they are now, for better or worse. As a result of that, and because they were adapting Spider-Man for the first time, the Raimi trilogy is much more concerned with capturing the totality of the Spider-Man experience. It’s the humanity and drama and tragedy and hope and anguish and sacrifice of Spider-Man distilled into two hour films. Character break down, people die, epic sacrifices are made, and all of that good stuff. Things are similarly high stakes in the TASM films and even Into The Spider-Verse. Not to imply that those movies don’t make time for smaller moments, but at the end of the day they feel like big epic movie versions of Spider-Man.
I won’t lie to you and say the MCU Spider-Man films aren’t. These are huge, tentpole, CGI-filled, blockbusters, but what I enjoy about them, at least the first two, is that they come the closest of any of the films to simulating the experience I have picking up a random volume of Spider-Man. They’re more loose and casual, feeling more like the many issues of Spider-Man inbetween the tragedies like The Night Gwen Stacy died and Kraven’s Last Hunt. No Way Home seems like it’s going in the opposite direction, and I’m excited for a return to more consequential, dramatic Spider-Man movies, but I dislike the idea that Spider-Man films aren’t authentic unless they end with Peter penniless and alone, weeping over the latest heartbreak. The character is much broader than that and I enjoy that these first three films have focused so much on the character figuring himself out.
Nothing is perfect. I understand that many fans of Spider-Man have their issues with the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s interpretation of the character, and even if I disagree with them, there’s validity in many of those complaints. These are just my thoughts on why the movies work for me. To me, Marvel Studios gets the character, and they managed to make their version of the character new, different, and very entertaining, while never losing sight of what Spider-Man is supposed to be.
Peter Parker in the MCU, is likeable, funny, and charming, and watching him be Spider-Man with such enthusiasm is infectious. This Spider-Man feels fun just to watch on a moment to moment basis. The character, however, is still steeped in his trademark sense of responsibility. The movies go to great pains to show that Peter Parker still understands what that means and that he’s learned that lesson. What they do instead, is show Peter Parker trying to decide what exactly it means to be responsible, and to do the right thing in the constantly changing world of the MCU.
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