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[Warning: This story contains spoilers for Sony/Marvel’s Spider-Man: Homecoming.]
Spider-Man: Homecoming is, and isn’t, a typical origin story. It is in the sense that its narrative serves to distinguish this version of the character from a couple of other iterations, everything from recent movie Spider-Men Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield to musical-theater Spider-Guys Reeve Carney and Justin Matthew Sargent (let us not dwell on live-action TV Spider-Dudes Shinji Todo and Nicholas Hammond). But Homecoming is not a typical origin story in the sense that it doesn’t rehash the same, “Got bit by a radioactive spider, then my uncle died, now I gotta fight my best friend and his dad” backstory that so many recent Spider-stories have.
Sure, there are familiar Spider-tropes and characters in Homecoming, but the film’s most unique focus is on the adolescent life of 15-year-old Peter Parker, played by 21-year-old Tom Holland. Holland’s version of the character was previously introduced in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, which also featured scenes that established Peter’s home life with surprisingly young Aunt May (Marisa Tomei). Homecoming continues to emphasize the fact that Holland’s version of Spider-Man is a teenager first, and a superhero after that. In fact, the key to this new film’s success is how much it gets right about Parker’s high school life.
For starters, there are a number of throwaway gags that indicate how young and eager-to-please this new Spider-Man is. When a hot dog vendor asks Peter to prove that he’s Spider-Man by doing a backflip, he readily complies. And when he’s doing his rounds, Peter anxiously texts and leaves messages for mentor Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and unofficial super-guardian/liaison Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau). Time moves slowly for Peter, as we see in a scene where he, trapped inside an underground warehouse, gasps after he realizes that only 37 minutes have passed since he entered. He’s careless enough to have his super-identity compromised when best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) catches him slinking back into his bedroom. And Holland’s Peter Parker even almost succumbs to peer pressure when Ned begs him to boost their non-existent street cred by showing up, in costume, as Spider-Man to a party thrown by popular girl Liz (Laura Harrier).
It’s also important to note that Liz, Peter’s love interest, and Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori), Peter’s pint-sized archrival, are also both nerds. In almost every iteration of the character, Flash is characterized as a stereotypical football jock who plays sports, dates hot girls, picks on Peter and dotes on Spider-Man. But in Homecoming, both the bully and the pretty girl in Peter’s lives … are geeks. In fact, all three characters are teammates on the high school Academic Decathlon team. This probably isn’t a sly commentary on the fact that nerd culture has become so pervasive and culturally dominant that we have to specify which Spider-Man we are talking about when we say, “Hey, what did you think about that one Spider-Man movie?”
But the fact that Spider-Man exists in a world where nerds can also be pretty and/or bullies does speak to a greater truth about Spider-Man: Homecoming‘s understanding of who Peter Parker is: None of the adults in his life are really paying attention to him. Sure, May sees that Peter’s floundering, but she doesn’t pick up on the real reasons why his “Stark internship” is kicking his butt on such a consistent basis. When May sees Peter, she sees his youth, as she explains to him. Or maybe she just sees him through her memories of her youth. So when May walks in on Peter and Ned, and Peter’s in a state of undress and Ned’s sitting on Peter’s bed? She’s not fazed. Boys will be boys, and that means that there’s no chance that Peter could possibly be hiding a secret as big as homosexuality from May. She’d know by now, right?
Likewise, Hogan blows Peter off because he thinks that any problems that he poses are just mild-mannered teenage stuff. So when Peter surprises him by saying that he has to go out of state for a decathlon competition, Hogan shrugs and assumes that nothing’s up. In reality, Peter is leaving to track down Adrian “the Vulture” Toomes (Michael Keaton) and put a stop to his illegal arms network. Peter even uses Hogan’s tendency of dismissing his problems as run-of-the-mill teen stuff by saying that he didn’t bother telling Hogan about the decathlon because he thought Hogan wouldn’t need to be updated about such a trifling kiddy affair. Hogan protests at first, but ultimately agrees.
Peter’s drive to succeed makes sense in this new context, right down to the way he interacts with Stark. For a while, it seems like Stark is as inattentive and careless as Hogan is. After all, Stark communicates his disinterest in Peter’s life by showing up by proxy, speaking through an automated Iron Man suit. But in a later scene, Stark catches Peter in a lie simply by proving that he pays attention to Hogan’s reports. Peter says that he has to beg off from a phone call because of band practice (in reality, he’s saving Staten Island Ferry commuters from imminent Vulture-related danger). Stark catches the lie, though, because he remembers that Hogan said that Peter quit band five months ago. So the next time that Spider-Man sees Iron Man, it’s not just an empty suit.
Iron Man may conspicuously disappear after a point from Peter’s story later in the film. But Homecoming nails Stark and Peter’s mentor/mentee relationship because its creators understand that, if a teenage superhero were to actually take to heart Uncle Ben’s credo of “With great power comes great responsibility,” he would be torn between hormonal pressures and a childhood desire to grow up faster. In that sense, the fact that Peter turns Stark down at the film’s end and decides against joining the Avengers is a fitting conclusion to Homecoming‘s alt-origin story. This version of Peter Parker has to learn how to make his own judgment calls, and stay true to himself without giving into other people’s expectations of who he is. Homecoming nails aspects of the character that previous versions either ignored or downplayed. Here’s hoping that Holland remains a friendly teenage Spider-Man.
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