(Welcome to Road to Endgame, where we revisit the first 22 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ask, “How did we get here?” In this edition: Spider-Man: Homecoming offers an on-the-ground perspective of the Avengers’ world, but little else)
The film’s “Homecoming” sub-title sent a singular message to fans worldwide: this was Spider-Man back where he belonged, at the House of Ideas, alongside characters he’d shared the page with for over 50 years. In order to re-establish him, Marvel Studios would need to answer a key question following his MCU debut in Captain America: Civil War:
Where does Spider-Man fit in a world of Avengers?
The resultant film, Spider-Man: Homecoming, answers in great detail. It weaves this question into its text, and in doing so, it even adds dramatic heft to the post-Civil War character arc of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), the studio’s flagship character. However, in the process, the story of Spider-Man himself is left wanting.
The Adjacent Avenger
Tom Holland was to be the third on-screen Spider-Man since 2007, and so separating him from his predecessors became imperative. In both prior incarnations, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy and the Marc Webb-directed The Amazing Spider-Man films, Spidey was the only hero around, and had to rise to the occasion no matter how big the threat. Holland’s Peter Parker however — younger, smaller and of meeker demeanour — exists in a setting much like our own: a world where kids have grown up watching the Avengers.
With great power comes great responsibility — but what of someone with, say, medium power, in a world of Gods and monsters? For what, and to whom, is this Spider-Man responsible? For better or worse (arguably for both), Spider-Man: Homecoming is about establishing Peter Parker’s place in the larger MCU. This goal drives both the fictional dramatic narrative, as well as the real-world meta-narrative for curious audiences.
Parker wrestles with trying to be a hero in a world where heroism itself is changing. The film fleshes out the margins of the Marvel Universe by using Spider-Man for its on-ground perspective; Spidey may technically be a superhero, but he sees the Avengers through the eyes of the common citizen.
Spider-Man: Homecoming is unique in how small and intimate it feels for a Marvel movie, and it has a distinct sense of time and place. This New York City is familiar, from its diversity, to the cats that frequent its corner stores, to the multitude of Queens cuisines. But it’s also a New York City where bank robbers armed with alien tech run around in superhero masks; a city that’s been altered by the terrifying events of The Avengers.
This Peter Parker is for the kids; not through Snapchat and EDM (oh, what could have been), but because he never had to adjust to a world where “New York” suddenly became synonymous with a devastating attack. Like children too young to remember 9/11, the massive, world-changing shifts in global power and security in response to such an event — the kind of changes the other Avengers continue to quarrel over — are simply Parker’s normal.
The Story on the Ground
Spider-Man: Homecoming opens on Adrian Toomes/The Vulture (Michael Keaton), a contractor hired to clean up the Avengers’ mess shortly after The Avengers. However, Tony Stark’s own “Damage Control” initiative, in conjunction with the U.S. government, steals Toomes’ contract from under him. Toomes is one of the forgotten “little guys” of this universe, and his blue-collar resentment against the billionaire Stark is entirely justified.
Like Tony Stark prior to the events of Iron Man, Toomes is an arms dealer, albeit on a local level. And like Stark, all Toomes is really doing is adapting to a changing world, even if it means fashioning a suit from alien tech and stealing from the Avengers. Toomes, like Peter Parker (and like the film itself) exists in the Avengers’ shadow — it’s as if Spider-Man: Homecoming is Marvel’s first spin-off film.
By this point in the series, Marvel’s political fabric had rightly become central to its storytelling. The rift in the Avengers’ ranks was now pivotal to the larger narrative, but in the meantime, Spider-Man’s story would function as a light-hearted reprieve, while slyly setting up the emotional fallout for Tony Stark in Avengers: Infinity War.
The Sokovia Accords, written to curb the Avengers’ collateral damage, place Parker under Stark’s watchful eye, but Parker’s street-level heroism is a way for him to impress his way to Avenger status. This setup is perfectly poised. Parker wants to be an Avenger. He wants the big battles and the dangerous criminals, and all things Marvel is known for, but Stark needs him to stay put, lest he have another death on his conscience.
The mechanics of Spider-Man: Homecoming are geared towards delineating Spidey from the other heroes; he’s established not through his successes, but through his screw-ups. This world of superheroes and arms dealers is too big for him to handle, and his story is much more interesting when it centers on high-school drama, or on saving a single life — especially the life of a villain.
By the end of the film, Parker separates himself from the rest of the series. He rejects becoming an Avenger in order to return to the more “realistic” settings of New York streets, smaller battles and helping common folk. But how much weight can this resolution really hold for Parker, when all it does is fall back on Marvel’s original sin of affirming the status quo?
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