By Travis Trombley
As I said in my general review, Spider-Man: Homecoming represents yet another Marvel twist on an established genre. They’ve done Shakespeare, spy-thriller, heist flick, and space opera. Now we can add high school drama to the mix. With this newest iteration, Spidey’s DNA is as influenced by early-seasons of Buffy and John Hughes flicks as much as it is by a mutated spider.
To honor his inspiration, director Jon Watts even treats viewers to a parallel clip of Ferris Bueller's Day Off while Spider-Man hops and ploughs through backyards to catch a couple goons. But whereas Ferris bolts home in style, even taking a minute to flirt, Spidey essentially fumbles through the whole thing, knocking down tree-houses and crashing through sheds. It’s an apt metaphor in the sense that Homecoming mines Hughes’ films for themes and beats, but it stumbles a bit in its recreation. Whereas Hughes provided his characters with discernible, realistic arcs, Homecoming gets confused about what it wants ‘growing up’ to look like for the young superhero. It asks him to be Cameron, but treats him like Ferris. In other words, it can’t decide how Peter should change by the end, but yet assumes that he does.
Intro to Character Change and Theme
Coming of age narratives seems ripe for such bold metamorphoses by nature of their definition. Kids grow up, and they usually do so in increments. Sometimes those increments blend so seamlessly together that we barely notice the transition, but other times passage from one point to the next requires a wall to be leapt over or broken through. We gravitate towards these stories because getting past that wall requires a moment of courage - an act of forgiveness, trust, acceptance, or bravery, perhaps. This idea of character development defines Joseph Campbell's famous Hero Journey. It’s why we love origin stories - we want to see someone turn pain into purpose.
This summer, we watched Wonder Woman “grow up” in regards to her perspective of human nature. The conflict at the outset is that she believes Ares is responsible for the corruption of mankind, which is essentially good, but her mother and later Steve try to convince her otherwise, that humanity is less than ideal on its own. The consequence of her original perspective is that she believes killing Ares will end the war, and stops at nothing to accomplish this goal. However, throughout the narrative, new evidence begins to trouble her perspective: supposedly corrupted men demonstrate a capacity for good; likewise, those she assumed were pure are capable of, well, the not so good. That’s conflict. One consequence of this is that she eventually rejects her companions. When the conflict comes to a head with Ares, and she realizes the true nature of humanity is more complex, the consequence is that she gives up on them. That is, until Steve poses another conflict - that the choice to choose good despite the capacity for evil is worth believing in. Seeing this choice in action - in Steve’s sacrifice (the result of his own arc) and the comradery of Chief, Sameer, and Charlie (again, the result of their own arcs) - illicites another consequence: her choosing to believe in humanity and defeating Ares on their behalf. End-of-the-film Diana differs from beginning-of-the-film Diana due to a series of conflicts and consequences.
On a much smaller scale, we can look at the mini-origin of Black Panther in last years Civil War. Both prince and warrior at the the outset, T’Challa finds himself conflicted between violence and diplomacy as a consequence of his father’s murder during the bombing of the UN. Despite his father’s wishes for T’Challa to privilege statesmanship, he reacts as a warrior, driven by vengeance. The consequence of this choice is a bloodlust towards Bucky Barnes, whose eventually vindicated by way of Zemo’s confession. When T’Challa confronts Zemo, the mastermind behind the attacks and his father’s real murderer, he finds himself conflicted once again between vengeance or...something else. In that moment, he realizes that vengeance is a consuming force - he notes how it turned Zemo from a caring family man to remorseless terrorist, how it turned Stark savage against his friend Rogers, and how it almost led him to kill the wrong man. The consequence of this realization: T’Challa stifles his need for revenge, symbolized in the literal retraction of his claws, and elects “justice” by stopping Zemo from committing suicide so he can be publicly tried in the hope of rectifying the problems his manipulations caused. Boom - character change as a result of conflict and consequence. T’Challa embraces the diplomatic over the selfishly violent.
In both cases, the films present a clear case for why the characters make the decisions they make, and how those decisions shape their psychologies.
That said, not all great stories require change for primary characters. Some revel in resilience, like Die Hard. Others relish a harsh reality of internalizing or suppressing stress, trapping characters in psychological states rather than liberating them. Still others view characters as lab rats by which they can explore the effects of grander social forces.
But Homecoming isn’t one such film.
How will I know I'm all growed up?
As such, it would follow that the maturity he develops as a result of the narrative would address at least one of these issues: effectively juggling the multiple elements of his identity and the respective relationships, superheroing responsibly in a way that protects folks without endangering them, and/or defining his identity himself rather than relying on Stark’s tech or acceptance.
However, none of these thematic threads tie the narrative together; they all exist, but with frayed endings. As a result, we get a mature Peter at the end, but since no conflict took primacy, we don’t really understand how he became mature or, really, what that means. To mix my metaphor and recall an earlier image, the wall Peter must leap or break through - or climb, in his particular case - is never clearly defined.
We can see this fault of Homecoming by working backwards in the narrative. The end of the film features two big moments for Peter. In the first, Pete is crushed under a pile of rubble - a direct homage to the famous scene by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko in Amazing Spider-Man #33 - and must will himself to escape to stop Vulture. He does so by essentially...pushing really hard. The other moment comes at the end when Stark officially asks Peter to join the Avengers, and Pete rejects the offer. “I’m good. . . . I mean, I’d rather just stay on the ground for a little while,” he tells Stark. “Friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. Someone’s gotta look after the little guy, right?”
It’s a quaint response, but from what impetus did it originate? What changed in Peter that he would eschew his all-consuming hope from the beginning of the film? What’s the story trying to say about growing up? Something in the narrative ought to have prompted a psychological alteration - in this case, we can assume a maturation - that we could follow from germination to fruition. We should be able to chart some character change throughout the film that would inform this decision.
But there isn’t a clear answer as to why he makes that choice.
Theory #1 - I don't need you, Stark
This certainly makes sense of the rubble scene in which Peter internalizes his hero nature rather than relying on Stark’s tech or assistance. After Pete weeps and screams for help in a surprisingly tender moment, he hears Tony’s voice in his head: “If you're nothing without the suit, then you shouldn’t have it.” Then he looks into a puddle and kind of sees his face, half uncovered and half masked. Then he repeats: “Come on, Peter. Come on, Spider-Man. Come-on, Spider-Man!” This could very well be his assertion of self, saying he IS Spider-Man whether he has a fancy Stark suit or not, a hero in his own right who doesn’t require a bailout.
Buuuutttttt...he kinda did need a few bailouts throughout most of the film. Yay for him saying he can be his own person, but that doesn’t really negate the fact that he almost got himself killed by Vulture (only Starks parachute and later Iron Man saved him), almost got Ned killed with a bomb, and caused the destruction of a ferry by jumping headfirst into a situation he didn’t understand. That conflict and those consequences remain. He didn’t screw up because of his affiliation with Stark, so asserting his own identity doesn’t make him not screw up. If anything, his exploits prove he needed and still needs a mentor. Half of the film’s focus remains unsolved.
Theory #2 - I'm not ready yet
Steering the plane away from the city doesn’t count as not being reckless - he would have done that anyway, I think we can agree, though maybe that was an attempt on the screenwriters’ behalf at such a moment of growth. It’s not that he’s particularly reckless again; moreso that he doesn’t really get an opportunity to be reckless or not be reckless during the final sequence. Again, one could argue that not seeing Vulture’s plan to collapse the roof and his subsequent entrapment represent a continued youthful recklessness, but his resilience and persistence in escaping and pursuing Toomes proves that he can still make it as a hero, but that’s a stretch.
Additionally, taking a step back, if needing to ‘grow up’ as a superhero was really his motivation, wouldn’t training with the world’s most elite enhanced warriors kinda be the obvious solution?
Theory #3 - I'd miss my auntie
Theory #4 - I just want to be a friendly, middle class superhero
Toomes argues throughout that the one-percenters like Stark don’t care about the “little people,” and that they use their power to simply secure more power. He uses this perspective to justify criminal behavior as a means of providing for his family. And given how nice his house is, I’d say he did more than simply “provide.” On the other hand, you have Stark making Peter gadgets, but using them as leverage; you have him financially supporting Damage Control so he can make sure the alien tech gets properly cared for. He cares, but he swings his ego - and his wealth - around quite a bit in the process, which can take an ugly, authoritarian turn.
Given Pete’s reply about “looking out for the little guy,” to which Stark attributes a “working-class hero vibe,” one could see how this theory might be worth mentioning. But is there anything in the narrative to suggest this is an issue for Peter? Nope. He and May’s financial situation isn’t a focus here (In Raimi’s film’s Aunt May cried over giving Pete a $20 bill, but here the pair enjoy a night out and live in a reasonably nice apartment). Furthermore, Stark is viewed exclusively as a mentor here by Peter, not an avatar for wealth (well, not by anyone but Toomes, that is). There’s no evidence by which we can justify that his decision is the result of navigating a conversation on the moral exercise of power in regards to socioeconomics, though such a focus could have been incredibly interesting.
A strong narrative could stem from seeing Peter simultaneously defeat Vulture but also reject Stark and his philosophy of leveraging wealth to unilaterally make big calls like controlling dangerous alien tech or, ya know, creating an artificial intelligence to protect the earth. Pete could adopt a wholly distinct definition of superheroism rooted in stopping local crime without necessarily exercising his power preventatively or in a way that would infringe the rights of others, placing him more in league with Cap and his more individualistic philosophy from Civil War.
Maybe next time.
That said, perhaps there's something to the idea that Pete's experiencing super villainy from a street-level perspective - literally walking into a baddy's house to pick up his daughter for a dance - made him realize that the Avengers can't handle every threat, and that his presence at the 'neighborhood' level is a necessary. One could even say it's psychologically metaphorical for him realizing he can find purpose as a teenager and he needn't be in a rush to be an adult quite yet. But that requires a lot of effort on the reader's behalf to make work - it's never articulated or expressed by the film, just made plausible.
Again, it’s not that the ending doesn’t make sense. The film wraps nicely. It could be said that the answer to my aforementioned question is a little bit of everything here, and that because growing up is kind of a messy process, so too is the film’s depiction thereof. However, Pete’s decision at the end is such a well-crafted and convenient bookend to the primary conflict at the beginning, the change demands a more coherent explanation.
Without that degree of thematic focus, the conclusion - however sensible - lacks impact. And impact is the key to narrative greatness.
Homecoming made me laugh, but when I remember summer 2017, I'll think of Logan and Wonder Woman for this reason.