In Marvel Studios’ 2016 blockbuster Captain America: Civil War, Tony Stark flies to Queens, New York, to try to recruit fledgling teenage superhero Peter Parker. After a playful back-and-forth, things take a serious turn and Tony asks, “Why are you doing this? I gotta know, what’s your M.O., what gets you out of that twin bed in the morning?” To which Peter replies, “When you can do the things that I can, and you don’t, and then the bad things happen, they happen because of you.” Of course, this is just another way of saying, “With great power comes great responsibility,” the creedo imparted to Peter by his Uncle Ben with his dying breath – a moment seared into the collective consciousness of comic book readers, moviegoers, and pop culture enthusiasts for decades.
Peter’s innate sense of right and wrong; his determination to use his powers to help people regardless of the costs to his personal life, coupled with his promise to live up to his Uncle’s last words are the primary reasons he dresses up in a red and blue suit and battles baddies with names like Mysterio and Electro. However, with the release of Spider-Man: Homecoming, a film that introduces audiences to a third cinematic iteration of the wallcrawler—this time played by young Brit Tom Holland—and his incorporation into the interconnected Marvel Cinematic Universe, questions have been raised as to whether or not elements like Peter using a technologically advanced Stark-tech suit, and further developing a mentor-mentee relationship with Tony betray Spidey’s core values and replace his motivations with more superficial goals. There was also widespread chatter expressing fears that Homecoming would turn out to be a de facto Iron Man 4, with Robert Downey Jr.’s whirling dervish Stark completely overshadowing the proceedings.
Now that the film is out, drawing both huge crowds and spectacular critical acclaim (it’s tied for the highest Rotten Tomatoes score in superhero movie history), any notion of Tony Stark/Iron Man dominating the narrative has been blown out of the water. (SPOILER ALERT — Downey appears in three scenes; his screen time adding up to around seven minutes.) But more importantly, despite not being overtly referenced or remembered in the film, Spider-Man: Homecoming is steeped in the memory of “Uncle” Ben Parker and—via Peter’s actions and choices—perfectly encapsulates what makes Spider-man such a wonderful and enduring character. To believe Kevin Feige and the Marvel brain trust compromised Peter’s true drive or sought to supplant Uncle Ben with Tony Stark demonstrates a complete misreading of the film’s subtext and a misunderstanding of why Peter—as not-so-subtle Internet pundits are wont to say—spends the movie “sucking up to,” or “trying to impress” Tony.
In this piece, I’ll explore what makes Peter “get out of that twin bed” in greater detail, examine whether or not the tech suit fundamentally changes who Peter is, and set out to thoroughly debunk the false “Iron Man 4/Everything Peter does, he does for Stark” narrative.
Everyone Already Knows All About Uncle Ben
Let’s get this right out of the way, because it’s glaringly obvious that here, in the year of our Lord, 2017, babies come out of the womb knowing Peter Parker takes responsibility for his powers and fights crime after he indirectly causes the murder of his Uncle Ben. Of course, that’s a ridiculously hyperbolic thing to say, but the grounded point I’m trying to make here is that this knowledge is ingrained in anyone who has absorbed even a fraction of modern popular culture, and certainly everyone who has seen the previous Spider-Man films from Sam Raimi or Marc Webb – both of which recount Spider-Man’s origin.
So, when Marvel Studios partnered with Sony to reboot Spider-Man for the second time in five years, they did so knowing massive audience fatigue for Spidey’s roots was a real and palpable problem. The message was perfectly clear – no one wanted to see Uncle Ben get shot again. That’s why Spider-Man: Homecoming doesn’t flashback to Uncle Ben’s death or has his voice rattling around inside Peter’s head. Feige and director Jon Watts made the decision to treat the audience like intelligent people equipped with the proper foreknowledge of Spider-history, and strap them into an exposition-free joyride with a focus on Peter enjoying his powers and trying to push himself too hard too quickly :
“The truth is, we want audiences to bring their own… let them fill in those blanks right now. They’ve seen the other films. They’ve read comics. They can fill that in. That was a very purposeful decision we made to not retread that ground. There are little things that are said here and there that people can read into. What the specific facts are in the past, we don’t… we haven’t revealed yet. I wanted to make sure that nothing like that was dwelled on, because I did want to focus on just the excitement of what it would be like to be 15 and to have those powers.”
Would it have been nice to see a photo of Uncle Ben with Marisa Tomei’s Aunt May hanging in the apartment? Sure. (And maybe there is; get those blu-ray player pause buttons ready!) Would it have seemed out of place for Peter to mention Ben to Tony or Happy? Not at all. Is Spider-Man: Homecoming a lesser Spidey film for not having these things? Absolutey not. I find it shocking—especially given the pre-release “oh god, not ANOTHER origin movie” outcry—that people are outraged that the holy specter of Ben Parker isn’t invoked. There are literally hundreds of issues of Spider-Man comics, dozens of animated series episodes, and countless Spidey tales across various media where Ben is never mentioned. It doesn’t mean he’s forgotten or irrelevant, though. The bottom line here is, if you’re walking out of Homecoming thinking Uncle Ben’s been erased from existence, or that he doesn’t have any impact on Peter’s actions, you’re just being willfully obtuse.
The Tech Suit Doesn’t Strip Away Peter’s Ingenuity
Even before he was bitten by a radioactive spider, Peter was a brilliant science student- excelling at biology, physics, and chemistry at Midtown High. Once he gained his powers, Peter parlayed that science acumen into upgrades for his Spider-suit, like web-shooters, web fluid, web wings, and spider-tracers. One of the big complaints levied against Homecoming is that the technologically enhanced suit Peter receives from Tony in Civil War strips away Peter’s ingenuity and fundamentally alters his character. While I do agree with the assessment that Peter doesn’t need a fancy, gadget-laden costume with an on-board AI, and would have enjoyed the film just as much if he didn’t have it, its presence doesn’t really change a thing about who Peter is or what he can do. Batman becoming a xenophobic, rage-fueled murderer; Superman spending all his screen time scowling, brooding, and wallowing in self-doubt – these are fundamental alterations to beloved characters.
To offset the impact of the tech-suit and show the audience Peter is still Peter, Spider-Man: Homecoming nicely peppers in scenes of Peter putting his inventiveness and science skills to use, whether its mixing up a batch of web fluid in chemistry class, answering a tough physics question with ease, or tinkering with some stolen alien tech in the engineering shop. We also see Peter (with the help of his trusty pal, Ned) “crack” the suit itself, removing its built-in tracker and unlocking the advanced features, like the on-board AI voiced by Jennifer Connelly. When Peter is locked inside a heavily fortified Avengers warehouse, there’s nothing the suit can do by itself to get him out; his resourcefulness saves the day when he uses the suit in conjunction with his jury-rigged scientific calculator to “pick” the door mechanism.
It’s important to note that the suit doesn’t control or enhance any of Peter’s iconic abilities, such as acrobatics, web-slinging, wall-crawling, or spider-sense. (Yes, though it’s downplayed heavily, he still has spider-sense.) The drone, web-wings, and spider-tracers are things Peter has used in the comics throughout the decades, so those shouldn’t be cause for an uproar. Also, more often than not, the advanced tech in the costume is a hindrance to Peter’s natural instincts: the parachute feature nearly kills him and the overwhelming amount of webshooter combinations botch a stealth mission to stop one of the Vulture’s gang’s arms deals. Just about the only thing left in the film that can be legitimately critiqued about the suit is the aid “Karen” provides Peter, which isn’t much more than what he could have done on his own with an iPhone.
Of course, in the end, Peter proves that a costume is nothing without the true hero inside it, as he bravely leaps into the final conflict with the Vulture in his homemade Spidey get-up. His plea to Stark that “he’s nothing without the suit” becomes a lesson learned, and a touchstone to some personal growth. I had predicted before the film came out that Peter would realize he didn’t need Tony Stark or his technology to be a great superhero, and I was partially correct. Peter turned down his chance to be an Avenger (with an even shinier suit!), but Stark gifted him the Civil War suit anyway. Hopefully we see Peter cutting himself off from Tony’s influence completely and using his own skills to hack and modify the costume so it’s truly something that belongs to him.
Tony Stark Is A Means To An End For Peter
Finally, we come to the big sticking point the Homecoming dissenters have – that damned screen-hogging interloper, Tony Stark! He’s a surrogate Uncle Ben! He’s completely changed Peter’s motivations! Peter just wants to be like Tony and be Iron Man, Jr.! He’s in way too much of the movie! It’s Iron Man 4!
Whoa, slow your roll, folks. Pretty much none of that is true. Well, except for maybe Peter wanting to be like Tony. But, there are deeper reasons for that particular motivation. Have you stopped to ask yourselves *why* Peter wants to be like Tony? It’s not because Tony Stark has money, and flashy cars, and hot women, and jets, and buildings (well, not entirely why. I mean, let’s face it, Peter’s a 15-year-old). No, it’s because he’s a big-time hero who gets to protect humanity from massive, world-ending threats; he’s able to help people on a scale that Peter can only imagine as he’s stuck stopping bike thieves on the streets of Queens. The Avengers and Tony are a means to an end for Peter – he feels that if he can become an Avenger, he can honor his Uncle more and put to better use his “With Great Power…” philosophy.
Tony’s voice echoing in Peter’s head when he is trapped under the rubble in the Vulture’s headquarters is the only moment in Homecoming where Stark’s presence is distracting and tone-deaf. I honestly wish that wasn’t there; it’s unnecessary, and diminishes a powerful homage to a sequence in Amazing Spider-Man #33. That being said, I don’t feel “being like Tony” or “trying to impress” Tony plays into any of the truly difficult choices Peter is faced with in the film. He certainly doesn’t have the Avengers on his mind when he’s trying to rescue his crush, Liz and the rest of his classmates from the elevator during the breathtaking Washington Monument scene, or when he makes the gut-wrenching decision to leave Liz at the Homecoming Dance to stop her father and essentially bring pain and ruin to her life. These choices are simply the right things to do; they are Peter’s responsibility.
In the end, Iron Man’s role in Homecoming really accomplishes two things – it brings Spider-Man into the MCU fold, and helps Peter realize he needs to slow down and remain a more street-level hero. Neither of those elements undercut or outshine the moral core Uncle Ben imparted to Peter. In fact, I would argue Tony’s presence in Peter’s life only reinforces how important Uncle Ben is to him and his overall mission as Spider-Man. It’s easy to get caught up and make knee-jerk reactions based simply on what the text of a film provides you, but movies are more than what’s presented on the surface-level – you have to dig deeper and watch with your heart as much as your eyes. And there’s no bigger heart in a superhero than Spider-Man’s.