Oh, I can feel it now. The hot breath of Marvelites everywhere on my neck. In the midnight wind, the distant echoes of “you’re just a butthurt DC fanboy” and “Did you see the Rotten Tomatoes score?”. Now allow me to clarify something. I enjoyed Spider-Man: Homecoming for what it was: a fun, upbeat mini coming-of-age superhero flick. I can acknowledge the merit of its comedic timing, Michael Keaton’s magnetic role and maybe even admire some of the creative liberties taken on Parker’s family and friends. That being said, what I saw on screen was a far cry of the Spider-Man/Peter Parker that I’ve come to know and love from comics, TV series and films. As I was leaving the cinema post-view, I just felt quite hollow about the whole experience. I wasn’t too sure of his appearance in Civil War, it raised some concerns about the direction the character was heading towards and Homecoming only confirmed it.
If you have been following my write-ups in the past, you’d know that I can be somewhat of a purist when it comes to pop culture. Prone to be pretentious and inclined to go against the curve wherever normalcy rears its ordinarily ugly head. But I’ll never write or say something I didn’t honestly believe in or without a reason either. So if you’re still here and not sharpening your pitchforks or lighting your touches, then allow me to explain to you why I think Disney’s very own Peter Parker might be the worst rendition of Spider-Man.
Spider-Man Swings Solo
A defining trait of Spider-Man across most traditional depictions of the character on media is his unwavering dedication to doing it alone. In fact, I’d argue it’s what really makes him special. That in a world of gods, heavily armed geniuses, alien pirates and cosmic entities, he knows squarely where he lands on the grid. He’s not somebody who would ever chase after fame or acclaim but rather he’s the living embodiment of the Good Samaritan idea. He grew up in the streets of New York, well aware of heartbreak and loss and that’s where he feels he can do the most. He sticks up for the little guy. And that makes him unequivocally, uniquely Spider-Man. Here, on the other hand, he’s a freaking Avengers fanboy from start to finish!
When he made his debut in Civil War, I had high hopes for how Spidey would turn out on the big screen but as time went on, it quickly diminished. He’s constantly geeking out about the various heroes he’s fighting alongside, and against to an almost asinine level. Note, what he says aren’t quips or light-hearted jabs at the folks he’s combating, they are quite literally compliments. Right as he enters the battle, he already begins pandering to Stark, excessively thanking him for the suit. No less than 10 seconds later, he proceeds to do the same for Captain America, WHOSE ON THE OPPOSING TEAM. It just doesn’t stop with this guy as he continues doing this with everyone from Bucky to Falcon before doubling back on Cap again!
And when he’s not pandering, he’s doing Disney’s signature form of humour: bathos. In which characters overtalk or unnecessarily comment on a dire situation for the sake of laughs. Among all the heroes that have been guilty of this, he’s the most egregious offender. The guy doesn’t really make any real jabs or jokes, just a ton references. What I think best summarizes his problem is his lack of introspection and purpose. It’s aptly summed up in a scene when he fights with Cap and when questioned about why he’s doing this he naively answers that Stark told him that Cap thinks he’s right when he’s wrong and that makes him dangerous. He says nothing about his beliefs or ideologies that drive his actions, hiding squarely behind Tony’s.
It seems like the worth of the MCU’s Spider-Man is defined by the utility he serves to the bigger names around him. The beauty of Spider-Man is that he doesn’t need anyone’s affirmation just as long as he knows he’s doing the right thing. Beyond Civil War and right down to Infinity War, he’s constantly being defined by the larger forces around him. He might have quit joining Stark in Homecoming and in essence defying his mentor but the motivation to do so is derived from Stark himself. Thus, making his journey more of a byproduct of Tony’s ideas and plans than of his own independent decisions. In Infinity War, this issue is further aggravated when Parker gladly takes up his newly knighted role as an Avenger when appointed by Stark. This negates any of the meaningful character growth he had from the previous film! In spite of the fact that the Wall Crawler can swing from the highest towers, he can’t seem to get out Tony’s shadow.
No Pain, No Gain
Admittedly, I do think Disney’s decision to omit the entire origin story behind Peter Parker becoming Spider-Man should be applauded. Next to the reveal of Darth Vader being Luke’s father, Parker’s story is one of the most well-known out there. So catching him midway into his vigilante days was a smart choice. Kudos on that. However, Disney may have taken it a little too far by severely altering Peter’s past and present. These alterations have removed a core theme that every cinematic version of Spider-Man, from Maguire to Garfield, has had: great adversity.
2002’s Spider-Man and 2004’s Spider-Man 2 are excellent cases in which the films nail the theme of the character. In the first film, we see him wrestle through the temptation of power and despair of guilt to save the ones he loves. The second one (the best Spider-Man so far in my opinion) sees him rising above his inadequacy, both physically and emotionally, to become the hero he was meant to be. Both of them had stakes. Both of them tackled nuanced issues and complex characters. Both of them still had moments of laughter and levity but fans of the webslinger have always known that Peter uses humour to mask his pain. In many ways, it’s his defense mechanism.
Even Andrew Garfield’s run in The Amazing Spider-Man understood this tension between hardship and humour. He isn’t just a carefree kid with powers screwing around, the guy has seen some shit. There’s a powerful scene when Flash, his bully, approaches him in an attempt to offer his condolences and Peter just flips out! Grabbing him by the collar and raising him above the lockers. He’s full rage and grief at the tragedy and he’s just so tempted to take it out on someone. Someone who he feels deserves it but then he gets the better of himself and leaves with tears in his eyes. Now that’s the kind of pathos you want to see in your Spider-Man. Note, he isn’t all dark and brooding in this one. He’s actually pretty funny but the film knew when to settle down and develop character. It wasn’t rushing to have him meet every Tom, Dick and Hawkeye out there. As awful and crammed as the second instalment was, it still gave some pretty strong feel with him being unable to save Gwen Stacy. That was rough.
Let’s be honest here, MCU Spider-Man hasn’t really faced much adversity. He has a fairly normal upper-middle-class upbringing with a younger, able-bodied Aunt May. Honestly, does she get younger with every subsequent version of Spider-Man? Wouldn’t be surprised if she ends up being a college student in the next one! The death of Uncle Ben doesn’t seem to have affected him much, he has a wealthy benefactor who funds his superhero exploits. His bully is some rich debater dork that I have no doubt he can knock out with one punch. He’s super smart, so he’s not exactly struggling in his grades. So I guess he kinda has girl problems? Even then, that’s pretty small potatoes to what his previous incarnations had to go through. There’s no real loss or trial here. He does lose his suit when Tony Stark confiscates it but that’s just about it. It’s hard for me to relate to his struggles as Spider-Man/Peter Parker when they seem so banal and sanitized. It’s almost as if Disney doesn’t think he can handle real problems. Throughout Homecoming, I was begging for the film to show me something real. Something poignant and moving that would prove me wrong. It never came, not even in Infinity War.
Look, I’m not saying you can’t enjoy MCU Spider-Man or his films. He’s a likeable enough guy who may be suffering from mild ADHD and I do find his exploits entertaining. Unfortunately, it’s hard to derive anything more from him than that. It feels like he was created by execs who ran various market tests and identified what traits would make him most popular with the current Millennial and Gen-Z crowd. Does he have that boy-next-door quirky charm? Check. Does he spout pop-culture references most audience members would catch in a heartbeat? You bet your bottom dollar. Does he score enough nostalgic points that he’ll go well with the older demographics? That’s what his 70’s playlist is for. Will he stand the test of time and not just be another cultural product of the day? It’s too early to say but honestly, I don’t believe he will. He has not yet earned the right to inherit the mantle of power for he has yet to be challenged through the crucible of responsibility.