By Samantha English and Olivia Funderburg
Content warning: implication of anxiety and claustrophobia
Disclaimer: If you haven’t seen Spider-Man: Homecoming or Captain America: Civil War, read with caution.
We’re going to tell you a story. It goes like this.
Two Wellesley English majors lived together in Manhattan this summer, lucky enough to have landed internships at publishing houses. One worked on teen novels, the other on academic textbooks. They lived down the street from one of the most famous bookstores and comic book stores in the United States—the Strand and Forbidden Planet. One met Lorde; one talked about British birds. They both self-identify as nerds and they both tend to fall in love fast.
As they have been for the last ten summers or so, Marvel Comics released a movie for their complicated and vast Cinematic Universe, this time about a nerdy teen superhero who dumpster-dives and can’t seem to stay close to the ground.
Yeah. You see where this is going.
Olivia: Hey, do you want to see Spider-Man this weekend?
Sam: Sure! I love the old Spider-Man movies! I’m not really familiar with other Marvel stuff though. Olivia: Wait, what?
The original Spider-Man was created in 1962 by Stan Lee, who had noticed a rise in teen comic book readers and a lack of teen comic book characters. Most Marvel characters were adults at the time—take, for instance, Iron Man and Captain America, who both have origin stories linked to war even if their comics were written with a young audience in mind. Lee wanted a teen character that young people could identify with. He created Peter Parker, a fifteen-year-old New Yorker who loved science, was the victim of high school bullying, and, because of a radioactive spider-bite, spent his after-school hours protecting people on the streets of Queens in a mask and spandex.
As a character, Peter Parker resembles the traditional comic consumer: a nerd, who was small and somewhat scared but still brave; a young man who simply wanted to help people. Spider-Man was still a boy, and even as he became older and more mature, he kept his childlike charm and the masked identity that protected him, showing that an ordinary kid from the city can be a superhero. He was, naturally, a huge success, and to this day is probably Marvel’s most famous character.
Of course, the teenager of the 1960s and the teenager of today are vastly different creatures. Spider-Man, like most comic book characters, is constantly evolving. We’ve already seen two different runs of Spider-Man movies, and though both runs were successful, they failed to use the youthfulness of Peter Parker effectively. Both actors were too old to play a teenage character; both series of movies took up relatively dark and mature storylines; and both landscapes failed to understand the original realities of Peter Parker’s life and the social atmospheres of current urban high schools.
When Marvel decided to incorporate the character of Spider-Man into the complex, multi-character, multimillion-dollar Cinematic Universe, the company finally took Peter Parker back to his roots.
Olivia, walking out of the movie theater on 3rd Avenue: Oh my god—
Sam, behind her: That was—
Olivia: The best movie—
A brief biography of Peter Parker: Peter lives with his Aunt May and Uncle Ben, who became his guardians after his parents died when he was an infant. During high school, soon after Peter becomes Spider-Man, Ben gives him a talk about how, “with great power, comes great responsibility.” Then Uncle Ben is killed by a robber—a robber who Peter previously had a chance to apprehend. This is a teen with a lot on his plate.
Spider-Man: Homecoming doesn’t actually mention Ben Parker, even though he’s essential to Peter’s superhero identity. Instead, this new Spider-Man movie includes Ben’s emotional presence without making comic book fans relive his death. In Captain America: Civil War, which briefly introduces Peter to the MCU (required viewing before you watch Spider-Man), Peter explains to billionaire Tony Stark that he’s Spider-Man because, “When you can do the things I can, but you don’t, and then the bad things happen, they happen because of you.” Peter’s acknowledgement of his power as a superhero comes from Ben, who never knew Peter acquired super-human abilities but still teaches him an age-old mantra of duty and diligence.
This Peter still carries Ben’s lesson—and his loss. He worries about his Aunt May: she can’t know that he’s Spider-Man because he “can’t do this to her right now.” May worries about Peter too, encouraging him to “have fun!” at a house party in the suburbs. However, through all of this anxiety and pain, the new Peter Parker remains kidlike, and his movie is fun. Tom Holland, now twenty-one, looks young enough to believably be a fifteen year-old, and he approached the role thinking first of Peter as a kid. He gives us a version of Peter Parker who is a normal teenager, so in awe of his idol Tony Stark appearing in his living room that he doesn’t register the fact that Tony has a black eye.
Peter and his best friend Ned have weird selfies as their contact photos, and they build Lego Star Wars sets even as the girls nearby call them “lame.” Peter trips over his words when he’s nervous, clumsily changes into his Spider-Man suit in a not-very-discreet alleyway, and his most used line is some variant of “That’s awesome!” His genuine character and innocence make him incredibly lovable, an aspect of Peter that is essential in his history as the child of the Marvel comics that, in many ways, was destroyed in the earlier film portrayals of the character.
Sam, as Peter: I wish Mr. Stark would stop treating me like a kid!
Olivia, as Ned: But you are a kid.
Sam, as Peter: Yeah, a kid who can stop a bus with his bare hands!
Random girl outside the elevator: Are you guys talking about Spider-Man?
Spider-Man: Homecoming is perhaps most successful in its portrayal of contemporary city youth. Peter attends the Midtown School of Science and Technology, where Jon Watts and Marvel present us with what feels like a genuine portrait of an urban high school. As Peter arrives at school via the MTA subway, he passes a diverse array of students—some who carry complex science projects and some who carry huge textbooks, some in ROTC uniforms and some in hijabs, some in denim mini skirts and some in leather jackets. Midtown Science reflects the reality of test-entrance public schools in major cities like New York and Chicago, where students who are lucky enough to get a seat come from a multitude of neighborhoods and backgrounds. These selective city high schools are incredibly different from the high schools of the 1980s or even suburban high schools today—because most students are intellectually curious and they come from a variety of backgrounds, their classroom experience and their system of social capital are intensely distinct. Homecoming acknowledges Peter’s locality, making his character more believable and relatable to the 21st-century student of the city. He’s not just a student at any given school, he’s a student at a school full of ambitious kids.
Peter’s social circle at Midtown High further reflects the diversity of urban life. Among his friends (mostly students on the academic decathlon team), Peter is one of two white kids. Ned, self-appointed “guy in the chair,” is played by Jacob Batalon, a Filipino-American. Zendaya and Liz Harrier play Michelle and Liz, two young black women. Peter’s bully, Flash Thompson, traditionally cast as the caricature white football player of the 70s and 80s, is portrayed by Guatemalan-American Tony Revolori. Marvel’s attempt to diversify its teenage movie offers a consideration of the franchise’s cinematic future. While Marvel’s comic books have continually become more diverse, showcasing characters like Muslim-American Kamala Khan as Ms. Marvel or Latin-American America Chavez as Miss America, and producing a new Black Panther written by Ta-Nehisi Coates, their movies have continued to largely feature white men.
Though its protagonist is a white guy, Homecoming anticipates the inclusion of non-white and non-male characters in Marvel movies to come. Nowhere is this promise clearer in the film than through the appearance of Donald Glover as Aaron Davis, a young black man who offers Peter advice about how to be a better superhero. Hardcore fans will recognize Davis as the uncle of Miles Morales, a young teen of African-American and Puerto Rican descent who takes on the role of Spider-Man in his own series. Davis hints that Miles might later appear in the new Spider-Man films, which would hit some of the goals for more inclusive family and children’s media.
Olivia, in the now-closed Union Square American Eagle (RIP): Should I buy this jacket?
Sam: It looks just like Michelle’s, so, yes.
Still, Homecoming itself portrays complex and diverse characters, even if it does it limitedly. If you have seen the film, you may have left the movie theater with a greater appreciation for actress and activist Zendaya. Zendaya’s Michelle is a scene stealer: she reads a book even in gym class, she eats toast at a house party, she doesn’t go up in the Washington Monument with the decathlon team because she’d “rather not celebrate something that was built by slaves,” and she goes to detention because she likes drawing people in crisis. She describes herself as having no friends, but she sits at the end of Peter and Ned’s lunch table every day. She knows that Peter’s already quit marching band and robotics lab, but she’s “not obsessed with him, just very observant.”
In a rare vulnerable moment, Michelle answers the winning question at Nationals, and the rest of the team jumps on her, prompting a small smile. After Liz’s departure, Michelle is named captain of the academic decathlon team and she asks everyone to call her MJ. She knows who she is, army green jacket, slightly messy hair and all. Though Michelle is not Mary-Jane Watson, she will probably be this Peter’s love interest: a young woman of contemporary America who is socially-aware, bookish, and unapologetically weird.
Olivia: You’ve seen The Avengers, right?
Sam: No, I told you, I’ve only seen Iron Man 3!
Olivia: What?! But that’s, like, THE movie.
Olivia, ten minutes later: You’ve seen The Avengers, right?
Sam: I just told you I haven’t!
The title Spider-Man: Homecoming has a couple very obvious meanings. Spider-Man has come home to the Marvel screen—the song that plays before his Civil War introduction talks about the return of a prodigal son—and Peter goes to his sophomore year homecoming dance. Homecoming indeed is not an origin story, but it’s still a story of Peter becoming Spider-Man, and, more importantly, it’s a story of Peter becoming Peter. Director Jon Watts notes that Peter likes being Spider-Man, but he doesn’t always like being Peter Parker. Spider-Man is Peter’s escape. “Finally,” he sighs in relief once he’s got the suit on—not only can he can see, hear, breathe easier (because, since the spider-bite, his senses have been “dialed to eleven”) but he gets to be a superhero instead of being an insecure high school student. Peter and Spider-Man are separate personas, and each needs the other.
During the film’s big confrontation sequence, Peter is nearly crushed by a collapsed building, unable to breathe, and barely able to call for help. No one is around, leading him to call on himself: “Come on Peter! Come on Spider-Man!” Though less obvious, this is his real homecoming. After swinging high above the city, Peter returns to earth, quite literally, trapped under tons of concrete. With the help of his super strength and a whole lot of guts, Peter manages to free himself. He is, after all, Spider-Man.
When Homecoming opens, Peter wants to be an Avenger, asking eagerly when their next mission will be, but by the end, when Tony offers him an extra fancy suit and a spot on the team, he turns him down, opting to “stay close to the ground.” Peter heads back to Queens where he belongs, both as a teenager and as a superhero whose mission is to “look out for the little guy.” The smiling boy we see outside of the Avengers facility upstate has found something—his confidence, a support system, himself.
Being a superhero is a lot to carry alone, and the film closes with the ultimate clashing of worlds. Peter, having saved the day, gets his suit back from Tony, and doesn't go up to the roof or even close his bedroom door before putting it on, because he's an excited kid who just got his super suit back. Aunt May appears in the doorway: “What the f—”
Cut to the credits, and we’re left not knowing exactly what happens next, but secure in the knowledge that now there’s one more person looking out for Spider-Man.
Sam, turns to Olivia, in the dark at approximately midnight: I just…really love Peter Parker.
Olivia, probably on the verge of tears: Same.
From September 2017 issue