Spider-Man Homecoming story

It starts with young Bruce Wayne’s parents gunned down in the streets. Or Tony Stark kidnapped by terrorists wielding his own weaponry. Or Doctor Strange destroying his life-saving hands in a car wreck. Or a radioactive spider bite followed by a deadly moment of apathy.

Then it’s all about discovery. Awkwardly wielding new powers and new priorities. You get a Rocky-style montage, and maybe you sew your own suit. Wayne gets some wonderful toys and becomes Batman. Stark changes his company’s entire focus and becomes Iron Man. Strange seeks enlightenment and becomes a Sorcerer.

All the while, the villain is amassing allies and formulating the big plan, and when they unleash the CGI-fueled terror on the innocent people of the city/country/world, the newly-confident hero, forged out of their own suffering, is there to save the day.

This is the formula. Trauma, training, triumph. And Spider-Man: Homecoming messes with that formula. Major spoilers follow.

His Own Worst Enemy

It’s largely the product of needing to leave the Uncle Ben origin story behind, not only because displaying it for a third time in 15 years would have been head-slappingly dumb, but because the MCU timeline demanded that Tom Holland’s Peter Parker already be beyond it. As a result, we get an introductory film that doesn’t include the standard introduction, and instead of a talented person struggling with their incipient abilities and responsibilities, we get a Spider-Man who is told consistently (by Stark, Happy Hogan, and common sense) to stop trying to be a superhero.

He has no trauma that launches him into the world of fighting crime in this film. In fact, he returns to New York City’s bike-thief-riddled avenues fresh from slapping Captain America in Civil War. He’s on a high, ready to make a bigger impact.

Instead of getting a training montage to test the limits of his supernatural skills and his sweet new suit, the entirety of Homecoming is a feature-length exploration of Peter’s refusal to stay grounded and do the homework necessary to get the most out of his talents. When he tracks down the hijacked Department of Damage Control (nice shade at your co-producers, Marvel) truck, he illustrates the very cost of not training as he gets tangled in his own webs and gets his consciousness knocked out of him by Michael Keaton’s Vulture.

As a bonus, both the Washington Monument disaster that almost kills his friends and the near-sinking of the State Island Ferry that almost kills innocents are caused – not by a diabolical foe offering an impossible moral choice – but by Peter himself.

Spider-Man 2 Train spider-man-homecoming-webbing-ferry

The Ferry sequence echoes the Green Goblin simultaneously dropping Mary Jane and a Roosevelt Island tram full of children in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, as well as the visual of Spider-Man being torn, arms out like Christ, saving the R train in Spider-Man 2, but it’s an inversion of both of those moments. Spider-Man is the cause and failed savior of the destruction. Iron Man has to clean up the mess.

Stark also takes Peter’s super suit away, impressing, “If you’re nothing without this suit, then you shouldn’t have it.” Where almost every superhero story follows the formula of giving the hero something to fight for, the tools to fight, and someone to fight against, the reasons for Peter’s desire to swing into action aren’t clear for most of Homecoming. Following his fanboy documentation of the events of Civil War, his clearest reason for wanting to fight crime is that it seems cool.

Inverting the Expected

Oddly enough, it’s Adrian Toomes (Keaton), ostensibly the villain of the movie, who gets the standard superhero arc. His story starts with a trauma that gives his life new meaning (his salvage business and workers threatened with bankruptcy by Stark’s D.O.D.C. swooping in to overtake the job of cleaning up Battle of New York wreckage), continues with newfound abilities and training (the Chitauri weapons that give him a thriving business and a sweetly terrifying suit), and culminates in an opportunity to safeguard his family and friends’ futures (by facing Spider-Man and stealing advanced gear from the Avengers). While Peter’s arc inverts the typical superhero formula, Vulture’s presence completely subverts it – offering the most sympathetic villain in MCU history. Peter’s mentor and foe both made their money by selling weapons to bad guys, both fly in metal suits, and both have a lot of wisdom to offer.

In leaving Uncle Ben behind, Spider-Man: Homecoming also takes on the structure of a sequel – the standard story for which usually entails challenging the established hero to balance their real lives and their dangerous hobbies. The cost of getting that balance wrong is always doubled: close friends and loved ones are put in danger by psychotic baddies, and normal life events get discarded when duty calls. Here, again, Homecoming shrugs off the usual tropes by showing Peter’s “normal” life carrying on fine without him. In the tired version of this movie, Spider-Man would have saved his pals at the Washington Monument only for Peter to be dismissively harangued by those same friends for missing the Academic Decathlon and making them lose it. Instead, they win without him.

Quitting all his school clubs doesn’t seem to bother Peter much, either. Aunt May seems fine that he’s gone all the time for his “internship.” Only Ned seems irritated when Peter flakes on him to go fight crime, but that’s solely because they were planning to exploit Spider-Man to gain cool points at a poorly-DJed high school party.

It’s only when Peter loses the suit (arguably his traumatic event that makes him re-think why he wants to fight crime) that he offers himself the possibility of going with Liz to the homecoming dance. In a bit of perfect plotting, it’s this moment that the universe puts him back on the path toward becoming a true hero. And he has to do it all without the suit.

The final inversion of the standard superhero story comes when Peter is offered a spot on the Avengers team, complete with press conference fanfare (a twist on the end of Iron Man where Stark proclaims his super-identity for the whole world).

At the end of the typical superhero movie, Batman or Iron Man or Wonder Woman look confidently into a future of facing supervillains, their status as a big league savior confirmed and established, the city awaiting their protection down below.

But Peter refuses to join those ranks. It’s fitting for his path and for Homecoming‘s trope inversion that he reject the opportunity to “become a superhero,” since his obsession with doing so has cost him at every turn so far. He’s gained the maturity to know that he still has growing up to do. His appreciative pass suggests that he’ll return to Queens to stay a friendly neighborhood hero. No fanfare required.

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