After five movies, two franchises, one Tobey Maguire, and one Andrew Garfield, Spider-Man is finally coming back to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (or MCU), the same continuity that brought you the Avengers, the Defenders, the Guardians of the Galaxy, and the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. “Spider-Man: Homecoming” opens in theaters on July 7, starring Tom Holland with Michael Keaton as feathery supervillain the Vulture. With the good people at Marvel Studios assuring us we won’t have to watch what would have been the third regurgitation of Spider-Man’s origin story in the last 20 years, this movie looks like it has a lot to offer. Holland charmed the pants off of audiences in his “Captain America: Civil War” cameo, Michael Keaton is Michael Keaton (weird), and director Jon Watts can claim the indie-darling “Cop Car” as proof to his skill. (Also, Donald Glover is involved somehow? Why aren’t more people talking about this?) But aside from some teenage hijinks, can we expect anything more than the character-driven explosion-fests that Marvel has gotten so good at churning out?
Yes. Or at least, I hope so.
First of all, it should be noted that, were this a better world, it would be Miles Morales starring in the upcoming Spider-Man movie. In the comics, Peter Parker became the CEO of a multibillion-dollar tech company while possessed by Doctor Octopus (comics are weird), and left patrolling New York City to Miles, who is originally from a parallel universe in which Peter is dead (comics are weird). Aside from being a convenient loophole around rebooting the same character for the third time and a great character in his own right, Miles would also be both the MCU’s first Black and first Latinx superhero to star in a film. That said, there is one aspect of Peter Parker’s identity that should set him apart from the rest of the of the MCU’s cast of frustratingly homogenous white-male leads. Discounting subplots like the Parker Industries one (and continuity usually does, eventually), Spider-Man is poor. And that’s as integral to his character as any permutation of “with great power, comes great responsibility.”
There are other heroes to whom class identity is important. Tony Stark is a genius, but without his billions of dollars he can’t be Iron Man. And there are heroes who were born into poor families. Steve Rogers was nearly homeless before becoming Captain America, but since thawing out in the 21st century, most of Rogers’ working-class background has been relegated to just that: background.
Spider-Man’s lack of financial security affects nearly every aspect of his life. On top of crime-fighting and schoolwork, he has to work as a photographer, selling staged pictures of Spider-Man to his maniacally abusive boss J. Jonah Jameson at the Daily Bugle. Rather than be rewarded for his superheroics, he is forced to exploit them for capital. Most of this money goes into paying for food, rent, or college debts, but some of it has to be directed back into purchasing the fluid he uses to spin webs. Instead of his class-background being an enabler of his powers, it is yet another challenge he must overcome. Spider-Man is the “It’s A Wonderful Life” of superhero franchises; Peter must continue to be a hero despite facing constant economic injustice with no reward aside from the thrill of doing good and the love of his friends.
The specific superhero work Spider-Man does is unique nowadays, too. While stopping robberies and muggings may be an act typically associated with the cape and cowl, very little of it actually happens in MCU movies. Marvel shows like “Daredevil,” “Jessica Jones,” and “Luke Cage” feature crime-fighting, but most big-screen superheroes spend most of their time saving the world from unspeakable evils rather than protecting pedestrians. This is important work, to be sure, but the more these characters are re-framed from street vigilantes to champions of mankind, the more like soldiers—and less like heroes—they appear.
One of the first things Tony Stark does as Iron Man is kill terrorists. Captain America may carry a shield, but he has no qualms with using a gun. In “Winter Soldier,” fellow superhero Sam Wilson asks how to distinguish the bad guys in a firefight. Captain America answers: “If they’re shooting at you, they’re bad.” After Doctor Strange expresses distress over killing because of his adherence to the Hippocratic Oath, his mentor figure (the already groan-worthy “Ancient One”) tells him: “You want to go back to the delusion that you can control anything, even death.” Equating the philosophy of do-no-harm with egotism sounds eerily supervillainous, but Strange buys every word.
I’m not here to unilaterally condemn violent resistance, but it has become the rule rather than the exception in a genre that used to be defined by its idealism. More and more, superhero movies feature a massive loss of life in the name of the greater good. Even when the victims are mindless aliens, robots, or dark elves (movies are weird), the viewing experience becomes less about saving lives and more about destroying a threat. I don’t think it’s radical to suggest that the ways in which we react to mayhem on screen are connected to the ways in which we react to it in real life. When I watch the Hulk punch a giant space-snake into a row of skyscrapers, I don’t think about the innocent people in those skyscrapers, I think about how much the Hulk just owned that giant space-snake. When the U.S. fires 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian airbase, Brian Williams calls it “beautiful.”
One of the greatest scenes in superhero history is in “Spider-Man 2,” when Doctor Octopus sabotages the R train in an attempt to distract Spider-Man so he can escape. Spider-Man is able to save the passengers, but he loses his mask, passes out, and almost falls to his death. The subway riders pull him to safety, and he regains consciousness greeted by the faces of all the people whose lives he’s just saved. It’s the film’s most heartfelt victory, and it begins with the bad guy getting away. The emphasis is placed on the protection of innocent life rather than the extermination of evil. These kinds of scenes aren’t entirely absent from other franchises, but they’re more frequent in Spider-Man, and more personal, too. Spider-Man is a New Yorker, and the people he saves are New Yorkers, too.
Peter Parker doesn’t have Iron Man’s suit, or Thor’s hammer, or even a gun, because he doesn’t need them. He doesn’t need to save Earth from alien invasions, he needs to save New York from a villain in a goblin costume, or the life of a child dangling off the edge of the Williamsburg bridge. He isn’t a billionaire, or a sorcerer supreme, or some champion of mankind. He’s a working-class kid from Queens, doing his best to do good in an unfair world. He’s our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. Let’s hope he stays that way.