Well, the results are in and Spider-Man: Homecoming, the newest addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is a critical success. Since its release on July 7, the film has raked in nearly $300 million domestically and has received the seal of approval from serious critics and Spidey fanboys (and girls) alike. It's a solid, entertaining movie that manages to be a refreshing new take in a cinematic universe that's admittedly starting to stale. But for all the ways the film is a step forward for Marvel, there's one area where the studio has once again fallen short.
The women have nothing to do.
Now, don't get me wrong. Spider-Man does at least have more than one female character -- two of whom are intelligent, independent, and non-white. These women all ostensibly have personalities and lives outside of their relationship to Peter. Perhaps most remarkably, not one of them is ever made a damsel in distress. But for some reason, because the movie works hard to make sure these women don't fall into unfortunate tropes, it also has no idea what it's supposed to do with them.
Let's start with Liz, the love interest of the movie. Liz is a senior girl in Peter's nerdy high school full of overachievers. She's the captain of their academic decathlon team, the head of the homecoming committee, and, naturally, the most gorgeous girl in school. Very little of that, though, is used to make her interesting or to propel her story along. In fact, for the most part, Liz is used to endear us to Peter. Her interest in being a good team captain isn't so much about her wanting to be a good leader but about the fact that Peter likes that she wants to be a good leader. It's about giving him a reason to feel bad about flaking out on the team and therefore making us understand that he's the kind of kid who goes to fight the bad guys even though it means giving up the girl.
This is compounded later, when, in the third act turn, you discover that Liz is the Vulture's daughter. Peter, once again, makes the decision to let down the girl in order to save the day. Her entire purpose in those scenes is to be the thing he walks away from in order to be the hero.
The turn itself is a big moment in the film. It's the spot where everyone gasps as Michael Keaton opens the door for Peter and everything immediately becomes tense and foreboding. But while the reveal was great, you also lose something in not exploring this family further. Vulture's whole pathology is about seeing himself as a working-class hero. He's doing all of this, breaking the law, building and selling high-tech weapons, becoming a literal supervillain, in order to give his family the life he believes they deserve. And with a family -- or at least a family member -- acting as the connective tissue between Vulture and Peter, why is it that we don't spend any time with them? Why don't we get to see Liz discovering the true nature of her father's job? Why doesn't she get the opportunity to confront him, to be the thing that makes him rethink what he's doing? It's admirable that the movie doesn't make her an object used to threaten Peter or a hostage to keep him from stopping the villain's master plan, but it also seems like, in the attempt to avoid putting her in that sort of position, the filmmakers no longer knew what to do with her.
Then again, at least Liz has some bearing on the plot, even if it's just to be someone's daughter. Michelle never really manages to pull herself out of the scenery. She has all the makings of a fun, interesting, unique character. She's smart -- she spends the whole movie reading books like Of Human Bondage -- and very very funny, but in this case, those two attributes really only add up to "human snark machine." She doesn't have a personality so much as a series of quirks, and every scene she's in seems to be there only to make us want to see her in the sequel. This is a character who, while enjoyable, doesn't seem to have a point beyond, once again, the twist in the story. In this case, that's the eventual discovery that Michelle is, in fact, MJ. I guess we'll have to wait for the sequel to see her, you know, do something.
But it's the treatment of Aunt May, probably the most important female character in Peter's life, that really highlights some of the missed opportunities. I actually really like the idea of the younger, hipper Aunt May that Marisa Tomei is attempting to bring us. That personality, the fun, laid-back surrogate parent who worries that her nephew isn't fitting in or having enough fun or being enough of a kid does appear throughout the film, endearing us to this character. But it so rarely goes beyond that, never really delves into the deeper, more heartfelt parts of their relationship, even though it seems like it wants to.
There are two moments in particular that really highlight what they could have done with the May/Peter relationship. Early on, right after Peter's failed attempt to thwart the bank robbers, May sees the event on the news and tells Peter that "if you ever see something like that happening, you run the other way." Then, much later, after Peter's even more ill-fated attempt to stop an arms deal on the Staten Island Ferry results in near death for everyone involved, Peter comes home to an extremely worried May upset with him for not answering his phone all afternoon.
We are led to believe that, despite her "fun aunt" demeanor, May is a worrier, secretly concerned about her nephew all the time but trying not to let it get in the way of their lives. There's a split-second piece of dialogue where Peter tells his friend Ned that he doesn't want May to know about his web-slinging alter ego because of how she would react after "everything that's happened," but we never really get to talk about what "everything" is. The implication, of course, is that May has been a little traumatized by the death of her husband, Peter's Uncle Ben, who was presumably killed in a random shooting on the streets of New York not long before the events of this film.
No one wanted to watch Spider-Man's origin again. When this film was announced, everyone expressed concerns that we would once again be subjected to the image of Uncle Ben bleeding out in the street. The filmmakers promised they would not go there, that this would be a Spider-Man fully realized, having moved past that tragic moment, and they delivered. But just because we didn't want to see it doesn't mean all mention of the event should be avoided. Ben's death is a formative moment for Peter Parker and, one would think, a huge shared scar for Peter and May, but not once in this movie do they mention it. Not once do they really talk about why May wants her nephew to avoid being a hero or why she goes from cool aunt to neurotic mother when he won't answer his phone.
It has been revealed by Tomei herself that an earlier version of the script included a scene in which Peter witnesses his aunt save a little girl despite her fear and then brush it off later at home. This is a family marred by so much tragedy, and yet both Peter and May are full of love and compassion and a desire to help people, but instead of letting them talk about it, instead of allowing that relationship to be the emotional core of the film, we get a makeover montage.
There will be a Spider-Man 2 at some point in the MCU's long and storied future. One can only hope that at some point in that film the female characters get a chance to step out of the background.