Some fans can sprint into just about any superhero movie with an enthusiasm that I don’t think I’ll ever match. I see them all, of course, but I kinda marvel at my friends who are willing to hit the opening night screenings for each and every one of these films, if not out of love, then at least out of an intense desire to see whether the latest comic book project can actually work on the big screen or not.
At least once a year, the entertainment blogs of the internet see a rash of thinkpieces about “superhero fatigue,” theorizing that any minute now the bubble’s gonna burst and superheroes will cease to be the conquering cinematic juggernaut they are now. I usually shrug when I see those things, but this year – as we headed into our sixth Spider-Man film starring our third Spider-Man in 15 years – I started to see their point, if only just a little bit.
Don’t get me wrong, I was absolutely going to be in that theater, but the idea that Spider-Man has been hammered into the ground on the big screen in this century is an attractive one to many superhero media critics for a reason. Even Superman’s only been in three live-action films starring two different actors in that timespan, and while Wolverine’s been in more films, at least there we had Hugh Jackman providing some consistency. But we’re not here to discuss the logistics of the reboots and the recastings that brought us to where we are now. The point is: I was finding it very hard to get excited about Spider-Man: Homecoming.
Then I saw the film, and things were going well. Tom Holland is charming, Michael Keaton is appropriately nasty, Peter’s classmates were all fun. I laughed, I got invested in the plot, but as Homecoming went on, I didn’t feel like I loved it. It wasn't sweeping me off my feet the same way as The Avengers or Guardians of the Galaxy, or even Spider-Man 2 all those years ago.
Then the moment happened.
You know the one, or if you don’t, you at least may know that a good portion of the nerd internet has been talking about it since the film's release. Peter leaves the Homecoming dance, chases down the Vulture at a mostly empty hideout, and confronts him. Vulture calmly tries to talk him down, but his monologue was a ruse to give him enough time to get his wings flying. The wings cut all of the pillars around the room to shreds, sending a large chunk of roof and other machinery crashing down onto Peter’s head. Alone and desperate, Peter has no choice but to summon all of his Spider-strength and save himself.
The moment is a reference to Amazing Spider-Man #33 by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, in which Doctor Octopus traps Spidey in a similar predicament and forces a similar build-up of strength and determination. The context is different – in the comic book Peter is fighting to save Aunt May’s life in this moment – but the intention is in many ways the same: take this young and relatively inexperienced hero, put him in a seemingly impossible situation, and watch him prove just how Amazing he really is.
In both cases, it works magnificently.
In the case of the original, it’s a climactic moment in one of the best Marvel comics ever published, so you could argue that I enjoy the film version largely because I recognize and recall what it’s referencing. You could be right, I suppose, but that doesn’t change the goosebumps that broke out for me both times I’ve seen the film so far. That was the moment I was no longer worried about enjoying this movie or this incarnation of Spider-Man. I was, and am, totally hooked for however many Tom Holland adventures Marvel wants to throw at me.
Why? Well, because that moment transforms the film version of Peter Parker, and leaving out his origin story means it is the defining transformative moment for this version of the character. The Spider-Man of Homecoming is a kid who, while he certainly has more serious motivations, still just gets a kick out of being a superhero. He’s obviously capable of taking things seriously, as his pursuit of the Vulture's high-tech weapons ring proves, but he’s also still doing flips on cue for the guy at the hot dog stand and involving himself in little neighborhood issues. Even when he first encounters the Vulture and almost drowns, he’s more concerned about arguing with Iron Man than he is about reflecting on the fact that he very nearly died. So Tony takes away his high-tech suit, tells him to lay off the big superhero jobs, and just go home.
Peter doesn’t listen. He drags out his old low-tech suit and goes after Vulture anyway, only to become trapped under all that rubble. And that’s when it all comes together for this version of Peter Parker.
When we first met him in Captain America: Civil War, Peter told Tony, without explicitly mentioning his Uncle Ben, that he feels an obligation to help people, because if bad things happen while he does nothing, it’s like they’re his fault. So he goes after the Vulture anyway, and when the rubble comes down, Tom Holland gives us his very best. Suddenly, this is not the cocky hero claiming he’s caught the Vulture or fighting with Iron Man over what really matters. This is Peter Parker, a scared kid who thinks he’s going to die.
There’s a reason we fans get really excited whenever filmmakers talk about the importance of keeping Peter Parker in high school. It’s because Spider-Man is, originally and most powerfully, a story about being a teenager. In the heightened reality of superhero comics, everything’s the end of the world, but in the world of your average teenager, everything already felt that way. You get embarrassed by a teacher, you get turned down for a date, you miss a game-winning shot, and suddenly you just want to crawl in a hole and disappear, because it feels like tomorrow won’t come for you. Spider-Man is those two ideas meeting. He’s a superhero and a teenager, and they’re both constantly fending off disaster. If you can write great scenes with that juxtaposition in mind, you’ve got a good Spider-Man story.
In this moment, Peter is the superhero who’s about to lose to the villain, but he’s also the teenage boy who knows his girlfriend’s dad is a huge jerk and he can’t even tell her, and now the dad is going to destroy (metaphorically and otherwise) everything. Those two overwhelming feelings juxtapose, and Peter just breaks, until he sees the two sides of his personality literally reflected before him. He hears Tony’s words – “If you’re nothing without this suit, then you shouldn’t have it.” – which are themselves a reflection of something Spider-Man says to himself in the original Lee/Ditko story. And he starts to push, muttering “Come on, Peter” at first, and then “Come on, Spider-Man.”
By the time Peter Parker was free of that rubble, I believed in Spider-Man: Homecoming. That moment is more than just a great comic book homage. It’s a mission statement for this character and these movies going forward, and that’s a powerful thing.