Editor’s note: This article is presented as part of the limited article series There Was An Idea…, where every week, the Lewton Bus crew dive into the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the run-up to Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War.
The shared universe under discussion in this series has always been heavy on the “shared” and light on the “universe”. It’s a character-focused enterprise, after all. The plot and thematics are always rooted in the relationships of the characters – on their inner struggles rather than the world around them.
As a consequence, though, there hasn’t been a lot of time devoted to the (if you’ll pardon me) worldbuilding of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It seems that for the most part, we’re still working off that moment at the very beginning of Iron Man, where Larry King and Jim Cramer1 showed up in what Roger Ebert called a “Leno Device” – an intercession of real-world culture, to make the entire story feel just as real.
This was easy to do when the story concerned a fictional player in the military-industrial complex, going through his own story that was affected by real things like the war in Iraq and the rise of consumer electronics in the mid 2000s. Fifteen movies later, though, you can’t play the same game. Could Derren Brown have made a cameo in Doctor Strange? Could Black Panther have had a TV showing Trevor Noah? After so many distinct branches of variably soft science fiction, the ordinary state of the MCU isn’t that ordinary anymore, and the movies have tried to skate around acknowledging it.
Spider-Man: Homecoming is different. It finally gives us an understanding of what it means to be at the bottom of the MCU looking up, and how all these world-imperiling crises and superhuman figures have changed everyday life: That’s why the movie starts with a child’s drawing of the Avengers, making them seem like the simple fantasy figures they…y’know, are.
This start of the movie is all about the slow build, carefully moderating how all the silly SF starts to work its way into this grounded world, showing everything from the perspective of normalcy. When we see the big robot space eel crash into Grand Central station in The Avengers, it’s a quick peek of a real-recognizable locale into the uproarious, fantastical battle. Here, we see normal working schlubs discussing the woes of blue-collar life, as they clean up that very same robot space eel.2
Superheroes intrude on these people’s lives from every angle, culminating in the long-overdue revelation that there’s an entirely new federal organization built specifically to handle the aftermath of superheroics, the Department of Damage Control. They take the construction company’s contract away from them, angering the foreman, who we can tell is important because he’s Michael Keaton. His solution is to completely revamp their organization into one that much more easily fits into the logic of a superhero’s world – guns, gadgets, goons – while still keeping themselves the same ordinary outer-borough New Yorkers.
Speaking of those, our story proper starts with the exact same trick done for the opposite effect: simple cell-phone videos shot by Peter Parker, of his side of the story that we saw in Civil War, that start in a car in Queens and escalate to a deliberately poorly-shot rendition of the Viennese airport fight. Bad, amateur cinematography has been a trick to get verisimilitude fast since The Blair Witch Project, and here it’s used as a constant reminder that this is a normal person’s view of things.
The entire rest of the movie is filled with touches that advance this style, show us glimpses of how there’s a new normal in a world with Avengers in it: Stark Tower stands proud and tall in the Manhattan skyline, Howard Stark and Bruce Banner sit among murals of great scientists, local news stations chatter about Avenger goings-on, Thor and Iron Man have become meme-worthy celebrities. It makes for a lot of clever jokes, but there’s an underlying point: This is the same city that got threatened by Loki, but these streets aren’t the Avengers’ world. Not really.
There’s a larger point to this, one that’s received some reasonable criticism when people recognize it: The story ultimately comes on the side of reinforcing this stratification. Spider-Man shouldn’t try to be a big-shot Avenger, he should just be a small-scale superhero. Moreover, he should defend that divide, putting himself in harm’s way to defend the Avengers’ otherworldly technology, to make sure it doesn’t intrude on his more mundane neighborhood troubles. Some people take issue with this, calling Spider-Man a class traitor who the movie paints as not deserving any reward for helping the rich stay rich, but I don’t see it that way. This is about class, true, but more specifically it’s about power.
Yep, I’ve invoked it, one of the most powerful magic words in the sacred invocation of Spider-Man, which I don’t even need to repeat here. The movie feels the same way, a deliberate act of omission that I put right alongside Dunkirk never showing the faces of German soldiers, because it wants you to escape that mindset: Spider-Man, as Homecoming has it, does not have great power.
It sounds silly when reduced to such simple terms, but movies have to convince you that their events are important. This usually isn’t a major consideration if your characters and story are well-reasoned enough, but you need to when you’re dealing with stories that are deliberately less important to the larger story – why see a movie about a once and future Avenger that’s not an Avengers movie?
The answer is twofold: First, the character focus I’ve mentioned before, that makes the individual dramas the entire point of the team-ups, and second, a personalized set of thematic concerns for each movie, that stress its primacy amid the rest of the Cinematic Universe. Imagine a continuous debate: “Why watch Age of Ultron when the reckoning of those events in Civil War will be more grounded and just as exciting?” “But why watch that when you could experience a complete reorientation of what you know of reality, in Doctor Strange?” “Why settle for that with just one guy, when you could see a whole team of people you already love encountering something just as uncanny in Guardians Vol. 2?”
Homecoming, being self-evidently the smallest and least consequential of all the above stories, therefore has to pick up the argument on the strength of that fact: “What’s the point of any of that if you don’t see how it affects normal people, folks who can’t fly and have never seen a psychedelic CGI worldscape?” This is why Spider-Man, a character embodying the drama of coming of age and having the burden of protecting others, is shown to be so young it’s frequently the target of humor3 and explicitly told it’s not his job to fight off every threat. That, as the excitable dude on the Staten Island Ferry says, is a job for Iron Man.
Just as with Age of Ultron, Homecoming puts Tony Stark at the center of a triptych of characters embodying his success and his failure – Spider-Man and Michael Keaton’s Vulture respectively, instead of The Vision and Ultron. You’ll note that unlike in the latter case, Spider-Man is actually the main character, both the protagonist and the focus of the story. This makes a lot more sense to me: Setting the triangle to stand on its weakest vertex makes the story a more spectacular balancing act.
From another perspective, though, the Vulture is actually the one in the center, with one foot in Iron Man’s world of political intrigue and absurdly well-built technology (with the fig-leaf of reverse-engineered alien doodads), and the other foot in Peter Parker’s harried, in-and-out family life. This duality gets driven home in the movie’s most memorable moment, when we find out that he even has something halfway approaching Peter’s secret identity: He’s the father of Peter’s classmate and crush, Liz.
This contextualizes a lot of the Vulture’s actions – he’s given growly, grandiose speeches all movie long on how his supervillainy is in service of maintaining his position in life – but it doesn’t excuse them. It’s a very identifiable mentality, that he elaborates on to Peter: Since that moment with the Department of Damage Control, he’s always considered himself an underdog. A little guy, just the same as Spider-Man. Though, everyone’s an underdog compared to folks like Iron Man. In his quest to measure up, he’s become such a ruthless force that dozens of ordinary people in Queens are suffering under his technological might. He’s too far in now, become too comfortable with suppressing any kind of altruism, to learn the lesson Peter’s been learning the whole movie about staying in your lane.
Despite this, he does show some magnanimity to Peter, who he thinks of as part of his in-group – another kid from Queens trying to make it in the world. He thinks they’re on the same power level, even though every interaction they have in the movie shows this is patently untrue: One has a professional support team, the other has a nerdy friend who’s also a high-schooler. One has a room you literally can’t lie down in, the other has a house so big and expensive it’s out in the suburban areas of Eastern Queens. He’s so used to discarding morality with the excuse of his low station in life, that he keeps using the excuse long after he’s used it to rise up and gain some stability. It’s his central flaw as a villain, the clearest example of the movie’s central theme: “Don’t claim victimhood if you’re privileged.”
Or, if you prefer, “Don’t abdicate responsibility if you have power” – which, as a high school kid like Peter could tell you, is the contrapositive statement of “With great power…” and so forth.
The same theme pops up in subtle ways, all across the movie: Tony Stark’s snarky self-deprecation is far less glib than it’s ever been, more genuinely wise. The result of years of hard experience that even when you’re all that, you’re not all that. Flash Thompson is now a rich kid who’s bought his way onto math teams, who complains when he’s bumped off the rotation despite never getting a single answer correct. To go back to an earlier point; as much sense as this makes for the smallest-scale Marvel movie (yes, I’m counting the ones with literal tiny characters), it doesn’t make an awful lot of sense for Spider-Man, because “claiming victimhood for being privileged” is kind of the entire point of the comics character.
Spider-Man, across most incarnations, was born in tragedy, and never escapes it. His loved ones die or turn evil, the delicate balance of his life threatens to lead to untold suffering if it gets upset, and he continually feels sad about that. Many of the hallmarks of his conventional status quo, from the earliest comics or the original movies, is about justifying this feeling of persecution: The Daily Bugle’s constant smears are only really there to make the real world’s most popular superhero angsty over his unpopularity.
The MCU’s Spider-Man, on the other hand, doesn’t think he gets to feel sad. After all, he has superpowers and so forth. Anything approaching an Uncle Ben death is barely even alluded to – in fact, sacreligious as it sounds, I would be interested in further exploration of a Spider-story where the death never happened at all, and Spider-Man was motivated by a simpler mix of morality and the teenage desire to make your way in an adult world.
Being Spider-Man, as Homecoming posits it, may not be sad, but it’s hard.
But then again, look at the rise of the cultural concept of “adulting” as a noteworthy struggle: Being any sort of Man, or Woman, or adult, is hard.